How It Feels to Be Colored Me in the Long 18th C

In her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” first published in 1928, Zora Neale Hurston recalls “the very day [she] became colored:”

…changes came in the family when I was thirteen, and I was sent to school in Jacksonville. I left Eatonville, the town of the oleanders, a Zora. 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.

Hurston never mentions in her essay that the year she turned thirteen was the same year her mother, Lucy, died. For a long time, I taught “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” without knowing what Hurston wasn’t telling. Instead, I focused on what the undergraduates didn’t know. Some students might have had a passing familiarity with the Harlem Renaissance, or they might have read Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school, as I did when I was younger. But I was quite often surprised by what they didn’t understand about Hurston’s language or what they had never learned about the New Negro Movement, the historical background to the essay, and so I would guide them through a close reading of the text.

In the essay, written more than two decades after the death of her beloved mother and her father’s abandonment, Hurston proudly, defiantly proclaimed, “There is no great sorrow damned up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes…I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Yet just three years earlier, Hurston confided in a letter to her Jewish benefactor, Annie Nathan Meyer, that she was finding it difficult to afford food and rent while studying for her bachelor’s degree at Barnard. Hurston revealed, “I have been my own sole support since I was 13 years old … I’ve taken some tremendous losses and survived terrific shocks … being pounded so often on the anvil of life I am growing less resilient.”

When I taught “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” I dove into its language of feeling, its celebration of color, of blackness. But I didn’t explore the personal, outside of what Hurston had already revealed about her childhood or her “Negrohood.” This may be because I, like many readers, was enthralled by Hurston’s performative persona. From the first page, she presents herself as both a “born first-nighter” and a small-town star who delights in the theater of everyday life. Perhaps I ignored her personal history because Hurston is so adept at staging herself in her own writing as timeless, as “everybody’s Zora,” as “cosmic Zora,” independent and self-sufficient.

But the reasons behind the choices I made as a teacher and as a reader may be just as much about my own personal history: my desire, as a black woman, to believe in that fierce mix of literary sensibility, independence and self-sufficiency, on display. I neglected the biographical for the hagiographical. In my reading, Zora was the powerful “eternal feminine,” black and beautiful yet boundless.

I do not remember the very day I became “colored.” But I do know that my age, perhaps four or five, was much younger than Hurston’s thirteen years. Unlike Hurston, I did not grow up in the South or in an all-black town, though my family on my mother’s side did come from Florida. I grew up in the North, in a town that was not on the Jersey Shore, but close enough to it. In the Gilded Age, my hometown of Lakewood was a winter resort town. Robber barons and the sons of robber barons built mansions near the lakes and in the pine forests. Hurston describes Eatonville as “the town of the oleanders.” Lakewood was—is—the town of the pinecones.

Nearly a century later, when I was growing up in Lakewood, in the 1980s and ‘90s, the town encompassed a truncated mix of races and ethnicities, predominately white but with large numbers of black people and “Spanish people” (the inaccurate term I heard used back in the day, more often than Hispanic or Latino or Latina). The primary school I attended, a private Christian academy, and the honors classes I enrolled in at the public middle school and later at the high school, were less racially diverse than the town I lived in.

My feeling of blackness was part of me throughout my childhood, a consciousness that grew stronger over time. I distinctly remember one day at school when I was about twelve years old, sitting at my tiny sixth-grade desk, taking a long look around the room, studying the faces of my classmates. I wondered how many of them ever noticed the numbers, the ratio of white bodies to black bodies. I noticed, I always noticed, but I doubted that the white kids did. I couldn’t fathom what it felt like to have a mind that never noticed bodies in this way.

Several years later, when I was in college studying at NYU for a summer, my roommate—a pretty, sweet white girl who vaguely reminded me of Drew Barrymore—recounted to me her tale of getting lost that day on an uptown bus traveling to Harlem. Suddenly, she noticed that she was the only white face among so many colored faces. She was not traumatized but seemed a bit bewildered, as if for a time she had been transported into an alternative reality. I was amused. She had had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But for me, being the only one, the different one, was the everyday, the world I knew since I was a little girl.

