The problem of personal identity is managed differently by different African Americans. In this personal essay (dated 1928) discussing her own self-understanding, the American author, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) appears to be anything but conflicted, alienated, or angry. On the contrary, she speaks as if being colored is no big deal for her: “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. My country, right or wrong.” Is she being sincere or ironic? What does she mean when she says, “At certain times I have no race, I am me”? Can her identity—and our identity—as “me” ever really be utterly disconnected from race? What enables Hurston not to be angry? What is the basis of her strong sense of identity and personal self-worth?
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 the mother’s side was not an Indian chief.
I remember the very day that I became colored. Up to my thirteenth year I lived in the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a colored town. 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. 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.
Read the essay online.
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