Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Zora for Looking

imageWhen Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960, she had been out of the public eye for some time with little of her work currently  in publication. Largely through the efforts of Alice Walker and the influence of Walker's essay, "Looking for Zora," Hurston's oeuvre experienced a renaissance in the late 70's and 80's (Queen 52). Today her work is recognized as a seminal achievement of the Harlem Renaissance with her classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, required reading in high schools and in courses across multiple university departments. Her anthropological training and ethnographic work conducted under the advisement of the founder of American anthropology, Franz Boas, gave her the unique ability to identify, elucidate, and contextualize the specific timbre and tone of the African-American voice. However, much of her work encountered criticism, as what endeavored to be ethnographic authenticity was construed as a perpetuation of black stereotypes made pliant for her white audiences. This combined with her controversial political affiliations in the 1940's led to a rejection of her work for some time. One thematic element which operates consistently in her work is the role of women and her sensitivity to feminist concerns and issues of women's rights. Suffice it to say that many women in her novels and short stories play strong, consistent and even heroic roles and are often concern with other things than finding a husband or having children.

Midsummernight in Harlem (1938) by Palmer Hayden The political discourse of the mainstream of the Harlem Renaissance was centered on rebelling against the perceived stereotypes of African-Americans in the era of Jim Crow. "Negro Art," as suggested by W.E.B. DuBois and others, should seek to advance the situation of African-Americans (McKnight 83). Hurston's contrarian stance was not popular with other members of the Renaissance. Richard Wright accused her of nothing less than a kind of literary "Uncle Tomism" when he said that her work, "exploits that phase of Negro life which is 'quaint', the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the 'superior' race'" (McKnight 83) This attack stems at least in part from her literary commitment to a faithful portrayal of rural "black dialect" in her work. This so-called "folk language" is grammatically unorthodox, phonologically and semantically loose, elliptical, highly metaphorical, patriarchal, and utilizes a language which is steeped in mythological allusions and superstitious references. A brief illustration of this can be seen early on in Their Eyes Were Watching God. In one scene, Pheoby Watson is urged to go home before dark by Mrs. Sumpkins who volunteers to walk her home and worries, "It's sort of duskin' down dark. De booger man might ketch yuh." Unconcerned about the "Boogie Man" Phoeby declines and quips that "mah husband tell me say no first class booger would have me" (Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God 4). Many members of the Renaissance took exception to this nostalgia for primitivism and complained that while Hurston's effort in Their Eyes was both poetic and humorous, it was tragically and detrimentally un-evolved. Other reviewers were ignorant or blind to this concern of primitivism and instead recognized the universal experiences of Hurston's characters and how she touched on the deeper levels of human existence (Heard 133). In Their Eyes many of the characters are concerned with issues of empowerment and self-fulfillment and their failure to reach it is emblematic of a human endeavor not just an African-American one.

Part of the vehement response from members of the Harlem Renaissance derives from the rightful supposition that Hurston's deployment of "Southern Negro dialect" was explicit, intentional and devastatingly well-researched, i.e. there was not an understandable yet innocent desire for authenticity, but instead an ideological and academic commitment which was present. Hurston's intellectual pedigree did not coexist peaceably with the emotionally charged political convictions of her peers. Her 1934 essay, "Characteristics of Negro Expression," gave a theoretical edge to the deployment of her controversial rhetorical strategies and as such she interposed herself as a cultural intermediary between two "cultures." As an emissary, her role as translator and transmitter of fin de siècle Black Culture was one she adopted with relish and style. Ironically, while many other members of the Harlem Renaissance participated in cultural apologetics, they saw her kerugma of Black Culture as blasphemous. In that essay she lays out in detail the poetics of "Negro Expression" focusing on the role of adornment, metaphor and dramatization in such speech (Hurston, Sweat 55-56).

