What does Zora Neal Hurston identify as the “Characteristics of Negro Expression?”
In 1933, Zora Neil Hurston wrote “Characteristics of Negro Expression” to frame the Negro or African-American as she saw him. She saw the results of the Great Migration as terrifying and spasmodic, unbearably inhumane and devastating to those left behind. For Hurston, rural black people were being forgotten; disappearing amidst the heady enthusiasm of the urban New Negro Movement. In Hurston’s essay she describes the different concepts of what it meant to be a black American in the South.
She sees the new Negro as encompassing theses elements: being dramatic, having the will to adorn, being angular, asymmetrical, dancing, folkloric, having originality, mimicry, non-reserve, having a peculiar dialect, and hanging out at the jook or pleasure house. These are just a few of the compositional elements used to described the forgotten Negro in the south. By reexamining Hurston’s essay, critiques will have a proper understanding of these social characteristics and will have a better understanding of the African-American in relation to his identity.
Hurston was part of the “Talented Tenth,” an elite group of well educated African-American professionals who argued that the mission of establishing black identity and thus gaining social acceptance and economic and political stability would be vitally strengthened through arts and letters. Hurston’s work and criticism have helped to shape the manner in which black American artists and academics view themselves. Also how they emphasize humanness inherent in black people through referencing the diversity of voices and talents in black America in the South, as well as their essential connection through “legacy” to the African continent.
Hurston begins her essay with the first characteristic of the southern Negro expression “Drama,” in which she describes almost every phase of African-American existence as being “highly dramatized”(Hurston 296), She further states that “No matter how joyful or how sad the case there is sufficient poise for drama” (Caponi 294). To this end, Hurston realizes that African-Americans and their daily experiences are in time and history, dramatic collective repetitions that are repeated and multiplied many times in many art forms, but why?. As African-Americans live, most naturally leave a mark on most things they come in contact with. For example, Picasso was dramatically influenced by African people and their art on his trip to Africa. His trip was the precursor to the formation of Cubism. Consequently this clearly demonstrates that the African and his presence, usually dramatic, is a phenomenon of their being in the universe, in which other wish to document.
Thus, it is up to the artist to find the terms and pictures that will simply clarify those experiences and knowledge for the critic who does not or could not understand what is or was happening to African-Americans, and to future critics who will need to be warned and directed in terms from inside the level we call Africanisms.
Another phenomenon and striking characteristic expression of African-Americans in the south is “Angularity.” Hurston states, “Everything he touches becomes angular.” For example, his furniture is set at an angle, pictures are hung at angles, and even his posture in dance is constantly at different angles. In almost every expression of life, most African-Americans refuse to be traditional. Brenda Gottchild posits that this is part of African aesthetics when African Americans “refuse to be traditional.” (Gottchild 13) In the section on “Will to Adorn,” Hurston sees the African-American as reinventing the English language to suit himself and having his revision accepted by the “southern ruling class white man.”
Hurston views the greatest of this revision as the use of metaphors and similes (that’s a rope), the double descriptive (high-tall), verbal nouns (funeralize) and nouns from verbs (she won’t take listen). Hurston argues that whatever African-Americans do in violation to the normalcy of life he beautifies. Writer and dance enthusiast commented in Brenda Gottchild’s book “African-Americans blend the impossible and create beauty” (Gottchild 14). “This beautification, this revisioning is then accepted by white Americans and assimilated into their vernacular” ( Hurston 301).
The impact of “Asymmetry,” “Dancing” and “Folklore” are discussed as the next three characteristics of Negro expression. In “Asymmetry” Hurston looks into African art and comments that the sculpture and carvings of the African-American artist are full of beauty and at the same time lack symmetry. Additionally, she sees this characteristic encompassing literature, poetry and dancing.
Hurston states “It is the lack of symmetry which makes Negro dancing so difficult for white dancers to learn” (297). Gottchild concurs with Hurston stating “Movement may emanate from any part of the body, and two or more centers may operate simultaneously.” For example, African-American dance may seem difficult at times but most poses give the impression that the dancer will do much more. In most art forms the African-American is not trying to do all that is conceivable, he is merely giving a realistic suggestion of what is possible.
Nothing shows what is possible more than African-Americans willingness to adapt folklore to suit his own use. While most people view folklore as a thing of the past, Hurston examines folklore as something “still in the making” and talks about the cultural roles of God, the Devil, John Henry and Jack, the greatest culture hero of the south. In the framework of her story Jack has the ability to outsmart the Devil when it seems that “God is absolutely no match for him” (Hurston 299). Jack’s ability to outwit the Devil places him in the company of other prominent culture icons. To this end, Hurston is able to show that African folklore is not works of imitation but innovation. By recognizing the characteristics of Negro expression, Hurston identifies in her essay an understanding that if black artist are to have anything in their own image and according to their own views, African-Americans will have to have a say in which plays, dances, and folklore are in those images.
The final characteristics that Hurston focuses on are: “Originality,” “Imitation,” “Absence of the Concept of Privacy” and “The Jook.” According to Hurston the African-American is the most copied individual on the face of the planet yet it is still said that he lacks originality. His art, music, plays and style are subjects of examination and commodification. Hurston argues, “While he lives and moves in the midst of white civilization, everything he touches is reinterpreted for his own use” (Hurston 310). In terms of “Imitation” the African-American is not an imitator but a duplicator. If he chooses to imitate, it is because he wishes to and not because he wished to be like the one imitated. Historically, there is no “Concept of Privacy” in the African village. So it is believed that African-Americans kept nothing secret. Thus he keeps nothing in reserve and every aspect of his life is shared with his communal and biological family.
Hurston’s essay is important because while framing the architecture of the forgotten African-Americans in the South, she retells the narrative of the African men and women which sought to be original in every form of art. She provides her readers with a true representation of the social characteristics of the African-American culture in the South. Hurston directly puts them in the open for all to critique. Hurston’s essay gives the reader a clear picture of African-Americans living in the South during the Harlem Renaissance, as well as, their forgotten identity and connects their traits neatly to many African art genres we see today.
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