Claude McKay and Zora Neale Hurston both seek to redefine the narrative of the African American identity. Several generations of slavery had passed, and now slaves were no longer African but African-American. This identity was utterly distinct from West Africa. These people had generations in America and were tied to the imperialist land, separated from their culture. In an attempt to demean them, white people created stereotypes to define the African American identity. They called them lazy, stupid, slow, violent, and physically superior. A monolith was made of Black Americans. In an effort to reshape this narrative, these authors explore their perspectives and histories to reveal the vastly different lives African-Americans had.
In “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Hurston pokes fun at the assumptions white people make about Black behaviors and their explanation. In one section, she speaks about the absence of privacy in the community. In a sarcastic tone, she states that “discord is more natural than accord” (28). The belief that chaos came naturally to Black people was nonsensical. If such were the case, elaborate systems and kingdoms could not be spearheaded by them. It perpetuates this idea that we would be unable to lead successful societies. She furthers this connection by drawing it back to Africa and aligning it with some innate animal aspect. Either way, it could be perceived as a performance by the people and their audience. McKay takes this same goal and applies it to Banjo, who is always seeking something outward. Despite his status, people in more significant positions of power cannot help but pay attention to him. This is the revelation of the position of Black Americans. Each thing is perceived as a performance waiting to be understood and analyzed by some audience, even when there is no goal to the actions. Their way of must be categorized and labeled by the dominant culture.
I found Hurston’s ‘Characteristics of Negro Expression’ to be an extremely interesting piece on African American culture. It was fascinating to me how she incorporated humor with anthropological insights to create an essay that refuted white supremacist’s claims and served as a cultural standpoint for Black America in the 1930s. I wanted to focus on the section ‘The Jook,’ in which she describes the ‘Negro pleasure house’ as a center of creation for music, dance, and theater. She describes the Jook as “musically speaking… the most important place in America” because it was there that the blues, and eventually jazz, were founded. In thinking of the idea of the Black Atlantic as the transmission of Black cultures around the Atlantic because of slavery as Paul Gilroy described it, I think that the Jook as a concept and its legacies are extremely relevant to our focus in this class. I also found it interesting how in this section Hurston turned the idea of mimicry on its head and discussed white mimicry of African American cultural tradition like Jook theater and the Blues. She also writes how “there has been no genuine presentation of Negro songs to white audiences,” describing how aspects of spirituals are always changed to cater towards the white audience, which has created a “misconception” about African American spiritual songs. Despite this cultural transmission, there still exists a gap between cultures, or maybe a type of mistranslation. I was very interested in her description of white appropriation of Black culture, because this is an extremely prevalent phenomenon in our country today. I am curious what she would say if she could witness cultural transmission in the 2020s, particularly as it relates to music. Are white rappers appropriating Black music? Is it not as deep as appropriation, but maybe an embarrassing mistranslation as she described white women singing the Blues? It would be very interesting to see these modern issues from Hurston’s perspective.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Characteristics of Negro Expression,” she discusses culture heroes, including figures in Christianity, such as God, the Devil, and Peter the Apostle. Although she does mention the name “John,” it is in reference to John Henry, who (as far as I know) is not related to John the Apostle, which surprised me because of how often the name John is used in the “lies” that Hurston documents in Mules and Men. One example of this is in a story starting on page 80 of Mules and Men, in which a slave named John tells Ole Massa that he can tell fortunes and Ole Massa, claiming that John has never lied to him, makes a bet against somebody else about it. This is not the first story Hurston includes in which a slave master owns a slave named John who he trusts immensely, and this theme reminded me of John the Beloved Apostle, whom Jesus often favored and trusted.
I also noticed a lot of trickery in the stories that the characters in Mules and Men tell each other, especially with slaves tricking Ole Massa. This makes me wonder about the Transatlantic nature of the stories that they tell–it makes me question if the trickery in the stories stems from the uncertainty and instability that comes with life in slavery, as well as tenuous relationships with other groups like the Irish, who ultimately sided against Black Americans after a period of struggling alongside each other. The fact that “John” is a continual figure is further evidence of the way that Black Americans weaved Christianity into their culture, and the Beloved Apostle himself might represent a desire to be seen as a loyal slave to escape mistreatment. However, John’s mischief in the story, specifically the way that he lied about being able to tell fortunes and used a match to represent calling down lighting, presents an underlying message that it is tricking the white man, in this case Ole Massa, that is the ultimate goal. In this way, slaves and freed Black Americans ironically use Christianity against their oppressors who imposed the religion upon them in the first place.
