Saturday, April 11, 2009

1934: "Characteristics of Negro Expression" by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Born in Alabama in 1891, Hurston attended Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D. C., between 1918 and 1924. Without graduating, she moved to Harlem in 1925, where her writing soon positioned her as one of the central literary figures in the Harlem Renaissance. That same year, she became the only African-American undergraduate at Barnard College and graduated three years later with a bachelor's degree in anthropology. While doing anthropological work in Haiti on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1934, she completed her most famous novel: Their Eyes Were Watching God (it was published in 1937). (Click here to hear Oprah Winfrey plug the novel and the 2005 TV/film adaptation which she produced.)

"Characteristics of Negro Expression"

First published in Great Britain in Negro: An Anthology, edited by Nancy Cunard, this essay sings the praises of African American linguistic practices, which are illustrated in Their Eyes Were Watching God, also written in 1934. The characteristics identified by Hurston are: drama ("Everything is acted out"); "will to adorn" (including "the use of the double descriptive" as in "low-down "); "angularity" ("to avoid the simple straight line"); "asymmetry" (characterized by "abrupt and unexepcted changes"); "dancing" (characterized by "compelling insinuation"); "Negro folklore" (in which "God and the Devil ... are treated no more reverently than Rockefeller and Ford"); "culture heroes" ("the trickster-hero of West Africa has been transplated to America"); "originality" (in the "treatment of the borrowed material"); "imitation" (done "as the mockingbird does it, for the love of it, and not because he wishes to be like the one imitated"); "The Jook" (see below); "Dialect." (Leitch et al, 1146-1158)

"...the contention that the Negro imitates from a feeling of inferiority is incorrect....The group of Negroes who slavishly imitate is small. The average Negro glories in his ways. The highly educated Negro the same. The self-despisement lies in a middle class who scorns to do or be anything Negro. . . . He wears drab clothing, sits through a boresome church service, pretends to have no interest in community, holds beauty contests, and otherwise apes all the mediocrities of the white brother." (1152-1153)

"Lovemaking and fighting in all their branches are high arts, other things are arts among other groups where they brag about their proficiency just as brazenly as we do about these things that others consider matters for conversation behind closed doors. . . .One Negro, speaking of white men, said, 'White folks is alright when dey gits in de bank and on de law bench, but dey sho' kin lie about wimmen folks.'" (1154)

"Musically speaking, the Jook is the most important place in America. For in its smelly, shoddy confines has been born the secular music known as blues, and on blues has been founded jazz." (1154-1155)

"...Negro shows before being tampered with did not specialize in octoroon [that is, light-skinned, Ed.] chorus girls. The girl who could hoist a Jook song from her belly and lam it against the front door of the theatre was the lead, even if she were as black as the hinges of hell. The question was 'Can she jook?' She must also have a good belly wobble, and her hips must, to quote a popular work song, F.' So that the bleached chorus is the result of a white demand and not the Negro's." (1155)

"Speaking of the use of Negro material by white performers, it is astonishing that so many are trying it, and I have never seen one yet entirely realistic. They often have the elements of the song, dance, or expression, but they are misplaced or distorted by the accent falling on the wrong element. Everyone seems to think that the negro is easily imitated when nothing is further from the truth. Without exception I wonder why the blackface comedians are blackface; it is a puzzle . . . " (1157) [The images at right are of Al Jolson, one of the most successful entertainers of the 1920s; he often performed in blackface.]

"The real Negro theatre is in the Jooks and the caberets. Self-conscious individuals may turn away the eye and say, 'Let us search elsewhere for our dramatic art.' Let 'em search elsewhere for our dramatic art.' Let 'em search. They certainly won't find it." (1157)

Click here to hear Hurston sing "Uncle Bud."


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