I admit I would probably have passed this little essay with just a casual bypass through it but I had read the book of essays backwards and had encountered Ms. Hurston in another essay--"Looking for Zora" by Alice Walker which I read without much stumbling or interest until I got to a lively excerpt of Ms. Hurston's writing that woke me up. It came from her essay " How It Feels to Be Colored Me". It had the singular voice that was also present in these other essays by other writers in this book;
1) Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by James Agree (from his book -A Death in the Family, 1957)
2) The Brown Wasps by Loren Eiseley (from his book--The Night Country, 1966)---I liked this writer so much I went out and got this book to read at leisure; I plan to go through all his works.
3) The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday (from The Way to Rainy Mountain, 1969)
4) The White Album by Joan Didion (from The White Album, 1979)--she is an excellent writer
5) Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying by Adrienne Rich (from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, 1979)--I've got this book and I like her prose more than her poems.
6) A Sweet Devouring by Eudora Welty--(from The Eye of the Story, 1977)--mainly for the topic--book love.
When I ran through this book, I really only found 8 essays in here that I thought were excellent. One of which was the essay by Joyce Carol Oates--"They All Just Went Away". Perhaps it is because I ran through them. Maybe this book needs to be dissected finely and spent time with-over weeks.
Voice. The voice that came through Alice Walker's essay--was that of Zora herself--here it is from Ms. Walker's essay:
I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in
my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not be-
long to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature some-
how has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all
hurt about it.. No, I do not weep at the world--I am too busy
sharpening my oyster knife.
---Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me,"
World Tomorrow, 1928
Now I just love this passionate woman's bold assertion, that despite all the limitations of the world on black people--she was "not tragically colored." She refuses the badge of martyrdom. She says calmly "I do not mind at all." And while others might weep, she says "I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife." Neat.
So I went back and reviewed the essay by Ms. Walker and found several relevant patches in it--besides this one. They told me who she was.
Dr. Benton of Eatonville, Florida knew Zora and recalls that she was always learning things.
"She was an incredible woman," he muses. "Sometimes when I closed my office, I'd go by her house and just talk to her for an hour or two. She was a well-read, well-traveled woman and always had her own ideas about what was going on...."
Sometimes these ideas did not make her very popular and she was destitute at the end of her life:
"She came here from Daytona, I think. She owned a houseboat over there. When she came here, she sold it. She lived on that money, then she worked as a maid--for an article on maids she was writing--and she worked for the Chronicle writing the horoscope column.
"I think black people in Florida got mad at her because she was for some politician they were against. She said this politician built schools for blacks while the one they wanted just talked about it. And although Zora wasn't egotistical, what she thought, she thought; and generally what she thought, she said."
Hey, I liked her immediately. The type of direct, forthright woman the world has more need of than ever. And it seems that most people did like her. The rest of Alice Walker's essay is not at all interesting. I leave it. I go to to Ms. Hurston's essay and read it with pleasure. This woman is all here in this essay. Let me indulge myself with its vivid life and try to let you see her in it.If you want to read the essay in full it is at this website:
Compared to some of the massive tomes in this book, this was a short essay packed with electricity. She begins the essay by speaking immediately of color---that color already noted in the title of this essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me."
I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on my mother's side was not an Indian chief.
I love the feisty humor of this opening salvo. She says she is "colored" but she can't offer any excuses for this state other than the fact of her lack of an Indian chief in her heritage.Too funny. I am caught by her indifference to race issues already. Like her--I've never had the feeling that I was say--"Asian" because to be moving as we did --like tramps from country to country--means you never do develop an ethnic character; you never anneal to a country; you never become one place. I'm a brew--International and global with no real sense of what it is to be an Asian Canadian or as the Federal Progressive Conservative Party calls us --"the very ethnic" sector. Heck, I'm not "very ethnic". As I told Mr. Harper in an e-mail--I could be called "very brown" but the "very ethnic" sobriquet does not fit me. Like Ms. Hurston, I, too have learned that a good sense of humor and a thick as a rhino skin are necessary to deal with ignorant people --even the ones in our federal government.
