How It Feels to be Colored Me Summary and Study Guide

Zora Neal Hurston

How It Feels to be Colored Me

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How It Feels to be Colored Me Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 24-page guide for the short story “How It Feels to be Colored Me” by Zora Neal Hurston includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Harlem Renaissance and the “New Negro” and Race and Identity.

This guide is based on the electronic version of Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” available at the University of Virginia’s Mules and Men website. The original essay was published in the May 1928 edition of The World Tomorrow. Hurston’s essay is her explanation of how she experiences being African-American.

Hurston opens the essay with the comment that she is “a Negro” and unlike many African-Americans claims no Native American ancestry. Prior to the age of thirteen, Hurston lived in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, where her only contacts with nonblacks were with the Southern and Northern tourists who drove through the town. No one was curious about the familiar Southerners, but most people were so fascinated by the Northerners that they watched them from their porches.

Hurston, not content with the porch, would sit on a gatepost at the entrance of town to greet the tourists, ask them questions, ask for rides out of town, or even perform for them, only to be surprised when they gave her money for doing what she loved. At this point in her life, Hurston’s only perception of differences between whites and blacks was that whites did not live in her town and paid her for performing.

This attitude changed when Hurston was sent to Jacksonville by riverboat to attend school at thirteen. Hurston notes that for the first time, she was a “little colored girl” instead of simply being herself (par. 5, line 5). Despite this change, Hurston says she is not “tragically colored” and has no feeling that being black is a curse (par. 6, line 1).Hurston’s perspective on her place in the world is that she is instead “too busy sharpening her oyster knife,” eager to take in what the world has to offer (par. 6, line 6).

When people insist on reminding Hurston that she is descended from slaves, she feels no sadness about it because slavery is “sixty years in the past” and simply the price of belonging to Western civilization (par. 7, line 3). Being the descendent of slaves means for Hurston that she has even more opportunities for achievement and glory because she is starting from nothing and the nation, fixated on race, is focused on people like her. By contrast, Hurston pities whites, who are weighed down by their ancestors and stuck with maintaining their privilege.

In her present life, Hurston has moments when she only feels black if she is in an all-white setting, such as when she attends classes at Barnard College, an institution attended by few people of color. In other moments, the presence of a white person in an all-black setting also makes Hurston feel conscious of her racial identity. She describes sitting in a Harlem cabaret and being swept away by the rhythms of the music, which connect her to her African ancestry, only to be surprised by a white friend’s more casual enjoyment of the music.

Sometimes, Hurston feels no sense of racial identity. When she promenades down a main thoroughfare in Harlem, she is the “cosmic Zora”and feels more potently feminine that Peggy Hopkins Joyce, the 1920s equivalent of a Kardashian (par. 14, line 4). Hurston experiences her American identity as being indistinguishable from her racial identity. When someone discriminates against her, she is surprised, rather than angry, because it puzzles her that anyone would deprive him- or herself of the pleasure of knowing her.

Hurston closes the essay with the image of each human being asa “bag of miscellany” (par. 17, line 1),filled with a mix of worthless and precious things, distinguishable only by the color of the bags. Shespeculates that switching the contents of bags would reveal how similar they are inside and that perhaps this is…

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