The emergence of Modernism as a global literary and philosophical movement in the early to mid-20th century allowed for greater recognition of artistic expression amongst marginalized groups – especially women and people of color. With an emphasis on individualism and experimentation in writing and poetry, the voices of two women in particular became known: Zora Neale Hurston and Sylvia Plath. With a unique form that focused on the juxtaposition between interior thought and external expression, they each contribute to the tale of progression in United States history. Through Plath’s use of free verse poem form and Hurston’s use of the personal narrative, the most honest parts of growing up and womanhood are revealed – each representing their version of what it means to be a woman in the 20th century.
In “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston uses a conversational tone grounded in reality to share stories of her life and her interpretation of what it means to be a black person in the United States. Growing up in the Eatonville, Florida, Hurston discusses the first time she “became colored”:
“The only white people I knew passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando. The native whites rode dusty horses, the Northern tourists chugged down the sandy village road in automobiles. The town knew the Southerners and never stopped cane chewing when they passed. But the Northerners were something else again.”
Here, Hurston reveals an indifference to the “native whites”. She views them as people that are uninteresting and can easily be ignored because of their familiarity to her and her community. Hurston continues by shifting focus back to the people from the North:
“They were peered at cautiously from behind curtains by the timid. The more venturesome would come out on the porch to watch them go past and got just as much pleasure out of the tourists as the tourists got out of the village.”
As a child, Hurston’s interest in white people is not based on race, but rather whether they come from – viewing “Northerners” as people that are almost foreign to her. She downplays the significance of race, perceiving these travelers as a spectacle that she – as the first ‘welcome-to-our state Floridian’ in her family – gets to welcome into her community.
Once becoming a teenager, however, Hurston – heading north to school in Jacksonville – discovers that the people were not as interested in her as she was in them:
“I was their Zora nevertheless. I belonged to them… But changes came… When I disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville, she was no more. It seemed that I had suffered a sea change. I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl.”
Significantly, Hurston acknowledges that she feels a striking racial separation for the first time in her life – no longer simply who is she, but rather pigeonholed as a part of a larger group. From birth until the age of 13, she did not feel that anything made her particularly black – until she arrived in a white space.
As the narrative progresses, Hurston recounts her time at Barnard College as another moment she was made aware of what it means to be a black woman under the white gaze:
“For instance at Barnard… I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself.”
Describing herself as “a dark rock surged upon”, Hurston speaks to her steadfastness and inner strength when faced with moments that cause her to notice the social importance of her skin. While Hurston acknowledges the presence of race, she emphasizes that it does not define her.
Continuing into adulthood, Hurston discusses further separation with a white friend at a popular Harlem nightclub known as The New World Cabaret:
“We enter chatting about any little nothing that we have in common… In the abrupt way that jazz orchestras have, this one plunges into a number. It loses no time in circumlocutions, but gets right down to business. It constricts the thorax and splits the heart with its tempo and narcotic harmonies. This orchestra grows rambunctious, rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury, rending it, clawing it until it breaks through to the jungle beyond. I follow those heathen – follow them exultingly. The men of the orchestra wipe their lips and rest their fingers. I creep back slowly to the veneer we call civilization with the last tone and find the white friend sitting motionless in his seat…”
Hurston is once again made aware of obvious differences between her and her white counterparts. In this anecdote, Hurston directly addresses negative stereotypes about being what is considered “civilization” affecting African-Americans and embraces her connection to her culture through music. By embracing her creativity and artistic identity, Hurston reduces the sting of those tropes.
Where Hurston speaks to what life is like as she lives it, Sylvia Plath expresses her uncertainty of what is to come. Plath’s free verse poem “You’re” is a confessional ode to her unborn child. Stylistically, it has the feeling of a private letter or diary page – a technique that allows the reader to see into the inner workings of Plath’s mind. The first stanza begins by speaking to the joy and anxious anticipation Plath feels while waiting:
“Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish.”
The use of a specific word such as “clownlike” speaks to the happiness and innocent quality that all children possess at first. The phrase “gilled like a fish” is also particularly powerful. It expresses how base and undeveloped the potential life is – the uncertainty being the source of Plath’s anxieties and anticipation. Plath continues this thought, elaborating further on her feeling of uncertainty:
“Vague as fog and looked for like mail.
Farther off than Australia.”
Plath’s use of the simile “vague as fog” creates the sense of barrier she feels between her and her child. While fog itself does not erase detail, it does muddle the image of something that a person is trying to view. As an adult, Plath has already experienced loss, pain, and struggle unique to her experience as a woman in a male-dominated society. Here, Plath conveys her longing to know what the fetus will be like – a clear indication of her desire to protect her child and prepare them for the world they will soon enter. Importantly, in the final lines of her poem, Plath describes the newness and innocence she hopes to protect from disappoint and disillusionment:
“Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on.”
In her sign-off, Plath expresses her belief that the next generation is the best of humanity. As “a clean slate”, her child represents a fresh start and hope for a better future.
After centuries of restricting access, the 20th century brought about a rise in recognition of the voices of women and people of color. As a mother-to-be, Sylvia Plath – while anticipating what is to come – explicitly expresses the pressure she feels as woman and the pressure she knows her unborn child will face in a male-dominated society. In dealing with the heavy impact of prejudice and discrimination, Zora Neale Hurston – as not only a person of color but also a black woman – provides inspiration for future generations of African Americans and challenges us all to confront the barriers to progress. With their different and equally creative points of view, Plath and Hurston contributed to a modern global movement in ways that will maintain their significance across time.