Zora Neale Hurston and Her Contributions
Zora Neale Hurston and Her Contributions
As stated earlier, among the many prominent African American writers that proliferated during the Harlem Renaissance is Zora Neale Hurtson. Her autobiography tells us that it was her mother that urges her to “jump at de sun, we might not land on the sun but at least we could get off the ground”. On one hand, her father would brainwash her that it won’t do any good for a Negro to have a high spirit for the whites can’t just stand it. Her father even anticipated that Zora’s going to get hanged before she grows old.
Her father maybe depicted as passive participant in the Black’s struggle for social liberation. However, it is claimed that he was just inculcating the idea of Southern Survival in his children (Hemenway 14). As a child, she lived a comfortable life at least when her mother was still alive. Her childhood was a relatively peaceful, calm, and wealthy life in a non-racist black community of Eatonville. It was the first all-black American community that was self-governed. It is a community where traditional black American culture survived and flourished.
It was said that Eatonville did not prepare Hurtson of the racist America and it was only when she transferred to Jacksonville that she realized there was a thing called racism (Witcover 27). Upon the death of her mother she was sent to Florida to go to school with a brother and a sister, Jacksonville is the very place that she learned that she was “colored. ” When she was no longer supported by her father, she resorted in accepting different jobs such as a maid for the whites and a receptionist among others.
Moreover, she worked as a waitress and attended school at Morgan Academy. Later on, she attended Howard Prep to prepare herself for the best university for the blacks in the United States. She continued to read voraciously during these times of her life. Finally, she published her first story in the literary magazine of the school entitled “John Redding Goes to Sea”. She was discovered by Charles Spurgeon Johnson to write in the Opportunity Magazine. She agreed and submitted her short stories namely “Drenched in Light”, “Spunk”, and a play entitled “Color Struck”.
Johnson saw the potential and power in her works that he invited her to go to come to New York and “make a name for herself (Campbell 2-3). ” Opportunity was a major voice in the Harlem Renaissance and her contributions were highly sought by the publishers (Witcover 16). Upon arriving in New York, the Harlem Renaissance is its full swing. in Harlem, there were a number of promising writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and politicians that are engaged in activities that aimed for the liberation of African Americans against the white supremacy. These activities have been considered as “unrivaled” in the history of the United States.
Among these writers are Hurston, Hughes, Cullen, Mckay. While they are not the first Black American writers that made its way to American literature, they were the first ones “to be conscious of themselves as black writers who believed that the bridge between the white and the black races depended upon the arts”. Because of their great pride in their black heritage, they established traditions that were followed by other prominent subsequent African American writers in the United States such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin (Campbell 3).
Her writings are obviously chronicles of the black life, most specifically the lives of the working and the lower-class people in the rural South in the United States. Her works stand along the vast and rich documentary sources of the black experiences from labor to culture. However, what’s unique with Hurtson’s literary contributions is that unlike her detractor’s way of portraying the blacks which view them vis-a-vis the whites, Hurtson’s style involves the portrayal of the blacks “in their own terms.
” While oppression against the black is palpable during that era and is one of the favorite themes written by most African American writers, Hurtson chose to do away from oppression. She chose to represent and portray what and the blacks are doing and not what is done to them by their oppressors and tormentors. Her style zoomed in to the very nature of black life and examined them as black people that are capable of asserting their identities.
Furthermore, her style allowed her to dissect every bit and parcel of the inner world of the African American life which aimed for one and only important thing: self-determination among the blacks (Plant 43). Hurtson depicted the beauty of the black culture by incorporating the experiences of the black people that were considered the underbelly of the black life. She manipulated the white patronage of Harlem Renaissance to her advantage. She is being criticized by her male contemporaries as being primitive in her portrayal of the American life for she has adhered to the stereotypes of black people that the Whites propagated.
However, Hurtson also highlighted her criticism towards these perceived conception of the Whites towards the Blacks for she believed that they are incapable of becoming a custodian of the black culture. Moreover, apart from being a place of racial discrimination, Hurtson regarded the South as a place of “cultural creativity, family, and religion, where everyday life was lived with integrity in the midst of struggle against racial oppression (Patterson 10). ” She believes in the experiences of the Southern Blacks as a rich subject in the arts and literature.
Each Negro has the right to self-identity despite racist ideologies. This can be done by exploring the complex culture of Southern black towns, and discuss the every day life of black workers, black wives, and black children. Her emphasis on the experiences of the Southern blacks makes her portrayal of the African-American life even more real (Patterson 12-13). Eatonville is the most important geographic landmark in most of her short stories and novels. It was the town where she grew up and her father serving as a mayor.
As a child, she grew up hearing stories in the porch of Joe Clarke’s, both the porch and the stories are retold by Hurtson in her fiction (Campbell 15). When it comes to the characters of her short stories and novels, they “are not only heroic, often fighting great odds, but they also demonstrate growth. […] Hurtson’s protagonists are always in a state of becoming. They became capable of looking inside themselves in order to discover thei place in the world around them. Often they struggle against what they should become (Campbell 14). ”
For instance, “Sweat” is a story of a typical Negro life in Eatonville as many of her stories setting. It chronicles the experiences of Delia and her marriage to her husband Sykes. Their married life has always been in a downhill. At the onset, Delia has always been tortured and abused by Sykes. Secondly, Sykes has been seeing other women and has been maintaining a concubine. While it was Delia who sweated and earned for their survival, Sykes was still very ungrateful. He even plotted to kill her and get rid of her so he can live in her house with her concubine.