It is unlikely that any serious discussion of Hurston's work can be conducted without a presentation of how she mediated the issues of race and race relations. This is perhaps an unfortunate commentary on the state of literary criticism, insofar as any analysis of "black" writers must consider how "blackness" plays in their work. Hurston does offer some interesting and rich insights into the nature of being "colored," insights that also run contrary to some of those reached by other members of the Harlem Renaissance. In "How it Feels to be Colored Me" a 1928 essay, first published in the literary magazine The World Tomorrow, Hurston makes a number of striking metaphorical allusions about being colored. One theme that the essay develops is the notion that "race" or being colored is something that is constructed and labeled, rather than being something that is inherently a part of a person. She remarks, "I remember the very day that I becameimage colored" (Hurston, How it Feels to be Colored Me). By extension, there was a time she remembers when she was not colored, and this time was when she was in Eatonville, FL as a child. Her mythological beginnings in this town[1] are a source of deep remembrance as she references her time in this place often. In Eatonville she could be "Zora," the person she actually was behind her "coloredness." Though admittedly, despite the racism she must have felt, there is a sense of ambivalence even arrogance at the thought of race and racism. She taunts those who "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." Furthermore, she claims that racism does not so much as bother her as it does astonish her, and in a clear bit of tongue-and-cheek bravado wonders, "How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me" (Hurston, How it Feels to be Colored Me). Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and other African-American writers impart a sense in their works of a deep and seething existential anger, one that is not easily shaken off or tossed away in the same breezy way that Hurston does in that particular essay.

Zora Neale Hurston did not use her fiction or non-fiction to advert some bluntly political agenda about "black empowerment" much to the dismay of some of her male counterparts in the Harlem Renaissance. Moreover, she regarded antagonistically such attempts to voice these feelings through explicit political sermonizing, as hinted at in her image first published novel, Jonah Gourd's Vine. The title is a biblical allusion from the Book of Jonah, in which God prepares a gourd for Jonah only to have it destroyed by a worm, also of God's preparation (Jonah 4:6-8). In one scene, after a sermon on the "race problem" is given a character is asked how she liked it-the character, Sister Boger responds incredulously, "Dat wasn't no sermon, dat was uh lecture" (Hurston, Jonah's Gourd Vine 159). When Hurston preached it was not in the model of religious proselytism or via the staging of excoriating political jeremiads but through a personal quest to seek the connections between identity and language, authentically and on her own terms (Cuiba 119).

All this is not to imply that Hurston was unfamiliar or failed to empathize with people who were disillusioned at the state of race relations at time, or more bluntly, who were angry with white people. It was and continues to be a divisive question that splits this nation, its communities, families and even its citizens' psyches. One of the best examples of this divisiveness is found in her short story, "Sweat." It tells of Delia a washerwoman and her abusive, misogynist husband Sykes. In many of her stories, it is the male characters that tend to give voice to this "black anger," while the female ones tend to take a more pragmatic, quiescent approach. At one point, Sykes chastises Delia for washing white people's clothing in his house, and accuses her of hypocrisy for doing so on Sunday. He yells, "You ain't nothing but a hypocrite. One of them amen-corner Christians--sing, whoop, and shout, then come home and wash white folks clothes on the Sabbath" (Hurston, Sweat 27). It is one thing to work on the Sabbath, a minor oversight as far modern society is concerned, it is an entirely other thing to be doing the "devil's dirty work." For Sykes, Delia's washing responsibilities can be seen as a literal realization of this metaphor. Though ultimately Hurston rejects the paradigm of the white man as devil being the primary structuring element of race relations in America; it is a sentiment that is well-understood by her and to a degree appreciated by her as well.