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” Hurston observes, describing her time at Barnard. “‘Beside the waters of the Hudson’ 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. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.” She goes on to share that at “certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance…The cosmic Zora emerges.”

Throughout “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston’s sense of self sways one way and then another. That fluidity of identity, shifting and multifarious, has always appealed to me, but my longing to engage with Hurston’s powerful, celebratory language became stronger during the years I spent in graduate school, and later on after receiving my doctorate in English.

I remember my first research trip, nearly ten years ago, to study the Frances Burney papers in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, the home of those snooty lions. New to the field, I marveled over my great privilege to come in such close contact with the remnants of past lives: authors who had died long ago but whose words, ideas, and art still remained. Even now, every time I visit an archive, I feel that thrill the moment my fingertips touch one of those rare objects—a manuscript, a print, a volume of drawings. In those moments, my twenty-first-century self fades, and I am somewhere else. It’s not as if I have stepped into eighteenth-century time. It’s some other space outside of all that, where I have no race. I am just me.

Sometimes, though, in those cool and airy reading rooms peering over eighteenth-century documents, I do feel my race. Slavery, and the resistance to it, is never far from my mind. When Hurston declares that the legacy of slavery “fails to register depression in her,” I find myself resisting her rallying cry. She boldly states, “I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep.” But I cannot help but “look behind and weep.” All the past lives, the black lives, I do not know, I will never know. Yet, I understand Hurston’s determination to look ahead and not behind, to see “race” as a race she is set to run and win. She does not want the story of her race to be solely an account of slavery and suffering.

Still, my identity as a black scholar strongly influences what I teach, how I teach, and where I teach. More than a year ago, I left a tenure-track position as a community college professor for my current non-tenure track job. I’m an English teacher at a university-affiliated school for sixth to twelfth graders. It’s not every day that one forgoes the promised security of the tenure track for a non-tenured position, or leaves the status of higher education for secondary education. But I did. And I think it had something to do—though there are many other reasons—with a feeling.

I know what it feels like to be a twelve-year-old girl, sitting in a classroom, hungry to learn, read, and write, looking around for faces, like mine, with some knowledge of the world as I see it. To some extent, I left one professional identity for another because of my past, the little black girl I had once been. I wanted my face—a black woman’s face—to be seen by children I hadn’t yet met but who might know what it feels to be the only one (or two) in the room, the “dark rock surged upon.”

At the same time, I sought out a new livelihood because I wanted to be free to be what Hurston refers to as the great “jumble,” the “miscellany” of selves I carry inside of me. I am a mixed bag, a middle school teacher and an eighteenth-centuryist. I pursue my research in the background of my academic life, outside of my regular teaching load, on the weekends. I’d like to think that my drive to fill my head with all sorts of knowledge, eighteenth-century and otherwise, is something I would have shared with Hurston.

One of my favorite moments from Hurston’s memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), is when the novelist humorously recalls a favored professor at Howard University, Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner:

Listening to him, I decided I must be an English teacher and lean over my desk and discourse on the 18th-Century poets…Children just getting born were going to hear about Addison…De Quincey, Steele, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley from me, leaning nonchalantly over my desk. Defoe, Burns, Swift, Milton and Scott were going to be sympathetically, but adequately explained, with just that suspicion of a smile now and then before I returned to my notes.

It seems that, for a time, Hurston was an eighteenth-centuryist at heart. Although she doesn’t mention Phillis Wheatley, I’d like to imagine that black poet on her reading list. Ultimately, Hurston’s scholarship took a different path—anthropology instead of English literary history—and she “gave up [her] dream of leaning over a desk and explaining Addison and Steele to the sprouting generations.”

I have in my own way held onto the dream that Hurston let go of. With that suspicion of a smile now and then, I teach my students, eleven-year-olds and twelve-year-olds, about the long eighteenth-century past. Still there is so much I do not know, or understand, about that past, or even my own life story. Why did the dream I had as a child to read, to write, to devour knowledge, find its home in a world and time that feels so distant, yet familiar to me?

Leigh-Michil George is a Lecturer in the English Department at Geffen Academy at UCLA. Her current book project focuses on representations of sensibility and laughter in caricature, jestbooks, and the novel in the long eighteenth century.

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