In the end, he failed and Delia was able to take avenged against his abuses and tortures. On a deeper level, it romanticizes the theme of male domination over women and the feminine power that transcends all kinds of struggles. It highlights the strength of a woman through Delia’s ability to support herself and her husband despite his infidelity and brutality against her. This is just a mundane story of the Negros in a black community. It doesn’t in any way talk about oppression done by the whites. It just talks about two characters that are authentic in themselves that can stand as an embodiment of a typical Negro life.
This is Hurtson’s way of asserting the African-American identity beyond any comparison and approximation of the superiority of the Whites. This is Hurtson’s way inculcating self-determination among the African-Americans who for a long time thought of themselves as subordinate to the Whites and the Europeans. By celebrating their experiences as unique, the blacks were able to believe in the beauty of their heritage and to find joy in their identities. Apart from being a black writer that is obviously aware of the African American’s sensibilities regarding black oppression and subordination, she is also an anthropologist.
As Hemenway noted, Anthropology is an advantage for Zora for her to understand her deeper cultural roots. Her experiences of African American life plus her great understanding of the nature of their traditions and practices made her portrayal of the black experiences more poignant and authentic. In a particular instance, she understood the “richness and mutilayered meanings of the oral tradition” and “the creativity and imagination of black language and story telling (Campbell 4). ” As a student of Franz Boa, Hurtson learned to appreciate and see the cultural wealth and legacy of her community more fully.
By her skill, knowledge, and understanding of the nuances of African American, she strived to prove that the native Black Americans experiences and arts has both genius and authenticity that is traceable to the Africans and not the Westerns. Her fieldworks armed her with all the needed knowledge to prove to the Whites and the elitist Black Americans that their deeply-rooted culture is beyond to what the Whites has imposed on the Blacks (Plant 41). Her writings are best known as folklorism. In this style of writing, one exhibits the peculiarities of their cultures and traditions (Grinker 390).
In her stories, Hurtson incorporates myths, legends, customs, practices and allegories that are uniquely and authentically African-Americans regardless of the Western’s criticism of their practices as backward. It is Hurston’s way of asserting Black’s way of life in its purest form. Apart from being a brilliant writer and chronicler of the Black’s experiences, Hurtson’s writings are also concern with the struggle of women in their search for emancipation against the issues of gender and race.
She acknowledged the violence that is present among the lives of African American women but at the same time she criticizes the male domination that caused this violence. This was a “bold position” during those times where only a few writers like Hurtson can do among many other African – American writers (Patterson 8). She obstructed the perceived notion of women as oppressed and helpless as commonly portrayed in American Literature. She is known for her depiction of nonstereotypical black women such as rendering them as strong and courageous.
As seen in the abovementioned example, Delia was the victor from the beginning up to the end. While she is being tortured and beaten up by her husband, she survived. While she is being emotionally battered by her husband, she endured. While she is being threatened to death by her husband, she avenged herself. Another example would be Janie in Their Eyes Are Watching God is one of the earliest American women “to develop cultural and personal identity (Champion 166). ” However, this feminist stance of Hurtson was not immediately recognized during the period.
Her intellectual ideologies have been given little attention at the time for the reason that there was still a palpable exclusion of Black women’s thoughts in the intellectual discourse of that era (Plant 2). She has been criticized by Richard Wright as having no interest in serious fiction. He said that Hurtson just continued to propagate the tradition that was forced upon the Negroes in her stories and novels which makes the Whites laugh. Wright wrote about blacks that resist the supremacy of the Whites but then Hurtson is the opposite.
She wrote about the nakedness of the Blacks in such a beautiful manner and in such a colourful manner. The Black people’s nakedness, according to her, is not something that should be suppressed and forgotten. She believes that it should be accepted as part of the frontier spirit that defines each African American in a black community (Patterson 33-34). Her “ultimate moral stance is not only to absolve whites, past and present, of any wrong doing, but also to claim some value in the experience of enslavement”.
She emphasized the fact that despite “the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery”, the Blacks still maintain a materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously strong and hopeful condition. Her writings do not dwell in the cruelties of the past and the cruelties of slavery and enslavement among the Blacks, she focused in the present, and celebrated the character that the Blacks developed and adopt in the course of the oppression. She wrote on how their lives have become after the enslavement and how they have maintained their culture in tact and unique among any other nation.
She created some distance in the past that made a room in the understanding of the present. Too much contemplation in the past is a hindrance to the Black’s Present endeavours. The idea is to “settle for from now on (Plant 41). ” Hurtson was able to “resist and subvert cultural hegemony because of a powerful worldview”. This is traceable to her individualistic worldview Washington’s theory of self-help, industry, and personal responsibility; her anthropological study under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict among many others.
All these contribute to an unwavering philosophy of individualism that help her survive the palpable racism bombarded towards the Blacks. These are also the contributing factors that developed her strength and will to resist negative controlling images and overcome Anglo-American hegemony. Her individualistic stance enabled her to engender an autonomous self that is necessary in the negotiation of hostilities in the community that she lived in along with all other African-Americans in the United States (Plant 4) Her philosophy of individualism is deeply rooted from the African-American folk ethos as a “fundamental site of resistance.
” She understood the importance of the African American culture’s role in the emancipation of the African American people as an individual and as a community. She emphasized the idea of cultural survival as an important ingredient liberation and cultural appreciation as an important process in decolonization among the African Americans. She believed that the answer towards liberation lies in the African American culture and traditions themselves. To reclaim the Black life is to resist the Anglo-American domination and this can only be done by romanticizing the importance self-definition and self-emancipation among the Blacks (Plant 4).
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 1 January 2017
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