Zora Neale Hurston was the daughter of a Baptist preacher and was no doubt quite familiar with religious themes and the power that religion had to shape the lives of the people around her. It is clear from her writing that while she may not have adopted the same level of piety as that of her father, she did utilize religious imagery powerfully and effectively. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she devotes an entire chapter to "Religion." She explains that despite the prevalence of religious sentiment in her home, she questioned, from very early on, certain theological inconsistencies that she saw in the faith of her family. Though she claims that the questions "went to sleep" inside her as she grew, religion is a living, breathing character in her work that interacts with her other characters and hums rhapsodically in her narrative tune. Take for example in "Sweat," the initial scene a wedge is already driven between Sykes and Delia, when Sykes tricks Delia into thinking that a rattlesnake, which Delia is deathly afraid of, is beside her. As the story develops and their relationship deteriorates a false rattlesnake is replaced by an actual snake that Sykes managed to catch since it was lethargically full of frogs. As their marriage crumbles and as Bertha, Sykes's fat mistress, makes calls at their home-it is the snake that comes alive having properly digested its food. This is the biblical story of Adam and Eve writ small, though with one noteworthy twist, Adam brings Eve the troubles of the serpent. The image of the serpent and its theological implications are all the more talismanic as its progressive manifestation, from simulacra to total vivification, perversely pantomimes the sundering of her marriage.

What Hurston may have lacked in religious convicted was made up for by an abiding and compulsive desire to preach. The subjects of her homilies were often about the significance of language, not only something she had studied so hard to understand in her ethnographic studies in college, but something that she crafted so patiently and thoroughly in her Halle Berry in Their Eyes Were Watching Godfiction. In Moses, Man of the Mountain, she portrays Moses as a man who brings liberation through language, language as liberation (Cuiba 120). In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie's grandmother explains that how she wanted to "preach about colored women sittin' on high, but they wasn't no pulpit for me." Without a pulpit that great sermon  becomes the narrative of Janie's life, i.e. Hurston's novel, as her grandmother resolves, "Ah'd save de text for you" (Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God 16). Hurston's texts are in many respects are the sum of her sermons which were preached from the pulpit through the characters in her stories.

Zora Neale Hurston was a controversial and divisive figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Her work challenged many of the established desires of that group of intellectuals, and she challenged them with arrogance, stereotypically uncommon among black women of the pre-WWII era. Hurston dealt with a number of themes deftly in her fiction and non-fiction. It is a small stretch of the imagination to suggest that there were at least "three Hurstons" operating in her work. There is Professor Hurston, the anthropologist and ethnographer lecturing us on the importance of connecting with the authentic nature of a group's language and not sacrificing it in the name of political progress. There is "little Zora," the young girl from Eatonville, who did not know what it was like to be colored until she was placed in a world that would not let her forget; however, she is not overly perturbed by it and by making the best of her "colored me" in any way she could and she invites others to do the same. Finally, there is Reverend Hurston who recapitulates the rhapsodic, spiritual tone of her father during his sermons in order to advocate for the liberation of the spirit through a triumphant reconnection with language and its riches. According to biographers she spent the last years of her life working in a number of different positions in various areas of employment, though it is to wonder given her diverse literary occupations whether this situation suited her all the same.

[1] Some research suggests that despite her own claims that she was not born in Eatonville, FL but in Alabama and moved to Eatonville as a young girl.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Allāhu Akbar, Ahmad Ragab, Allāhu Akbar.

I am so sorry, Ahmad Ragab...I have disgraced myself utterly by my boneheaded childish ranting over then past years.

I felt wronged, years ago, so what? I should have been man enough to acknowledge the many kind words and generous acts that you, and Chris B, and so many others bestowed upon me.

I should have forgiven whatever tiny slights I encountered, and kept my big mouth shut about them.

Instead, I took the low road and tried to do dirt upon my benefactors over some petty grudges. I viciously attacked the one guy, you, who listened patiently to my unhinged ravings.

shame on me.

My churlish cheap-shots at you were acts of desperation which you were completely right to counter as you did.

You are an excellent writer, Mr Ragab, and more importantly, an excellent person.

Thank you for respondng to such eloquent philosophical fashion.

I cannot undo the harm that I have done you, and yours, including Rob Fernandez, but I can at least swear to keep my f___ing mouth shut.

God Bless You, and Good Luck in Your Future Endeavors (I'll buy 10 copies of your first book, so hurry up)

Sheepishly, Chip Thomas