Hurston and Cultural Transmission

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.