Hurston and History

Emerging towards the latter half of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston works at a crossroads of African-American expression, trying to break free from previous stereotypes and caricatures of the black experience in America, such as the cake walk and other forms of minstrelsy which are still close enough in time to hang over the period.   While some authors, such as Alain Locke, wish to “scrap the fictions” and forget any negative depictions and performances of black culture seen commonly in minstrelsy, Hurston instead decides to refer back to these performances and comment upon them but still try to create authentic forms of African-American expression.  What Hurston accomplishes in her work, notably Color Struck, is the ability to use these pre-exisiting cultural markers, such as the climactic cake walk, and use them to bolster new issues at hand in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, such as color and the institution of marriage.

Although the cake walk functions as the main force of the plot in Color Struck, Hurston uses this dance to act as a backdrop to the newer, more personal problems rising within the Harlem Renaissance, showing an acknowledgement of the past as well as a sort of evolution beyond it by placing deeper issues as the main conflict of the work.  While Emma and John bicker and argue about how to approach the cake walk dance, with Emma holding the view that such practices should be left behind and John trying to enjoy it as an act of liberation and reappropriation, the heart of the play focuses upon the pair’s issues with colorism and the delay and eventual failure of marriage.  Emma’c concern that John will leave her for any light-skinned girl shows the concern during this period about how dark and light-skinned black people begin to view each other differently, with light-skinned black people tending to have more opportunities to achieve success and move up in the world because of their lighter complexion.  This tension and uncertainty about how to approach such issues also appear in the works of other prominent Harlem Renaissance writers, such as Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset.  This, along with Emma’s reluctance to complete the dance, leads John to dance with Effie instead, ending the earlier segment of the short play on a note of colorism leading to the dissolution of love, all while the issues of the cake walk still linger in the minds of both Emma and John.

Twenty years later, removed from the cake walk incident, Emma and John meet again, though each has gone to achieve unfulfilled romance in their own lives,  with John’s wife dying and Emma giving birth to a child with an absent father.  While the two seem to work things out and begin to come back together, Emma is once again infuriated by John’s apparent interest in her daughter because of her light skin.  This final encounter leads to the two fighting, resulting in Lou Lillian not getting the medical attention she requires and dying.  This brief epilogue to the cake walk scene shows Hurston’s own views on the debate of that and other preexisting cultural performances; after a while, these issues will go away, but the more personal issues which many Harlem Renaissance writers focus upon and experience in their own lives are more important and will repeat beyond the issues seen in the cakewalk.  While she first uses the dance as a central conflict in the pair’s youth, her later focus upon the issues of “jealous love” and colorism shows her desire to resole these issues first and foremost to substantially fuel the rise of African-American expression which the Harlem Renaissance aimed to achieve, not merely dwell on the past.  By incorporating images of the past in her works, Hurston shows her awareness of the past and how to appropriately use it, while still adding new themes and topics to actually move African American prose forward in the twilight years of the Harlem Renaissance.


One Reply to “Hurston and History”

  1. This is an interesting take! I agree that Hurston wants to recenter the topics that she finds more important to discuss (in this case, colorism rather than the cake walk). I find it to be an interesting way of going about it, though. Introducing a lover who is constantly jealous of those with a lighter skin, but who goes and has a child with someone of lighter skin afterwards puts an unusual spin on the situation. I wonder if, by having a child with a lighter-skinned man, Emma was perhaps trying to understand what she thought John’s point of view was. We don’t see much of Emma’s relationship with her daughter, but we can easily see that having a light-skinned daughter doesn’t help her understand “John’s point of view” – it only creates a more destructive tension between the two.

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