In my studies of “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Zora Neale Hurston’s discussion of dialect and her idea that the preservation of Black speech is essential to the expression of Black identity. This preservation of language is quite obvious in Hurston’s work, particularly in the dialogue of Mules and Men. Since I am particularly interested in the formation of identity through the Black and Green Atlantic, the effect speech has on identity was particularly fascinating, and left me wondering how the transatlantic affected speech, if there were changes and if these changes affected the identity of transnationalists. When discussing the power of speech, Hurston wrote that “there are so many quirks that belong only to certain localities that nothing less than a volume would be accurate” (Characteristics 31). I had not previously considered language as an individualized expression of self, but this lens led me to reconsider the way the characters speak in Mules and Men. The double negatives, nonstandard spellings and incorrect conjugations all contribute to the character’s expression of self. I realized that the dialect I had been viewing as “incorrect” in terms of grammar was not necessarily incorrect, but it rather simply did not align with the white-centric language I have known and learned throughout my life. It was interesting to consider a world in which I read the novel and did not find the dialogue confusing or difficult to understand, and the consideration of this alternative universe led me to wonder if any culture or identity is able to be defined without being compared to others. A vastly oversimplified version of this is found in someone who identifies as tall: they likely view themselves as such because, when they stand next to other people, they are significantly taller than them. If they had no one else to compare themselves to, they would not view themselves as tall. In fact, they might not consider their height at all. It is interesting to ponder how cultural comparison was changed or increased through the transatlantic, and how the effects are still observed today.
The project of defining whiteness has proved difficult over the course of our class. Similarly, defining what it means to be black is elusive—mostly because race is a fiction. Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay poke fun at the idea of essentializing a group of people based on their race. In Banjo, McKay highlights the diversity of the Black population of Marseilles. In a room full of dancers, he identifies the Senegalese in blue overalls, the Madagascan soldiers, a Congo boxer, a Martiniquan, and Banjo, our protagonist (49). The inhabitants of Marseilles come from all over the globe—their common race does not diminish that fact.
However, while the diversity of blackness is foregrounded, McKay’s characters offer different opinions on white people. One barkeeper, who is described as a “fervid apostle of Americanism” defines whiteness for his audience: “They are all the same white and prejudiced against black skin” (73). The Senegalese at the bar disagree with him, but the barkeeper insists that “white people, no matter of what nation, did not want to see colored people prosper” (74). This barkeeper defines whiteness, essentially, as being prejudiced.
Despite this clear definition, McKay provides several competing perceptions of whiteness. Banjo, for one, seems to disagree with this barkeep on all fronts—his ideal life is one of music and pleasure, rather than one that seeks to “lift the race higher” (77). It follows that his definition of whiteness is not so essentializing, though McKay doesn’t offer Banjo’s direct perspective. Ray, on the other hand, “always prefer[s] to listen” (77). He chastises Banjo for his rudeness toward the barkeeper, but insists that “there’s nothing in the world so interesting to me as Banjo and his orchestra” (92). Ray, for all his tranquility, seems to align himself with Banjo and Banjo’s worldview. This begs the question if McKay also aligns himself with Banjo’s worldview and Banjo’s repudiation of the barkeeper’s narrow definition of whiteness. Race is not easily definable in Marseilles, and through Banjo’s interactions with the barkeeper and his descriptions of the diversity of blackness, McKay makes that clear.
The Development of African American Culture
Characteristics of Negro Expression by Zora Neale Hurston is a commentary on African American culture in which Hurston speaks with authority. She discusses the various ways in which African American culture differs from “white” culture in America and the reasons behind this. I particularly find interesting her discussion of the African American vernacular. It’s evident that America’s culture as a whole is an assortment of different cultures from throughout history since so many different groups of people emigrated or were brought against their will to America. Just as America’s current culture has so many different influences, African American culture seemed to be made up of many different cultures itself. An example of this is from the African American practice of Hoodoo, which Hurston studied in New Orleans. It’s a mix of Christianity and traditional African religions, combining together to form something entirely new. Another example of this is the rise of Jazz music in America, which originated in African American communities and was a blend of many different musical styles. What is interesting though is how African American culture developed in contrast to other ethnic groups in America. Africans were brought to America against their will and remained enslaved for centuries, so they could not pass as much of their culture on to future generations as other cultures could. This did not keep African Americans from developing their own culture though, as Huston points out. Many English words were modified over time to create an African American vernacular that is still used by African Americans today. What was able to be passed on though were stories, particularly folk tales. Hurston’s Mules and Men is a collection of these stories, and it’s interesting to see the common elements throughout. For one, there seems to be a recurring device where a weaker character overcomes a more powerful character using their wits. I wonder if this plot element has to do with the enslaved state of African Americans at the time, with the dominating white class being the seemingly unbeatable antagonist like in the stories.
The character of the “vagabond” or the “traveler” is not one unfamiliar to the works popularized in the Transatlantic period. As seen through characters like Gulliver from “Gulliver’s Travels” and Zora from “Mules and Men,” these characters who make the effort to leave the comfort of their previous environments for the sake of learning more about the world and cultures other than their own show the importance of learning through diverse experiences.
In the Introduction to “Mules and Men,” author Zora Neale Hurston discusses the story of her data and folklore collection of many different black cultures in the deep South during the 1930s. When discussing how she went about collecting this variety of folklore, Hurston stated that ” [t]he best source is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest,” (Hurston, 2) meaning that the best people to collect this kind of information from were those who were the most uninfluenced by mainstream American culture.
Many times in this class, we have discussed how significantly ideas surrounding race and racial identity dominated mainstream American culture and how based on that, certain people would or would not be able to participate in certain aspects of this culture. Additionally, this emphasis on ideas of race and racial identity also manifested in the cultivation of very harmful generalization and stereotypes of different races, specifically for black people.