In this essay, Ms. Hurston describes her lack of awareness of being colored until about the time she turned thirteen and was sent away from her home town of Eatonville, Florida which was essentially a black town--to a school in Jacksonville. This is how she explains how she became no longer "Zora" but a new being:
But 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, as Zora. When I disembarked from the riverboat 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. I found it out in certain ways. In my heart as well as in the mirror, I became a fast brown--warranted not to rub nor run.
See the dear way she says to herself the fact of her alteration? "I found it out in certain ways. In my heart as well as in the mirror." What was before an innocence-that allowed her to stay as Zora in her home town --to be that girl who spoke to white people in a friendly fashion --oblivious to race differences--was gone.But not gone to be replaced by hatred--oh, no! She's much too fine for that.This is an intelligent girl. She sees herself still humorously--"a fast brown --warranted not to rub nor run." She keeps going. Her spirit is too boisterous and full of those "joyful tendencies" that were "deplored" by her townsfolk but also accepted as being part of "their Zora nevertheless."
She says that if you are strong--regardless of skin color--you will endure--the world belongs to those who are strong as she says here:
Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world--I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.
How can I not admire a woman this? She wrote this essay in 1928 in the most unimaginably racist situation possible in America plus add to this the handicap of being female. Quite a woman.
When reminded of her slave-background -she said right back at them that she was "an American"; that slavery was done with. She refused to consider any way but forward for herself:
I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep. Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it. No one on earth had a greater chance for glory."
This woman was certainly full of optimism and hope. And she loved the independence of possible praise or blame to come. She thought that she was better off than white people in fact, since she does not have a "brown specter" following her around.
Sometimes she forgot all about skin color and in the blare and dance of music, she felt her life keenly. She gives one example of it in the essay where her white friend is untouched by the music that had annihilated her.
"Good music they have here," he remarks, drumming the table with his fingertips.
Music! The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him. He has only heard what I felt. He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us. He is pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.
And I have to admit that I have felt this way too among white people--as if they are anemic emotionally --as if they cannot be passionate in their songs and poems. But then I read Mr. T.S. Eliot's essay in this book--"Tradition and the Individual Talent" and I realize why the poetry of the West is like butter melting in the heat of the tropics--why it is so dull. The following passage explains to me the coldness of Western poetry:
This essay proposes to halt at the frontier of metaphysics or mysticism, and confine itself to such practical conclusions as can be applied by the responsible person interested in poetry. To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good or bad. There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is an expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach the impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.
So basically this is a bunch of rubbish. The poet here is saying we have to be impersonal in our poems in order to make art. This kind of stupid thinking is also present in that other essay by Mr. Billy Collins in his essay that I have already maligned in the post "Killing the Dream of Right Conduct--from Free To Be Human-Part 1" and so I think this must be a pervasive philosophy in the poetical establishment. And this is what makes poetry for the most part --as cold as tombstones placed at the freshly dug graves of the poems. I think it is quite possible to have the reverse be true--that "The emotion of art is personal." But let me leave this burr on the side of the trousers of the passing reader and go on with Ms.Hurston's fine essay.
So she had emotions. Great big ones if you look at this passage here:
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 harmonics. 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. I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww! I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way. My face is painted red and yellow, and my body is painted blue. My pulse is throbbing like a war drum. I want to slaughter something--give pain, give death to what, I do not know.
And so here you have personal. Here you have real. And I would take a thousand of these types of lines in prose or poetry over one cold blooded line in what is considered art. Consider me ignorant. What is alive in this piece, is voice; the voice of a woman who is dead but who is more alive than any poem written by Mr. Billy Collins or Mr. T.S. Elliot (although I do like "The Wasteland" and his poems do not choke me).
The essay speaks of what it was to be this woman. And this woman without a race attached to that description.
The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time, I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.
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.
And isn't that the way we should all feel ---all the time -and not at select occasional times? To be "a fragment of the Great Soul" that holds a piece of each of us--that makes each of us holy?