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“Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person. That is natural. There is no single face in nature, because every eye that looks upon it, sees it from its own angle. So every man’s spice-box seasons his own food.”
Zora Neale Hurston
Frequently trammeled by both her contemporaries and today’s black reading audience as a “sell out,” even reviled as “the perfect darkie” (Hughes 13) by one-time friend and co-author Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston stands out among the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance for her apparent lack of concern with both racial and sexual issues. In the cauldron of political and social foment that was Harlem of the ‘20s and ‘30s, it seems remarkable that a black female author should avoid these issues, expressing little anger and no angst at being twice a victim, a member of these doubly downtrodden minorities.
Indeed, the majority of Hurston’s characters, though represented as black, could just as easily be of any race. Their lives, loves, humors, troubles and travails appear in Hurston’s writing as universal constants, soothing or afflicting without regard to either skin color or gender. It is therefore reasonable to postulate, rather than reaching the somewhat absurd conclusion that a remarkable woman in a remarkable place at a remarkable time could somehow remain remarkably apolitical, that the very ordinariness of her characters was Hurston’s socio-political statement. Perhaps, by making them first human and black humans only through an accident of birth, she celebrated the innate human ability and right to define oneself in one’s own terms, freed of racial and gender stereotypes and limitations and free to form strengthening alliances across those artificial boundaries.
It is necessary, of course, to explore the reasons why Hurston would take this bold and, at first blush, unusual stand, just as it is equally necessary to provide some support from her work for this hypothesis. Since, in order to be valid, this particular conjecture must apply across the body of her work, we will look at supporting excerpts from several of Hurston’s short stories, as well as her most acclaimed work, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
First, however, it is necessary to dispense with an oft-repeated charge against the author: that she was unduly influenced to avoid racial issues by her acceptance of support from white patrons. It is a relatively easy charge to dismiss. One need only view a timeline of Hurston’s work in relation to the few times in her life when she accepted white patronage. In 1925 she won a writing contest through Opportunity Magazine with the short story Spunk. Among the judges of the contest was Fannie Hurst, a widely-known novelist. Hurst employed Hurston as a secretary, in spite of the fact that Hurston could not type. This thinly-disguised patronage lasted for approximately one year. Hurston then received a college scholarship from Annie Nathan Meyer to attend Barnard College, where she studied anthropology. From 1927 until 1932 Hurston accepted the patronage of Charlotte Mason, following an introduction by Alain L. Locke; philosopher, educator, and among the first black American Rhodes Scholars.
It was not until two years after the end of this arrangement, however, that Hurston published her first truly important and widely noticed work, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, which Poet Laureate Carl Sandburg called “a bold and beautiful book…” Mules and Men, a highly regarded folklore collection, was published the following year (1935), and it was not until 1937, a full five years removed from white patronage, that Their Eyes Were Watching God was published.
Even the small body of work that first brought Hurston to the attention of Hughes, Locke, and their associates in the Harlem Renaissance was published before her introduction to Mason, notably the short stories Spunk, Muttsy, and Sweat, and only the latter two were written while under any form of patronage.. Indeed, Hurston published little of consequence during her associations with Hurst, Meyer, and Mason, which in itself may be an indictment of such an arrangement. Note that the first story published following this period of patronage was The Gilded Six-Bits (1933), which could easily be viewed as a parable for seeking after a prize that both endangers that which is valuable to the seeker, and is inherently valueless in itself. White patronage? To believe that this timeline is coincidental stretches credulity to the breaking point.
This begs the question, “What prompted the widespread criticism of Hurston’s work among her contemporaries?” The answer seems to lie in the personality of the author herself. There is significant evidence that Hurston was personally contentious, perhaps even easily dislikable. She smoked in public at a time when such behavior was unseemly. Neither of her two marriages survived the first year (except on paper). She had a very public falling out with Langston Hughes over rights to the play Mule Bone. She was fired from several jobs, including one notable falling out with the founder of Bethune-Cookman College, Mary McLeod Bethune. Taken as a whole, this history seems to indicate that Hurston was simply incapable of peaceful coexistence with other people, be they black or white, male or female. Her final years as a virtual hermit lend credence to this analysis.
By insisting that Hurston conform to their way of thinking, her critics are guilty of exactly the crime they attribute to Hurston’s patrons — attempting to influence her style of writing and choice of subject matter to fit their own agenda. Worse, they would seem to be saying that black writers must by act of God be defined by their skin color, that any thoughts or creative ideas outside of racial issues are at best trivial and at worst tantamount to being a race traitor.
In contrast, however, Hurston’s own life and words would certainly support the hypothesis that neither she nor her characters were defined by race or gender. In 1925, shortly after moving to New York City, she penned an article for the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, in which she stated, “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow gave them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it.” In a 1936 interview with fellow writer Nick Ford, Hurston approached the question of her apparent unconcern over racial issues more directly when she said, “I have ceased to think in terms of race; I think only in terms of individuals. I am interested in you now not as a Negro man but as a man. In am not interested in the race problem, but I am interested in the problems of individuals, white ones and black ones.” (Ford 10). Surely this bold statement advances the thesis of this paper to the level of virtual certainty.
