Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” is provocative for a number of reasons. Its tone—at once humble and thoughtful and playful—leaves the reader feeling dizzy when they see Hurston calling slavery the price of admission to civilization, and one that she does not dwell on because it was paid for by her ancestors so that she may benefit. If one had to define a given thesis on Hurston’s part, it would be that race is a construct of any given participant in civilization. At the end of the essay, she likens herself to an empty brown bag that is being held by the reader, who must determine what was once in the bag—precious diamonds, or broken glass? It is very philosophical in nature, because the answer Hurston posits is that it doesn’t matter at all: the potential value of the former contents of a human being is a way of commoditizing what they could or should be, and ignoring the reality of the bag itself. However, this thesis—beneath the vibrant, flowery prose of Hurston—is quite lacking in clarity.
Part of this lack of clarity is, of course, placing the thesis at the end. Hurston likely assumed that readers could only interpret its deeper meaning after she had provided both examples and context, yet the lack of an exact thesis renders many of her statements more questionable than illuminating. The first, as mentioned above, is that slavery was a worthwhile price of admission to civilization.
While many prominent black leaders (most notably Washington Carver) advocated attempts to put slavery firmly in the past where it belonged, Hurston’s claim that it both had no relevance and did not affect her comes across as selfish, at best. Only at the end do readers realize that slavery is something else that they are attempting to stuff back into the brown bag of black identity in order to impose a narrative on an unknown culture. Hurston’s techniques are tied into her evidence, in that both are murky specifically because she imbues the piece with so much emotion.
The one-girl minstrel show that was young Hurston performing for white tourists has its political sting removed by the sheer happiness she says it brings her. Similarly, the admission that vibrant jazz music makes her feel like a murderous jungle inhabitant (something ripped from the pages of the worst white stereotypes) is complicated by the pity directed at her white friend who seems incapable of feeling anything at all. Overall, the organization of the essay feeds the lack of clarity—while there is a loose chronological structure to the essay (going Hurston as a young girl to a young woman to presumably present day), the presentation of these loose vignettes amounts to a series of snapshots, with no way of animating the still images to bring them into the vibrant life Hurston speaks of.Despite this lack of clarity and cohesion, Hurston’s argument is very effective. She has, of course, a built in ethos—no one can countermand her examples of what her own life feels like. Hurston also seems to use her own life as a template for other African Americans to follow her lead: through humor, she points to everything she has to celebrate in her own life, and even places racism and discrimination on this same scale.
Racists, she seems to say, simply deny themselves the joy of her presence. While this is unfortunate for the racists, it is not compelling evidence that she should eliminate or diminish her own joy. When seen through the lens of focusing on emotional moments of joy, the scattershot organization of the essay begins to make sense: Hurston is not attempting to provide a detailed biography of her own life, but wishes to “zoom in” enough so that those who think they will find reasons to pity her see instead why she pities those who will never know or experience the joys she has known and experienced.Though I certainly agree with the effectiveness of Hurston’s essay, I am afraid I cannot agree with the idea that slavery, as an issue, is dead and buried, even in the twenty-first century. No matter how well meaning the message is, truly putting slavery in the past could have tragic effects on modern culture, such as overturning Affirmative Action laws that are still needed to arbitrarily stabilize the racist hiring practices of certain regions. The root idea of slavery—that blacks are somehow not entirely human—still seems more widespread than one would imagine; there are, after all, still “whites only” Proms, and a number of private schools that owe their origin to the desegregation of public schools.
If for no other reason, these circumstances show why slavery should never be forgotten, or forgiven. It remains a shameful chapter of our nation’s history, but also shows the terrible consequence of assuming that any one person is worth more than another. In short: Hurston’s advocating that we live in the present and do not let ourselves be dragged into the tragedies of the past would strike more true if the tragedies of the past (in the form of racism, discrimination, and other centuries-old ghosts) did not continue to haunt the present. For many, being “colorblind” does not mean treating all races equally, as it should; rather, it means being willfully blind to the issues that continue affecting minorities, rather than working to move towards a future of equity and integration. Only through reminders of the horrors of the past can the glories of the future be seen.Zora Neale Hurston’s essay provided a valuable insight into something that history is rarely (if ever) able to shed light on: what being colored in a society of discrimination felt like, as opposed to simply what being colored was, or what discrimination was. Her reaction to such discrimination is a testament to her character and integrity: she did not react with the fear and hatred being directed at her, nor did she succumb to the misery and loathing that would seem perfectly natural, considering the circumstances. Instead, she described the indescribable joy of being Zora Neale Hurston, and provided a kind of Zen puzzle to readers in the form of her brown bag analogy.
Discrimination, racism, and even well-meaning folks who are unable to move past slavery are all effects of attempting to fill a bag that is already empty. Moreover, it is completely arbitrary: assuming a black person’s bag was filled with glass and a white person’s bag was filled with diamonds is an exercise in willing self-ignorance, as it ignores the simple reality that the bags are now empty. According to Hurston, only when individuals recognize this can there be true integration.