The only way in which people began to realize how subjective and complicated the black identity could be was through the writings of authors like Hurston who traveled in order to collect diverse data. By traveling through the South and collecting the folklore of these black communities who were not so much dominated by the racial stereotypes of mainstream American culture, Hurston was able to begin expanding and adding dimension to the black identity as well as break down the generalizations and the stereotypes that dominated mainstream American culture.
One part about the Banjo passage that interested me was how Banjo talked about how promising Europe is supposed to be, but has let him down because he is a Black man. Banjo came to Europe so he can form a band, and he also came for opportunities that he cannot get in America. I find it ironic that he thinks the “Old World” is his “New World” when he initially arrives. The narrator comments that Marseilles’s port is “marvelous, dangerous, attractive, big” (McKay 12), a place that seems like it is full of opportunities for Banjo. However, it is hard for Banjo to get a job because he is Black. The narrator comments “A Negro in Europe could not pick up casual work as he could in America” (65) which brings Banjo’s once optimistic attitude back down to reality. This statement affirmed some of my preconceived notions that I had before reading Banjo. I have never heard about African-Americans traveling outside the country in 1929, and I feel like there’s a reason for that. Although the State Department’s Passport History page does not mention racial discrimination in obtaining passports, I still believe there were other barriers (such as cost) that hindered Black people from getting passports. To see Banjo travel abroad taught me about Black Americans’ abilities to travel during this time, yet his inability to find work while in Europe affirms the reasons why most of them may have been hesitant to travel.
I also find the “Old World vs. New World” concept interesting. Banjo leaves the New World because he believes it’s not new enough: it lacked diversity and opportunity for Black people. However, the narrator comments that the “overworked Old World lacked a background that young rough America offered to a romantic black youth to indulge his froward instincts” (65), demonstrating that the Old World is called old for a reason. It’s ironic that most of the Old World abolished slavery before the US, yet was still lagging in social aspects like these. One of my main takeaways from this section of Banjo is that Black Americans were still met with discrimination across the Atlantic. This was not just an “Americas thing”, but a reminder that such discrimination was transatlantic as well.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s Characteristics of Negro Expression, I found the discussion of originality and imitation to be quite interesting in the context of the larger Transatlantic identity. The semester thus far we have struggled to define what Blackness is. I believe this is because there is not only one way to be Black. Blackness is an amalgamation of different experiences, cultures, circumstances, etc. that cannot be easily captured in a tangible way. In the case of early African-Americans, they were forced to shed practically all remnants of the cultures they came from, which led them to develop a new culture from their surroundings, which is all they had to go off of. They did not copy, but instead drew inspiration from the people and new cultures they were around. Hurston captures this phenomenon eloquently when she states, “While he lives and moves in the midst of a white civilization, everything that he touches is re-interpreted for his own use”(28). When we look at the grand scheme of things, we can see that everything is borrowed in some way from an earlier source, no matter how big or small. In that sense, we can think of everything as being both original and unoriginal at the same time. Culture is fluid, so the best thing we can really do is appreciate everyone’s innovations. To say that the Negro is “lacking in originality”(28) is another ignorant and hypocritical White supremacist tactic used to devalue and dehumanize Black people who managed to not only survive but thrive in the midst of their treacherous circumstances.
In a related fashion, I also really liked how Hurston reclaimed the term mimicry as a positive. It is not something done mindlessly but takes effort and intelligence. It also reminds me of the History, Memory, and Performance reading and the ideas of surrogation, displaced transmission, and the ephemeral nature of performance. Every time something is performed it is new; no two performances are exactly the same. With this in mind, I can ascertain that all mimicry has a form of originality.
Men at the mill making comments about Tookie Allen’s tight dress was very intriguing to me (91). Although they implied that she is inappropriate for wearing it, their comments also illustrate the infatuation with a Black woman’s body. This is reflective of a larger theme of objectification of Black women, wherein they are seen as objects of sexual pleasure or adornment rather than as individuals. For centuries, Black women were deemed as exotic and exoticized, which often led to the dehumanization of the Black female body. It also highlights the hypocrisy that Black people encountered in the past; although Black people were regularly degraded and considered ugly creatures, the same men at the mill were making comments about her curves with admiration. Additionally, Cliff Ulmer stating, “If you can’t show me nothin’ better than data, don’t bring de mess up,” insinuates that he has looked at so many beautiful Black women that he is not impressed at this point. This quote highlights the idea that many Black women have been objectified to the point that they are no longer seen as individuals, but rather as objects to be admired. Relating back to my last point, Black women were clearly hypersexualized although they were treated as less than human. This raised an interesting question: Did White men not realize the hypocrisy in their treatment of Black people? Black people were sought after, whether it be because they found Black women’s physical appearance or Black men’s physical capabilities. Overall, both quotes demonstrate the objectification of Black women, with the first highlighting the infatuation with a Black woman’s body. This emphasizes the dehumanization that Black women have been subjected to. They were often looked at as objects to be admired and objectified, exposing the hypocrisy that Black people dealt with in American society at that time.