The Five Stages of Grief for a Lost Identity
The autoethnography of a nation is uttered by the artistic manifestation which originates from the experience of its various socioeconomic classes during a specific historical period. Each social class fosters one—or more than one—cultural group, the members of which communicate their daily endeavors through artistic expression. The way a cultural group experience an era depends on the historical events occurring during its time, the socioeconomic level of the group and the conditions of socioeconomic, gender and race equality of the country to which they belong. A recent article on Harlem Renaissance in Encyclopædia Britannica states that the movement was, “a phase of a larger New Negro movement…The social foundations of this movement included the Great Migration of African Americans from rural to urban spaces and from South to North; dramatically rising levels of literacy; the creation of national organizations dedicated to pressing African American civil rights, “uplifting” the race, and opening socioeconomic opportunities; and developing race pride” (Hutchinson). Far from a movement which strengthened the basis of the broader civil rights movement, Harlem Renaissance was an era of the U.S. history primarily illustrated by the “jazz” and “blues” colors of the African American community in New York.
The emphasis in reconceptualizing “the Negro” white stereotypes, brought a plethora of African American voices on the surface of the artistic community of that time, in every art form possible. Artistic waves such as Jazz music, Blues, and literary wonders emerged quickly, which have survived until today and are still studied by scholars of multiple disciplines. However, there were African American artists who tried to separate themselves from the movement and state different opinions than those of the “New Negro” movement. The movement’s influence on the masses was so vast, though, that these artists were eventually marginalized and gradually lost their voice—one of them was Zora Neale Hurston.
Despite her marginalization, Hurston did not lose her value as a writer. In 1975 the author Alice Walker published “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. magazine, reviving interest in Hurston’s work and helped the world discover a strong female African American voice. Reading Hurston’s work, a reader may distinguish the utterances and positions which made the Harlem renaissance community frown upon the author. This essay is focusing on Hurston’s autobiographical How It Feels to Be Colored Me, where she utters several opinions which indicate they could have been the reasons behind her marginalization. However, what makes this specific text thought-provoking is the fact that although is read like an autobiography, it displays evidence of a broader autoethnography. By narrating artistically the five stages of grief for her lost identity through her lifetime, Hurston makes the reader wonder whether her initial intention was to write about her life or to illustrate various differences among the African Americans of that era.
Hurston’s voice followed the rhythm of the jazz mood. However, reading the How, It Feels to Be Colored Me a reader might get the feeling of a “blues” humming in the background, despite the humorous comments. The text begins with the loss of her mother at her 13 years of age and the dramatic changes the event brought to her life. She narrates how she left Eatonville, Florida being “Zora of Orange County,” to become eventually “a little colored girl” in Jacksonville (Hurston). Then, she states that she is “not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes” and that she doesn’t “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” (Hurston). This utterance demonstrates a position which creates a gap between Hurston and the general African American population of that era. In addition, later she says that “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,” and she transforms the gap she has created with her community into a political argument—which she loses with her later marginalization. Uttering that white Americans have a worse position toward the race issue, while the “New Negro” movement is trying to reconceptualize all the ideas about race imprinted deeply into U.S. society’s mentality, brought Hurston against the African American community—to the point the community turned its back to her. This unfortunate result would explain why although there are plenty of moments in the text where Hurston describes her life with humor, her tendency for isolation and the denial of her identity paints the theme of the text with a “blue” color, rather than “jazz.”
According to the definition of autobiography given by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, How It Feels to Be Colored Me belongs to the genre under the specter of “self-life writing” (1). However, it is not the chronologically well-ordered life moments which make the text an autobiography—it is the emotions that define each small marble and stone of a colorful mosaic. Hurston describes with each image of her life and a stage of grief which is not affected by her mother’s passing, but by the further loss of her identity as “the Zora.” Denial is demonstrated with her utterance not being as colored as the rest of her generation. The emotions are so strong that she calls the rest of African Americans the “sobbing school of Negrohood” (Hurston). The stage of anger is demonstrated with her stating, “I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife,” and that the remembrance of slavery is old news for her. Her anger is a continuous rising action with irrational statements such as “slavery is sixty years in the past,” as though sixty years it was a long time, “The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult,” and reaches its climax when she listen to Jazz music and wants to “slaughter something–give pain, give death to what, I do not know” (Hurston). Then the music stops, and with its end comes the stage of bargaining, where Hurston realizes that the white man seated next to her is “so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored” (Hurston). The stage of depression comes right after. Hurston utters that sometimes she has no race; she is just her. She compares herself to the statues of lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, alone, cold, and cursed to never express their ferocity. And then, “The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads” (Hurston). The stage of acceptance that follows goes beyond of Hurston’s realization of her identity—it is universal. Hurston utters that race does not exist and that all people are bags which carry the same package demonstrates an inner transformation. At that moment, the cosmic Zora is not the Zora who left Eatonville years ago—she is a hero who has reached the end of her bildungsroman.
Smith and Watson define autoethnography as “a hybrid term,” which focuses on “the ethnos, or social group…rather than on the bios or individual life” (157). Reading How It Feels to Be Colored Me under an autoethnographic spectrum, we might discover a social presentation of the multiple opinions of the race issue during the Harlem Renaissance. First, Hurston describes Eatonville, a town exclusively inhabited by African Americans where white Americans are just passing by. Then, through her own experience brings forth the African Americans of Jacksonville, who feel “warranted not to rub nor run” (Hurston). By uttering phrases such as, “no great sorrow dammed up in my soul,” “I do not mind at all,” and “slavery is sixty years in the past,” the author describes that part of African American population which had decided to remain neutral in the issue of race (Hurston). She even brings forth a minority of African Americans who were still sympathizing with their oppressors by saying that her white neighbor is in a more difficult position than her. In the New World Cabaret scene, she brings forth the part of the African American community that wants to defend what is rightfully theirs by giving pain and death. She describes herself willing to go back to her roots, uttering, “My face is painted red and yellow, and my body is painted blue,” ready to defend her African heritage. Her last message and the universality it carries with it can only be described as ethnographical. Hurston puts all people, regardless of race and gender under the same roof, created by the same “Great Stuffer of Bags” (Hurston). This successful metaphor of an ethnos of bags whose contents are “a jumble of small things priceless and worthless,” finalizes the fact that the text could be more autoethnographic than autobiographic (Hurston). After all, the ethnos part of the complex word autoethnography surpasses in supporting evidence that of the bio.
Even though Hurston was marginalized, her rediscovery brought forth a voice of the Harlem Renaissance era that was not heard as much as it deserved. Either her opinion on the race issue was right or wrong, Hurston narrates five stages of grief which could refer to the loss of her identity and the discovery of a new one, or it could refer to the hero-quest (bildungsroman) of the African American community of that time. This Jazz element with Blues notes makes the text a mixture of voices uttered by one author. Is it autobiography or autoethnography? Depends on who reads it and during what time of history—it always does with any artistic sensation.
Hurston, Zora Neale. How it Feels to Be Colored Me. 1928. Web.
Hutchinson, George. “Harlem Renaissance.” 21 June 2019. Encyclopædia Britannica. Web. 15 September 2019.
Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Document.