One does not come into this world with a racial identity, it is simply a learned behavior. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a clinical psychologist and writer, believes that race is not relevant in a child’s early years because it is not salient or noticeable. Be that as it may, it is once that child matures and grows into their skin does their race become a topic of discussion. Tatum’s theory just happens to have rang true for a young Zora Neale Hurston, a child of high self esteem. Born in the small town of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston had very little understanding of race or what it meant to be ‘colored’ until she reached the adolescent age of thirteen. However, despite what was expected of her, she never let her race speak for either her or her character. In the essay How It Feels to Be Colored Me, Hurston refuses to let her race define her because it is a state of mind yet is also something that should be embraced.
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Hurston does not believe that she is the color of her skin. Historically speaking, black people are often associated with tragedy and misfortune. For decades black people have been faced with racism and discrimination, which continually set following generations up for extended trials and tribulations. This is not the case for Hurston, however. While she does not delve into ‘the helter-skelter skirmish that is’ her life or any terrors she may have face in her childhood, Hurston refused to let herself be ‘tragically colored’. Disassociating herself with her people’s skin color, she does not identify with ‘the sobbing school of Negrohood’ who ‘weep at the world’- meaning she will not let herself blame the world for her shortcoming. It even ‘fails to register depression’ with her when she is constantly being reminded that she is ‘the granddaughter of slaves’. Hurston holds no malice in her heart about slavery. One, because she was fortunate enough to not be a direct product of it. With it having been ‘sixty years in the past’, Hurston acknowledges that while her ancestor were affected, she was not personally affected by slavery. Therefore there is no reason for her to carry feelings or sentiments that do not pertain to her. On the other hand, Hurston believes that her ancestors struggled through those harrowing times to set her on a path destined for greatness. They paid a price in order for her to raise above and be successful. She was fortunate enough to be born into a country where there is no ‘greater chance for glory’ to accomplish whatever she set her mind to. Hurston embraces the past and the weight her skin color carries, but does not let it define her future. (Hurston 2)
Zora Neale Hurston believes that race is nothing more than a state of mind. Despite the color of her skin, Hurston was not ‘born colored’. However, she became colored once she became familiar with the concept of race. Hurston details her childhood in Eatonville, mentioning that ‘it is exclusively a colored town’ (Hurston 1). Race was never a pressing topic of discussion for her because she was surrounded by people who looked and carried themselves the same way she did. The only white people she had ever come in contact with ‘passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando’. Even then, her ‘queer exchange of compliments’ with them were not enough to make her feel colored (Hurston 1). It is not until she begins school in Jacksonville, and she is no longer in her natural element, does she become ‘a little colored girl’(Hurston 2). With Jacksonville being a more diverse metropolis, there was more opportunity for a young Hurston to become familiar with the notion of race. Subsequent to Beverly Tatum’s ideology, Hurston became colored at thirteen because her race was then salient. Nevertheless, Hurston depicts being colored as nothing more than a feeling that she has the ability to flip like a light switch. For instance, when she saunters ‘down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City’, she is merely ‘cosmic Zora’- considering herself a being of the universe opposed to a colored woman in America (Hurston 3,4). It is similar to a person who is emotional but would rather push their sadness aside in order to be happy, or someone who pushes aside their anxiety so they do not stress themselves out. It is not that Hurston believes she is better off without her race, but she will not let the thought of the color of skin hinder the contents of her character.
Though she prefers to ignore race, Hurston often acknowledges the differences in racial cultures and embraces them. There may be common ground or subtle similarities between the different races, but there will always be one factor that sets them apart. In Hurston’s case, that factor is music. While at The New World Cabaret with a white man, she finds herself enticed by the jazz music. Hurston is completely in her element with ‘its tempo and narcotic harmonies’. On the other hand, her white counterpart remains ‘sitting motionless in his seat, smoking calmly’. Historically speaking, jazz music has its beginnings in black culture. Stemming back to slavery, music was nothing more than a way of life. So when Hurston finds her pulse ‘throbbing like a war drum’ from dancing wildly, it is a representation of her connecting back to her roots. Music is a part of her culture and she strongly embraces it. Hurston understands there is nothing wrong with embracing one’s culture; while culture doesn’t define an individual, it does play a part in their identity. It is the simple things that both sets races apart but makes them each unique in their own way. (Hurston 3)
Race is a complex issue that has plagued America for centuries, whether negative or positive. It has been used to both unite and divide America as a people. Even in today’s age, it is a pressing issue in the streets and a hot topic in the media. Hurston sees race as limiting with individuals often grouping themselves within specific race groups. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this; it typically becomes a problem when people live, eat, sleep, and breathe by their race and not their character. Hurston greatly recognizes the fact that she is indeed a black woman, nothing more and nothing less. Nonetheless, she will not let that be what dictates her life and her perception of the world around her. All in all, Hurston embraces her race but doesn’t let it define her because it is a state of mind. æ
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