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Defining Blackness in How it Feels to Be Colored Me by Zora Neale Hurston

Defining “Blackness” in Terms of “Whiteness” in How it Feels to Be Colored Me

Wald argues that any social critique must work to divest the rhetoric of the dominant discourse of its co-optive power. American rhetoric readily co-opts stories of Black selves through an incorporating language of difference that obscures the actual nature of that difference. Writers of slave narratives and, later, Black autobiographers, countered charges of racial inferiority with testimonies to their industry, ingenuity, and Christian virtues, adopting precisely those terms of the Protestant work ethic through which the culture justified its domination and thereby mitigated their differences(Andrews, 95 ).

Defining “blackness” in terms of “whiteness” (reference to the concept of binary opposition in which one term negates the other) submits to the authorization of the dominant discourse and enters into the cultural subjectivity implicit in language. The altemative is equally problematic, however, since the American democratic idealism ensured that any assertion of difference that could not be incorporated into the pervasive national rhetoric was systematically excluded (Wald, 80).

Perhaps because of her anthropological training and her doubly marginal status as an African-American woman, Hurston invented a strategy that enabled her to speak from the margins. She employed an African-American language, a symbolic system that reconstituted representation itself and disrupted the dualism of the dorninant discourse. “The Negroes…very words are action words… the suggestiveness of African-American art transforms the spectator into an actor who participat[es] in the performance himself carrying out the suggestions of the performer” (Hurston, 49). Blackness becomes experiential rather than essential, a “quality that permeates and suffuses rather than defines”(Wald, 87). The vitality of the language blurs oppositional boundaries and whatever the meaning of ‘blackness’ is, the performer and spectator are mutually involved in a relationship that undermines the representation of blackness as sin against a moral white background (Wald, 87).

Hurston draws us into the dynamics of”coloration” by redesignating “color” as performance. She inverts her experience of feeling different in a white environment by setting “a white person …down in our mist,” and, again, her “color comes”(Anthology, 1985). Hurston represents the difference in the context of a jazz performance, in which the orchestra “plunges into a number …constricts the thorax and splits the heart… grows rambunctious, rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury, rendering it, clawing it until it breaks through to a jungle beyond”(Anthology, 1985).

Zora Neale Hurston’s, How it Feels to be Colored Me

“How it Feels to be Colored Me” was written in 1928. Zora, growing up in an all-black town, began to take note of the differences between blacks and whites at about the age of thirteen. The only white people she was exposed to were those passing through her town of Eatonville, Florida, many times going to or coming from Orlando. The primary focus of “How it Feels to be Colored Me” is the relationship and differences between blacks and whites.

In the early stages of Zora’s life, which are expressed in the beginning of “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” black and whites had little difference in her eyes. She didn’t even seems to differentiate between the two until her early teens. She says, “I remember the very day I became colored.” Before this time, she cites the only difference being that “[white people] rode through town and never lived there.” During this part of her work, Zora is showing her childhood view that whites and blacks are no different from one another. This view changes as a result of her being sent to a school in Jacksonville. Now being outside her town of Eatonville, she began to experience what it was like to be colored.

“But I am not tragically colored,” she says. Zora makes it a point to show how she is not ashamed to be colored. At this point she seems to attack whites who continue to point out that she is the granddaughter of slaves by saying that blacks are moving forward. “The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential slave said ‘on the line!’ The reconstruction said ‘Get ready!’; and the generation before said ‘Go!'” Blacks have the opportunity to advance, and they should make the most of it. “I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep.” She refuses to stay bound by the memory of slavery and by the fact that she is black.

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This same feeling is also related to a white person being set against the background of colored people. Unlike her childhood views, she now sees a difference between whites and blacks. This is explained by the reaction of each to a jazz orchestra at a Harlem night club.

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