A few posts ago, I wrote about W.E.B. Du Bois and double consciousness. As part of this discussion, I looked at the ways that some artists, such as Charles Chesnutt and Frank Yerby navigated the literary landscape in relation to what readers expected from their works and how readers responded. Today, I want to briefly take a look at Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to be Colored Me!” Specifically, I want to explore some of the ways that she approaches double consciousness.
Before diving into Hurston’s essay, we need to take a look at the construction of the title and the first line of the essay. Syntactically, Hurston creates ambiguity with the word “colored” in the title and in the first sentence. If we break “How it feels to be colored me” down, we see that “colored” can serve as an adjective describing “me,” the direct object of the prepositional phrase “to be colored me.” However, this is not the only way to read the phrase. We can also read “colored” as part of the verb “to be colored.” In this manner, Hurston does not color herself. Instead, someone else does the coloring.
Likewise, the first sentence of the essay creates the same confusion. Hurston begins, “I am colored . . . ” Here, we encounter the same issue that we do with the title. We can read “colored” as a predicate adjective describing the subject, “I.” This is not the only way to read the sentence. Instead of being a predicate adjective, “colored” can serve as a verb with “am” as the helping verb, thus making it passive voice. In this manner, someone, again, colors Hurston.
At the start of the second paragraph, we see the same ambiguity. Hurston starts the paragraph by writing, “I remember the very day that I became colored.” Just as in the previous examples, we can read “colored” as a predicate adjective describing “I,” the subject of the “that clause.” However, we can, again, read “colored” as a verb that states that someone else “colored.”
Reading these sentences as passive voice, where we do not know who colored Hurston, means that we need to think about the essay in relation to Du Bois and double consciousness. Hurston presents, in these sentence constructions, seeing herself “through the eyes of others” and the ways in which the others construct her identity. Just as she accomplishes this with her sentence structure, she provides more direct examples, specifically in the fourth and fifth paragraphs of the essay when she describes performing for white tourists and when she moves from Eatonville to Jacksonville.
Describing how she would perform for white tourists who traveled through Eatonville, Hurston writes, “They liked to hear me ‘speak pieces’ and sing and wanted to see me dance the parse-me-la, and gave me generously of their small silver for doing these things, which seemed strange to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to stop.” Through her performance of speaking pieces and singing, Hurston, to a certain extent, plays into the white travelers’ expectations, reinforcing their views of Hurston and the Eatonville community. While white tourists paid Hurston for her performances, “the colored people gave no dimes” because it appears they understood how Hurston’s performances played into white perceptions. Nevertheless, she still belonged to the community because she was “everybody’s Zora.” Her identity remains intact.
Moving from Eatonville to Jacksonville, though, creates the “two warring ideals” within Hurston. Within this paragraph, she linguistically details the ways that her identity changed as she left the all Black community of Eatonville for the white town of Jacksonville. She writes, “When I disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville, she was no more.” The sentence “she was no more,” points to the ways that the eyes of whites in Jacksonville, like the white tourists in Eatonville, constructed Hurston to fit their perceptions of who she should be.
She continues by stating, “I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl.” Hurston’s construction in this sentence shows the shift in her identity. She moves from “Zora of Orange County,” a definitive name, to “a little colored girl,” a person stripped of name, geographic space, and ultimately her identity. Thinking about the previous sentence constructions discussed above, these sentences should cause us to question who strips Hurston of her identity making her nothing more than “a little colored girl.” We see the same structure in these sentences like the ones at the start of the essay: subject, linking verb, predicate nominative or predicate adjective or direct object.
Even though “the eyes of others” try to forge Hurston’s identity to fit within their own preconceived conceptions, she maintains her own identity and vociferously proclaims in the next paragraph, “I am not tragically colored.” Again, this sentence can be taken in two ways, but that is not what I want to focus on at this point. Rather, I want to note that Hurston refuses to buy into the ideals that others project onto her. She, like Bita Plant and Janie Crawford, does “not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood” that have bought into the master’s brainwashing. Instead, she knows who she is and nothing can change that because, as she says, “I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” to worry about what others say.
Just as she shows Du Boisian double consciousness in the essay, she moves away from it at the end when she writes, “I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries. My country, right or wrong.” Instead of worrying about how others construct her, she sees herself, as we all should, as part of “the Great Soul,” an image that reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
She concludes by pointing out that we are all bags of miscellany, filled with stuff, that makes us human. Dump the bags out, jumble the contents together, and place the contents back into the bags. If this occurred, would this alter “the content of any greatly”? No, “a bit of colored glass more or less would not matter” because “the Great Stuffer of Bags” filled each of them. We are all beautiful. We are all human. We are all part of the Great Soul. The colored glass in our bags does not matter. What matters is how we treat one another, not as different but as humans!
What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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