The Cakewalk in Stormy Weather (1943)
After my presentation on Monday, I was having trouble placing Zora Neale Hurston within the New Negro ideology. I wondered if I misidentified the New Negro idea, as presented by Alain Locke. I questioned why she would write these stories that seemed so stereotypical of an African-American experience in the South. With the freedom offered by the Harlem Renaissance and the opportunity to express oneself for the first time, I wondered why Hurston would returned to these images. I seriously considered whether Hurston was participating in minstrelsy through this portrayal.
However, what Professor Kinyon said in class on Wednesday about this point has really stuck with me. Hurston’s approach in writing Mules and Men doesn’t have anything to do with the racist and stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans by whites. Hurston is showing African-Americans, plain and simple, and what white people choose to think about the individuals she has depicted is irrelevant.
While I agree with this analysis of Hurston’s approach, I wonder if we are returning to the conversation we had earlier in the semester on art being apolitical. The presentation of stereotypical characters in addition to the cakewalk in Hurston’s work attempts to present these aspects of African-American life outside of their political meanings during Hurston’s time. However, while Hurston attempts to preserve these cultural practices, I assert that by the time she writes these works, these practices have already been lost. They can now longer exist as purely representations of African-American culture; viewing them in that light would allow art to be apolitical and ignorant of the political moment. While I have come to terms with why Hurston wants to preserve these cultural remnants, I moved to the question of whether that is possible and, at the moment, I am leaning toward the idea that, as soon as minstrelsy altered the political weight of these cultural practices, these practices were lost and could not be recovered. In line with Professor’s paper, it seems that preservation is not an accurate representation of Huston’s work in Mules and Men or “Color Struck.” Rather, despite the joy that is depicted at times throughout these works, this writing is a eulogy for what has been lost, not a preservation of what is slipping away. Hurston gives a eulogy for the image of the Black southerner and the cakewalk dance, pure black expressions now always connected to minstrelsy and the political gain of whites. All art is political and, by looking at Hurston through this line of thinking, her work aligns more closely to the politically-bent New Negro ideology of Locke than I initially surmised.
In John Redding Goes to Sea, John is repeatedly described as “queer.” Is this meant to be taken as meaning odd, gay, or both?
Would John have been able to leave if he hadn’t gotten married? Why don’t the women want them to leave? Are there forces greater than the women that are keeping these men tied down? How does this compare to Irish men trying to leave their homes?
I also found the point about “the new refusing to acknowledge the old” in Color Struck to be very interesting. What does this do to the act of cakewalking? Does it help the blacks to make it more their own?
In class this week, I was constantly questioning the cakewalk and whether one should view it as a tool of resistance. I seemed to be very fixed on the idea that it could not have been the tool that Brooks claimed it was, as it both seemed to be offensive and did not seem to be successful or recognized in the moment that it was performed. After much reflection, I have realized that I was approaching it from too harsh a guideline. In today’s society, we are pushed to strive for the best and to not be content until we have reached the place that we hope to end up. This is the mindset that I was applying to the cakewalk. I was demanding that it would adhere to a standard that would be impossible for it to have during the time it was made—it would have never been allowed to go on. In doing this, I lost sight of the importance of baby steps in controversial issues, such as racial struggles.
Paving the way for progress is important, even if one is forced to do so in a transitional way. This is what Williams and Walker are doing with In Dahomey and its controversial inclusions, such as the cakewalk and black actors in blackface. They are getting their foot in the door, flipping the script normally used against blacks, and helping to set a foundation for the racial change to come. Representation is the first step to good representation. The reviews that we read may have played down the cultural and political significance of the cakewalk and the reclamation by the blacks, but history has not. Williams and Walker were exploiting the cakewalk and playing up other negative stereotypes for their gain and to the advantage of the black theater community. The very fact that we study this play so many years later supports the importance and overall impact that Williams and Walker had in paving the way for blacks on stage and in the American culture. Change starts with one person or group of people and their reclamation makes it possible for the larger reclamation.
This situation reminds me a lot of the way that I, and many others, view the n-word. The n-word is a word that I think is inherently derogatory and rooted in hate. There are blacks, however, who see the reclamation of it as empowering and a form of resistance that is used in both art and everyday speech. While it may appear to be problematic, there is some correct thinking within it. Their opinion of it is what really matters, as it contributes to their individual liberation. The n-word was used to define the blacks of the past, but now they are using it to represent themselves and attempting to redefine its very meaning. They are using the word in their own context and with their own agency. This action will perhaps also be a gateway for cultural change, or at the very least, a conversation starter.