How It Feels To Be Colored Me Summary and Analysis

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Background of the Essay

In “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston writes about her struggles as an African-American woman in early 20th-century America. The controversial essay was first printed in the May 1928 issue of The World Tomorrow. It was evidently at odds with the theories of racial segregation and did not entirely fit with the Harlem Renaissance’s blossoming of Black pride. Hurston, who was brought up in an all-Black neighborhood in Florida, did not give her color any thought until she moved away from home. In the essay, she disassociates herself from “the sobbing school of Negrohood,” which would have required her to perpetually assert historical and current injustices. She does not have to worry about a “dark ghost” appearing in her bed because she has led a good life, allowing her to sleep at night. Hurston challenges the mindsets of both her and present-day society with the wittiness of her words, which convey a potent message. This essay provides a summary of “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” alongside an analysis of its characters and themes.  

Summary

Zora Neale Hurston discusses her self-discovery and self-pride in her extensively anthologized evocative essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” She takes the reader through this journey by using figurative language, imagery, and colorful diction while adhering to the standards of description. She starts the essay by exploring her youth in Eatonville, Florida, via recollections of times when she met neighbors, sang and danced in the neighborhood, and observed her environment from a safe location on her front veranda. She uses a conversational style and numerous colloquialisms. She was “everybody’s Zora” (Hurston, 1928, p.1) back then, unfettered by the jarring sense of difference. She, however, left home aged thirteen to enroll in a boarding school in Jacksonville upon the demise of her mother. She instantly turned “colored” there.

Hurston asserts that she does not view herself as “tragically colored” and starts to weave elaborate metaphors that allude to her self-pride. She is too preoccupied “sharpening my oyster knife” (Hurston, 1928, p.2) to pause to consider the suffering that prejudice can bring, and like a “dark rock surged upon” (Hurston, 1928, p.2), she comes out tougher for the struggles that have come her way. She, however, admits instances in which she or others feel racially distinct, and a conversation with an acquaintance at a jazz club highlights the disparity in their respective lives.

Hurston crafts an elaborate metaphor towards the conclusion of the essay in which she likens herself to a brown bag filled with miscellaneous items. She implies that individuals of different races are fundamentally the same by comparing them to various colored bags that would not significantly change if they were dumped into a big pile and restuffed. She claims that the Creator, also known as “the Great Stuffer of Bags” (Hurston, 1928, p.2) may have created humanity in this manner from the beginning. Based on this, she puts forth a viewpoint that transcends pride in an individual’s race to pride in oneself.

Character Analysis

Zora Neale Hurston

As a little black child giving spontaneous performances for white visitors, as an adolescent facing blatant prejudice for the first time, and as a learner and writer in New York, Zora Neale Hurston portrays herself at several points in her relatively young life. She is intelligent and assured when she writes, and her portrayal of what it is like to be “colored” in the 20th century stands out for its positivity.

She is driven and daring, and she is sure that success and acclaim are in her future. Her confidence occasionally borders on faux arrogance. Hurston sends a message by using this self-description that she is confident in her abilities. It also serves as a means of highlighting the ridiculousness of racism, which is when white Americans reject attractive and intelligent people because of their skin tone. In a surprised tone, she wonders, “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me” (Hurston, 1928, p.3).

The White Neighbor

The fictitious representation of the white neighbor represents all of white America. Hurston employs him to highlight her own interpretation of the American history of racism. As she portrays his gradual but inevitable collapse, which corresponds with the ultimate advancement of black residents, she almost feels sorry for this person (Jones, 2009). The guilt of the long-standing atrocity of black slavery weighs heavily on the white neighbor.

The White Friend

The character of Hurston’s unnamed white companion, who goes to a jazz club with her, largely resembles that of the white neighbor. At the club, Hurston experiences the energy of black culture, which differs from the white friend’s “civilized” and unresponsive reaction to the music.

Themes

Race as a Social Construct

The idea that race is a social construct—a classification scheme that was created by humans and is still in use today—is among the most recurrent themes in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” It is not based on fundamental biological distinctions. By claiming that non-whites were an inferior human species due to biological characteristics, white settlers in the U.S. attempted to define non-whites as distinct and second-rate “races” for several centuries to validate the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples and the subjugation of people of African descent. Biologists have long disproved the fallacious and biased premise of biological racial difference, yet the impact of white supremacist hierarchical classification still permeates American society (Foy, 2020). When Hurston was 13 and living among whites, who cast their biases upon her, she “became colored,” only conceiving herself as “a little colored girl” (Hurston, 1928, p.2), which adds credence to the theory that race is socially produced. Hurston observes her race in situations whereby, for social reasons, the color of her skin makes her stand out, rather than perceiving it as something important inscribed into her nature.

Performance

Hurston first introduces this theme when she describes how she used to sit on her gatepost as a child to view “the show” of white vacationers passing through her all-Black neighborhood. She views herself as a bystander watching the exotic white visitors, but she also transforms into a showgirl, dancing and singing for them. The white visitors tip her because they assume her performance must have been inspired by prospective monetary gains. In reality, however, she is simply being herself and joyfully expressing the delight that so frequently leads residents to “deplore” her. Later, Hurston talks about the extra scrutiny she realizes she will encounter as a Black woman trying to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. This sheds further light on this dynamic of being observed and judged. She writes that “it is thrilling to think—to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame” (Hurston, 1928, p.2). She continues that “It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep” (Hurston, 1928, p.2). Hurston ultimately sees the demands of performance as powerful and enjoys the extra spotlight.

Rejection of Victimhood

Hurston admits that she occasionally encounters racial prejudice and that her grandparents suffered slavery. However, she dismisses the notion that she should identify as a racism victim. She attempts to distinguish herself from “the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all but about it” (Hurston, 1928, p.2) claiming that she is “not tragically colored” (Hurston, 1928, p.2) She chooses to associate herself with “the strong,” people she believes are succeeding in life. Her declaration, “I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” (Hurston, 1928, p.2) captures her repudiation of victimhood and acceptance of aspiration. She adopts self-belief and positivity about her capability to achieve her dreams.

History and Opportunity

The Civil War had just ended in the United States, thus the abolition of slavery was clearly within living memory when Hurston authored this literary work. Any assessment of the Black experience would therefore need to consider that legacy. Hurston approaches this in a particularly eccentric manner. She downplays the influence of slavery on the current situation of Blacks while admitting the existence of racial prejudice. Instead, she positions herself at a critical juncture in history: after the abolition of slavery but decades before anything like racial equality (Jones, 2009). She has the greatest power to contribute to the shape that these social constructs will take since the situation of African Americans in a country where whites predominate is a topic of public discussion. Hurston is inspired by the fundamental liberties that African Americans acquired by the 1920s and not depressed by the full equality that still has to be attained. She sees an opportunity in the distance that is yet to be covered.

References

Foy, S. L. (2020). Racism in America: A reference handbook. ABC-CLIO.

Hurston, Z. (1928). How it feels to be colored me [Ebook]. https://www.wheelersburg.net/Downloads/Hurston.pdf.

Jones, S. L. (2009). Critical companion to Zora Neale Hurston: A literary reference to her life and work. Infobase Publishing.  

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