In Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “How it Feels to Be Colored Me” and “Sweat” there are many different elements of modernity in play. Hurston is able to expertly comment on the lives, being and welfare of African Americans at the time of her story in the United States. Illuminating the identity of African American women she gives a voice and draws attention to those that are often silenced and cut down. Embodying the modernist themes of alienation and the assertion of racial and social identity through her upturning of the binary self Hurston had a large impact of the modernist movement as well as other authors in the Harlem Renaissance. Her focus on African American women and progressing the idea of self and a new form of feminism and consciousness has made its mark on modernity.
Within ‘How it Feels to Be Colored Me” Hurston discusses the African American identity and the different ways it has been muddled, disarranged and reshaped. Using this as a means to draw her own clear line on identity by removing the binary characteristics of self she gives a clear sense of oneness to African Americans. Hurston is race conscious and recognizes that there are traits that are placed on you dependent on your race and what you are identified as by other people. Acknowledging the repercussions of living in a post-emancipated society with an understanding that “She is the granddaughter of slaves” (Hurston 1041) and trying to integrate into a culture and society that had a generation prior seen you as property would have its challenges but Hurston rather than seeing things as an impasse chooses instead to disregard this idea and surpass it. Not wanting to focus too much on the past she does not look at the “before and after, but at what is” (Rampersad 60) choosing to instead exalt herself and push forward with what she has been given coming into her own sense of self and identity not tied to the past. In order for African Americans to find their sense of identity they would need to see themselves as who they were before a history of mistreatment and of enslavement. In her short story she uses herself as the subject and is depicted as a strong, stoic and powerful women who understands the disenfranchisement of her race and and the day to day racism African Americans are plagued with. Choosing to see herself as “not tragically colored” (Hurston 1041) she is challenging the stereotypes placed upon African Americans by choosing to remain unphased and changed by them forming an identity that is not based on preconceived notions but instead will draw from her own person. Belonging to no race or time Hurston is describing an identity that is not binary but transcends a sense of being that is wholly and fully herself not defined by the world or people’s view of her. She is not phased by discrimination and instead is amazed at the idea of denying onself her company, fully comfortable with this brown paper bag of identity that is both unimportant and distinctive.
Additionally we can then look at Hurston’s use of female empowerment and feminism to bring forth a sense of identity and remove this idea of the “other”. With this is mind Hurston chooses to use her platform as a way to establish the identity and self of being for women. Hurston begins to form a modern idea of identity through a scope of feminism and women empowerment. Her character Delia Jones has been supporting herself and her husband through the hard work and sweat of her own labor. She begins to recognize after mistreatment from her husband her own power and skills, briefly overcoming her meek attitude and standing up for herself from her husband’s abuse. Becoming an example for the progression of identity within African American women Hurston uses Delia as a way to embody a self that is created through your own personal labor and income. Not dependant on a man, she challenges this patriarchal ideal placed on women and chooses to create an identity that is not reliant on another person. Her husband Sykes embodies a misunderstanding of identity. Representing the lost sense of self that many African American men may have had post slavery. He seems lost in the expectations of manhood and chooses to lash back and abuse the very person who is supporting him and feeding him. We then are given this juxtaposition of identity through Delia who is the ‘breadmaker” of the house and his sweating and working for all that they have. Her sense of identity comes through her own hard work and physical labor that she is then able to use to form her sense of self as independent and self sufficient. This understanding of identity through a modernist view of feminism and more specifically the African American women’s identity shows Hurston’s ability to “identify the black modern and recognize that it was not the same as the white modern” (Rampersad 61) speaking to the experiences and trials of womanhood while zoning in and pulling from her own experiences. Delia becomes a representation of and a staple of the modernist movement and shows Hurston’s intersectionality and versatility through her literary works. Displaying a conscious release of the Africna American identity that remains in the past she essentially is the founder of a new sense of identity that has become characteristic of the modernist movement and shaped the lives and the understanding of many different people. Hurston fully demonstrates that by accepting what is and not looking to the past or the future one can reflect and see who they really are, she takes pride in her color and who she is, using this to bring forth a new identity and self.
In Summation, Zora Neale Hurston was a compelling and dynamic modernist writer who dealt with the idea of self, race and feminism. Addressing modern topics and issues that affect her person she embraces the difficult factors of her world and shows pride in who she is and in what the world is as well as how it can be. Teaching others to love themselves and their identities she embraces women, strength and acceptance. Many different characteristics of modernism appear throughout her works and it gives testament to the impact she has in the literary narrative. The Harlem Renaissance as a whole would have been inherently different without her contribution and her work, her influence and the greater history attests to the importance and impacts her stories have told and the sense of self and being they established.