How It Feels To Be Colored Me and Ex-Colored Man Summary

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Race has always been prevalant in American history, it is deep rooted and continues to be seen as an issue in society today. The times have changed but not nearly enough, racism continues to effect the lives of many colored people constantly, especially as it deals with self awareness, racial identity and social perception. Zora Neale Hurston’s How It Feels to Be Colored Me and James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man are two stories that prompt both conversation and comparison with a black woman who experiences how it feels to be colored after moving from a predominantly black town and a black man that can pass as a white man who struggles with which race he identifies with more. This essay will discuss the effect race has on the characters through self awareness, racial identity and social perception.

Hurston’s How It Feels to Be Colored Me is an essay about Hurston and her thought process growing up as a black woman. Hurston argues that race is not an essential feature that someone is born with but rather something that emerges in social contexts. Hurston begins the essay with her life in Eatonville and how she became a “colored” woman after she moved from her predominantly black town into diverse Jacksonville and then later in New York.

She becomes aware of her race which prompts the topic of self awareness and racial identity and there are even times when Hurston chooses to step away from the awareness and decides to assume a more universal identity. Hurston says, “white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there.” (pg. 534) she initially sees and understands race to be a socioeconomic distinction and not a difference between people due to the fact that she was raised in a post-Emancipation, pre-Civil Rights South black town and was spared oppression and violence. Race begins to change for her when she moves to Jacksonville, “I was now a litle colored girl. I found it out in certain ways.” (pg. 534)

Hurston’s perception and understanding of race changes dramatically, from not identifying with a racial category to identifying with one completely but choosing to believe that race is not “real” because it is based on social perception. Her self awareness as a black woman is unique in ways where she takes advantage of the history of slavery, “Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It was a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it.” (pg. 534-535) She pushes herself into a mindset where any action of hers will get “twice as much praise or twice as much blame.” (pg. 535) She continued to push the boundaries of race for herself because she was defiant that her skin color somehow demanded a tragic existence.

The themes of race through self awareness, racial identity and social perception in Hurston’s How It Feels to Be Colored Me are centered around belief that race does not define her. Her self awareness of race and its impact are magnified as she chooses to feel it how she wants. She wants control of the race that has been forced onto her as a “burden” and the impact it has on her, she says in the beginning that, “I am colored but 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.” (pg. 533)

She is arguing that African descent needs no apology for being what it is and she embraces her race fully which leads to the theme of racial identity. She embraces the stereotypes that were placed upon those of African descent and feels them in her bones. Her skin color does not define her as a person which is ultimately what she believes in. She is black, she is of African descent and she does not care for what others think of her. She embodies this ideology through a metaphor of bags, the most important aspect of it being not the appearance but the contents. The exterior of the bag does not take away from what is inside and this idea combats popular conceptions about race being a determining factor in regards to ones intelligence, talent, identity, etc.

Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is essentially what the title suggests, an autobiography of an ex-colored man. It is about an unnamed narrator that struggles with his identity as to whether he is black or white. He is confused about his placement in society and is unsure of his responsibilty to his race. The narrator grows up unaware that he is black, his mother hides his racial identity from him and he attends school with a mindset that he is white.

It is one day in school where reality comes crashing down on the narrator, “One day near the end of my second term at school, the principal came into our room, and after talking to the teacher, for some reason said, “I wish all of the white scholars to stand for a moment.” I rose with the others. The teacher looked at me, and calling my name said, “You sit down for the present and rise with the others.”…I sat down dazed. I saw and heard nothing.” (pg. 1075) He runs home that day after the revelation and questions his mother about his racial identity. She tells him the truth and the narrator says, “Perhaps it had to be done, but I have never forgiven the woman who did it so cruelly. It may be that she never knew that she gave me a sword-thrust that day in school which was years in healing.” (pg. 1076)

He becomes aware of his racial identity painfully and the affect of becoming aware came with the guilt of unknowingly choosing one race over the other which torments him throughout. The narrator displays how American culture has a profound affect on the psyche of African Americans. There is a stigma surrounding the attachment of being black in an American society which conditions African Americans to have basic human emotions, when the narrator witnesses a lynching in the South, he says, “A great wave of humiliation and shame swept over me. Shame that I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with; and shame for my country.” (pg. 1092)

The narrator feels humiliation and shame at his race when the feelings should be pity or sympathy. Throughout the story the narrator learns about the phases of the negro question through conversing with a tall, broad-shouldered, colored man who had the broadest mindset. The narrator has a lack of self awareness which makes him frustrating as he generalizes colored people without truly understanding them or seeing them as actual human beings. He vacillates between identifying with African Americans and disavowing them constantly and along with the lack of names in the story, the narrator struggles to ground himself or anyone else in the story.

The themes of self awareness, racial identity and social perception in Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man are centered around the conflict between being the colored man he is in his blood or choosing to pass as a white man because of his skin color. The internal struggle of choosing between the external appearance of the narrator and the cultural heritage he comes from plagues the story consistently from the very beginning to the end. The narrators racial identification continues to change as he sacrifices his culture many times for the comfort and safety of passing as white. His lack of self awareness stems from self interest and self sacrifice, he wants to be a world renowned classical musician but he also wants to live in the South and be inspired from the culture he is always quick to abandon. His lack of self awareness regarding race brings forth the coversation of social perception and the effect of it in both novels.

In comparison, Hurston’s How It Feels to Be Colored Me and Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man are unique regarding social perception as Hurston is a black woman while Johnson’s character is a black man that can pass as white. The social perception between a black woman who sees race as a concept that is rooted in a social complex and a black man that can pass as white who struggles to identify with two races serve as two completely different situations. The soclal perception of a woman who was born black and raised in a black town who later came to accept race as more than just an identifying sticker as to what her character is assumed to be is dealt with the stereotypes that come with that identifying sticker.

She is maligned and mocked by both black and white for her identity but Hurston’s belief in conrol over her identity, whether it is perceived as positive or negative, gives an image of perspective over the biology of race. The social perception of race changes because she refuses to let it bother her with all the labels, she embraces everything. Johnson’s narrator in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man gives into the social perception of race. He was comfortable with the mindset that he was white until the moment in school when the teacher had forced reality onto him. He was devastated and confused and as an adult he had endless questions but seemed to have a lack of understanding at times.

He was in conflict about being a black man and understanding his culture and history and h was in conflict over his skin tone that allowed him the comfort of being safe and free from the social pressures of society. The narrator gave into social perception at the end of the story after watching a man be lynched. He was ashamed of his culture and the aftermath of the lynching had the narrator wanting to not choose either race he was given. The option of having both races played a huge part into the social perception for a man compared to a black woman. The societal pressures of race and consciousness lead the characters to their ends at the their respective stories.

In conclusion, the effects of race through self awareness, racial identity and social perception in these two works of literature can be read to understand the topic of race in the world today. Race has always been prevalant in the history of America, but literature from both Hurston and Johnson allow insight into how one can help change the social perception of race in society and make it safe for those of color.


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How It Feels To Be Colored Me and Ex-Colored Man Summary. (2021, Jun 20). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/how-it-feels-to-be-colored-me-and-ex-colored-man/

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