But what forces shaped this attitude of “individuals over race” so contrary to her contemporaries in the Harlem Renaissance? Perhaps the answer lies in an association that represents little more than a footnote in most biographical sketches of the author. When Hurston entered Barnard College in 1926, intent on completing a literary degree begun several years earlier at Howard University, her attentions were quickly diverted upon meeting Franz Boas. Boas was widely hailed as the preeminent anthropologist of the era and, recognizing Hurston’s remarkable ability to communicate, he encouraged her to pursue studies in that field. This encouragement had a profound impact on Hurston’s body of work, which was soon directed primarily toward the collection and preservation of black American oral history and folklore. In 1938, she also published a work on voodoo practices in the Caribbean titled Tell My Horse.
Although her exposure to Boas easily explains the focus of Hurston’s subsequent work, it remains to look more closely at Boas own work to see its significant influence on her racial ideology. Boas introduced two theories into the study of anthropology that were to leave lasting impressions on his student, as well as the field of anthropology in general. His theory of cultural relativism pointed out that the differences in peoples were the results of historical, social and geographic conditions and that all populations had complete and equally developed cultures. Historical particularism deals with each culture as having a unique history and the inadvisability of assuming universal laws govern how cultures operate. (Williams)
Imagine how liberating these theories must have been to a young, black, female writer. With the most respected anthropologist of the time reinforcing to her that black culture was equal to and as important as white or any other culture, Hurston was emotionally freed to concentrate on her two loves — anthropology and writing. But not writing with a political agenda. Not writing about racial conflicts or gender roles, but writing about life and humanity with all its universal constants of frailty, dishonesty, heroism, compassion, need, desire — all the things that make us truly human — equally distributed among black and white, men and women, thus reinforcing her belief that people are truly individual and defined by their actions, not their birth. Hurston defined herself not as black female author, but as an observer and chronicler of the human condition.
The short story Drenched in Light offers some insight into Hurston’s view of race relations. It’s important to keep in mind that this story was written well before the author received any support from white patrons. Isis and Helen are drawn into a clearly symbiotic relationship. Helen rescues the child from her grandmother’s wrath and receives something more spiritual in return, something she defines by saying, “I want a little of her sunshine to soak into my soul. I need it” (Hurston 25). Using the elderly white lady and young black child as archetypes of their respective races, one old and established in its place, the other new, but young and robust, Hurston all but shouts, “Can’t you see that we need each other?”
Several years later she expanded on this theme in The Conscience of the Court. When Laura Lee implies to the judge that a defense lawyer would be of little use to her in a white court accused of crimes against a white man,
The implications penetrated instantly and the judge flushed. This unlettered woman had called up something that he had not thought about for quite some time. The campus of the University of Virginia and himself as a very young man there, filled with a reverence for his profession amounting to an almost holy dedication. His fascination and awe as a professor traced the more than two thousand years of growth of the concepts of human rights and justice. That brought him to his greatest hero, John Marshall, and his inner resolve to follow in the great man’s steps, and even add to interpretations of human rights if his abilities allowed. No, he had not thought about all this for quite some time. The judge flushed slowly and deeply. (Hurston 164)
Hurston is clearly pointing out that even the better educated, socially advantaged judge can still learn, even from the illiterate black defendant, and so expands on the theme of symbiotic relationships. In an interesting footnote, this story was written shortly after Hurston’s arrest and prosecution on charges of molesting a 10-year-old boy, charges which were dismissed by a white judge.
Comparatively, Hurston assigns the role of female archetype to Delia in Sweat. When Delia responds to Sykes repeated injuries and insults with, “A triumphant indifference to all that he was or did” (Hurston 77), she refuses to resign herself to the role Sykes has defined for her. She is instead defined on her own terms, by hard work, a clean house and self-dependence. Hurston expands on her indifference to gender roles in several stories, including Sweat, by using the universal theme of infidelity. She assigns the role of cheater and cheated to both husband and wife in various stories, and the reactions of the cuckolded vary from forgiveness to murder.
It is in this universal application of strength and weakness that Hurston outlines her admittedly understated manifesto of equality. By refusing to lionize or demonize either race or gender, Hurston manages in her writing to allow each individual to define him- or herself by their actions, by their responses to crises, to scorn, to love, to jealousy, to praise; just as she managed to define herself in spite of the criticism of her fellows in the Harlem Renaissance. When she needed assistance to bring an important message to the world, she accepted it from whatever source it was available, but her message remained intact.
After Tea Cake and Janie survive the hurricane in Their Eyes Were Watching God, she tells him, “Once upon uh time, Ah never ‘spected nothin’ Tea Cake but bein’ dead from the standin’ still and tryin’ tuh laugh. But you come ‘long and made somethin’ outa me. So Ah’m thankful fuh anything we come through together” (Hurston 160). Tea Cake responds by implying that his strength was drawn from Janie’s opinion of him, “You don’t have tuh say, if it wuzn’t fuh me, baby, cause Ah’m heah, and then Ah want yuh tuh know it’s uh man heah” (Hurston 161). This message of interdependence is the most notable constant in Hurston’s work and fittingly defines her life.
Perhaps her detractors would be better served to heed her message.
Ford, Nick Aaron. Zora Neale Hurston. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 7-10.
Hughes, Langston. Zora Neale Hurston. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 13-14.
Hurston, Zora Neale. The Complete Stories. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.
Williams, Vernon J. Rethinking Race: Franz Boas and His Contemporaries.
University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
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