”How It Feels to Be Colored Me” by Zora Neale Hurston does exemplifies what Dubois terms the “double consciousness” which is the experience of being “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” (45). However, she exemplifies Dubois’ words only to a limited extent: Hurston’s experiences of being an African American in white, racist society are much more complex than Dubois’s basic and simple dichotomy.
Until she was thirteen, Hurston does not exist at all in anything resembling a state of “double consciousness” at all. By contrast, since she grows up in an all-African American rural town and only rarely has any contact with passing white people, she could be said to live, changing Dubois’ words, in a state of innocent pre-consciousness. As she makes clear, she only “became” African American, as she points it when sent to school in Jackson at the age of thirteen. (1008). Prior to that, she had existed in a state of ignorance and innocence about the color of her skin – wholly unaware and ignorant of the wider society, white and largely racist, that she lived surrounded by. She sings and dances to entertain the white tourists who travel through her home town; they throw her coins and in this we might be tempted to see an echo of what DuBois writes about white people patronizing black people with “amused contempt and pity.” (45).
It is true that there are some occasions when she feels the veracity of Dubois’ phrase the “double consciousness”: she writes, for example, “I feel most colored when set against a sharp white background,” (1009) and she describes of being in a New York jazz club with a white male acquaintance. The scene she describes is hilarious because it contrasts her reactions with those of her white friend and their reactions are so very different. Hurston’s whole body responds rhythmically and physically to the beat of the jazz band until she writes, “I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way….My pulse is throbbing like a war drum.” (1010.). By contrast, her white companion’s reaction to the lively jazz music is completely different. Her white friend comments, in a comic and inappropriate anti-climax, “Good music they have here.” (1010). Hurston writes, “He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.” (1010).
However, generally speaking, Hurston’s attitude is much more optimistic and positive than Dubois’ talk of “two warring ideals” and the conflict those words imply. Hurston writes, “at certain times I have no race,” (1010) and she also states, “I belong to no race and no time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.” (1010). In contrast to Dubois, Hurston seems genuinely more confident and content with her identity as an African American, and states, in complete and utter contradiction of DuBois, “I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored…. My country right or wrong. (1010). Furthermore, she dismisses the historical legacy of slavery, which she proclaims is, “sixty years in the past.” (1009).
Hurston’s confidence and sheer optimism in herself as an American individual woman is very different from Dubois’s analysis of being an African American in a predominately racist society. The publication date of Hurston’s essay and her status and reputation at the time of publication may help to explain her very different experience and perspective. In 1929 Hurston was a leading and important figure in the Harlem Renaissance – an innovative and exciting arts movement centered on Harlem and lad by a number of African Americans who produced a range of important cultural and artistic achievements – in every field of culture: literature, painting, music and sculpture. Perhaps being a leading light of this movement explains her confidence which contrasts so tellingly with Dubois.
DuBois , W E B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Chicago: McClurg. Web.
Hurston, Zora Neale.”How It Feels to Be Colored Me’. 1928. Pages 1008 – 1011. Gates Jr., Henry Louis & McKay, Nellie Y.. (eds) The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 1997. New York: W.W. Norton. Print.