A friend once told me a story about how her best friend was a little blond girl when she was in elementary school. They sat next to one another in class, shared lunch and played together during every recess.
One day while playing together, another group of girls suggested they all play the rainbow game. She was nervous about how the game was played so one of the girls explained it.Every person playing would stand next to the person that was the same color as her and the leader would shout out a color and that pair of kids would have to tag everyone else.
My friend said she was the only African-American. She knew the girls did not mean any harm. They were only trying to play something new, but she said that was the first time she became aware of her race.
It was as early as middle school that she was aware of her race. For some people of color, it’s a lot sooner and for others it’s later.
I was a freshman at a predominately white college when I first became aware of my race. There were not too many people who I could racially identify with. There was a large group of people who looked like me but they were born in various African countries. Even though we looked the same, we were very different.
For the first time I was so confused. I didn’t feel fully American because for me, at that time, “American” meant white. But I was not African either. That part of me is so far removed that only Henry Louis Gates could bring me close.
I began to ask myself many questions. Even with the knowledge of where I derived, could I truly embody that people and culture? And what about my African-American heritage? Although we are an undefined people our influence on music and sports, our courage and strength, is clearly known.
These questions of my identity have been haunting me since I began college, but they hit me in the face when I took an African-American literature course. I read Zora Neal Hurston’s How it Feels to be Colored Me. This profound essay shares her account of when she first became aware of her race. It was funny how similar her story was to mine, but it was these words she left towards the end that truly inspired me.
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 still don’t know exactly how my identity totally shapes or forms me and what I stand for; but in some indescribable way, that passage teaches me something different about myself every time I read it. I am sure one of these days I’ll get it and you will too.
How does it feel to be Colored You?