Slavery Gave Me Nothing to Lose
I remember the very day that I became black. Up to my thirteenth year I lived in the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a black town. The only white people I knew passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando, Florida. The native whites rode dusty horses, and the northern tourists traveled down the sandy village road in automobiles. The town knew the Southerners and never stopped chewing sugar cane when they passed. But the Northerners were something else again. They were peered at cautiously from behind curtains by the timid. The bold would come outside to watch them go past and got just as much pleasure out of the tourists as the tourists got out of the village.
The front deck might seem a frightening place for the rest of the town, but it was a front row seat for me. My favorite place was on top of the gatepost. Not only did I enjoy the show, but I didn't mind the actors knowing that I liked it. I usually spoke to them in passing. I'd wave at them and when they returned my wave, I would say a few words of greeting. Usually the automobile or the horse paused at this, and after a strange exchange of greetings, I would probably "go a piece of the way" with them, as we say in farthest Florida, and follow them down the road a bit. If one of my family happened to come to the front of the house in time to see me, of course the conversation would be rudely broken off.
During this period, white people differed from black to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there. They liked to hear me "speak pieces" and sing and wanted to see me dance, and gave me generously of their small silver for doing these things, which seemed strange to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to stop. Only they didn't know it. The colored people gave no coins. They disapproved of any joyful tendencies in me, but I was their Zora nevertheless. I belonged to them, to the nearby hotels, to the country — everybody's Zora.
But changes came to the family when I was thirteen, and I was sent to school in Jacksonville. I left Eatonville as Zora. When I got off the riverboat at Jacksonville, she was no more. It seemed that I had suffered a huge change. I was not Zora of Eatonville any more; I was now a little black girl. I found it out in certain ways. In my heart as well as in the mirror, I became a permanent brown — like the best shoe polish, guaranteed not to rub nor run.
Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is something sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you. The terrible war that made me an American instead of a slave said "On the line!" The period following the Civil War said "Get set!"; and the generation before me said "Go!" Like a foot race, I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the middle to look behind and weep. Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost. It is thrilling to think, to know, that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame. It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage, with the audience not knowing whether to laugh or to weep.
I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of that small village, Eatonville. For instance, I can sit in a restaurant with a white person. We enter chatting about any little things that we have in common and the white man would sit calmly in his seat, listening to me with interest.
At certain times I have no race, I am me. But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of mixed items propped up against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a pile of small things both valuable and worthless. Bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since decayed away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still with a little smell. In your hand is the brown bag. On the ground before you is the pile it held — so much like the piles in the other bags, could they be emptied, that all might be combined and mixed in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly. A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter. Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place — who knows?