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.
The front porch might seem a daring place for the rest of the town, but it was a gallery seat for me.
My favorite place was atop the gatepost. Proscenium box for a born first-nighter. Not only did I
enjoy the show, but I didn't mind the actors knowing that I liked it. I usually spoke to them in
passing. I'd wave at them and when they returned my salute, I would say something like this:
"Howdy-do-well-I-thank-you-where-you-goin'?" Usually automobile or the horse paused at this,
and after a queer exchange of compliments, I would probably "go a piece of the way" with them, as
we say in farthest Florida. If one of my family happened to come to the front in time to see me, of
course negotiations would be rudely broken off. But even so, it is clear that I was the first
"welcome-to-our-state" Floridian, and I hope the Miami Chamber of Commerce will please take
During this period, white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town
and never lived there. They liked to hear me "speak pieces" and sing and wanted to see me dance
the parse-me-la, and gave me generously of their small silver for doing these things, which seemed
strange to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to stop, only they didn't know
it. The colored people gave no dimes. They deplored any joyful tendencies in me, but I was their
Zora nevertheless. I belonged to them, to the nearby hotels, to the county--everybody's Zora.
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, 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. 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.
But 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 belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold
that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all but about it.
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 of less. No, I do not weep at the world--I am too busy
sharpening my oyster knife.
Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to
register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the
patient is doing well, thank you. The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential
slave said "On the line!" The Reconstruction said "Get set!" and the generation before said "Go!" 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 ever had a greater chance for glory.
The world to be won and nothing to be lost. It is thrilling to think--to know that for any act of mine, I
shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame. It is quite exciting to hold the center of the
national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep.
The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult. No brown specter pulls up a chair
beside me when I sit down to eat. No dark ghost thrusts its leg against mine in bed. The game of
keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting.
I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before
the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.
For instance 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.
Sometimes it is the other way around. A white person is set down in our midst, but the contrast is
just as sharp for me. For instance, when I sit in the drafty basement that is The New World Cabaret
with a white person, my color comes. We enter chatting about any little nothing that we have in
common and are seated by the jazz waiters. 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. 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. But the piece ends. 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, smoking
"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 so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.
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. So far as my feelings are concerned, Peggy Hopkins Joyce on the Boule Mich
with her gorgeous raiment, stately carriage, knees knocking together in a most aristocratic manner,
has nothing on me. 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. My country, right or wrong.
Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me.
How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me.
But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in
company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a
jumble of small things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of
broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old
shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too
heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still a little fragrant. In your hand is the brown bag. On the
ground before you is the jumble it held--so much like the jumble in the bags, could they be emptied,
that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any
greatly. A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter. Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer
of Bags filled them in the first place--who knows? (How It Feels to Be Colored by Zora Neale Huston)
The day I became colored...that phrase just gets me. Ask me what I worry about for my kids of color and that phrase is it. I dread the day they feel colored.
Not that they don't already know they are brown. Or called black even though black is such a misnomer. They know that they are brown. They know we don't match. They know that they are often dots of brown in a snowy white landscape. Yes, that they know.
But what they don't know is that they are colored. They don't know yet that the world is a pretty ugly place sometimes and that there will be times they will be on the receiving end of such ugliness through no fault of their own.
I mean, that happens to us all. But there is something so stinging and sharp about ugliness that stems from who you are as a person. One can argue that my children should not be defined by their blackness. I agree. They are so much more. And yet, their blackness is a part of them. I cannot ignore that there heritage truly is African, that they are the grandchildren of former slaves, that their history is that of the world's first successful slave rebellion, that most won't know their heritage but will presume them to be black Americans, that they will be often described as a black man and a black woman, with whatever connotations are attached to the speaker's thoughts.
Right now, they are safe and sheltered. In our little town, they belong to us. Our school, our neighbors, our friends, our family-they have claimed my kids as their own. At some point, that will change. They will not be Kenson of Crete or Conleigh of Crete but they will instead be just another colored boy or just another colored girl in a sea of people. And what then?
I want to believe that the greater community, that vast group of people who were all created in the image of God, will still claim them as their own. But my guess is there will come a day when my kids realize they are colored. Because of the words someone said. Because of the way someone acted. Because of the news story they just saw. My kids will not be exempt because they are good kids from a good family from a nice little town.
I don't say these words lightly nor do I believe the bogeyman lurks around every corner. I say these words because at some moment every black person becomes colored. Every black person has to take a moment or two or four and reconcile who he is with what he has been made to feel.
I pray for my kids that the world will be better or different somehow, that somehow fear and suspicion and skepticism and anger will not be the biggest emotions defining racial relations. I pray they will be a Zora, who wonders why anyone would want to deprive himself the presence of my children. I pray they will have their oyster knife ready in their hands, because the world is their oyster, because while they may be colored, they are not tragically black.