Reconciling Hurston and the New Negro

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.

Minstrelsy and Ritual

Zoe is a fascinating figure to weave into our tapestry of placeless figures, further nuancing the developing concepts of identity and place. Interestingly, Zoe is the first racially liminal body to be a focal point in our texts.  Douglass and Gulliver, though inbetweens in their own respect, both fit more or less squarely into established racial categories. Zoe further complicates these identities by socially and and physically conflating black and white.  As Brooks points out with more overt forms of minstrelsy, the simultaneous performance of these two, ostensibly very disparate identities, forces the interactions of these identities in a way that minstrelsy’s perpetrators didn’t anticipate.  The Octoroon lands squarely on this narrative, forcing audience members to confront what happens when black and white aren’t distinct and yet still tragically irreconcilable. It is this social Catch-22 that pulls Zoe’s character out of the shadow of pure minstrelsy, embodying instead the transatlantic existence. 

It is interesting to think about the activation of the word liminal in the context of these bodies.  Liminality or the liminal space is used in the context of rites of passage as the time after separation, when the individual goes off on their own to undergo the ritualistic change and before reincorporation or integration into society — it is the time of transition.  In a sense Zoe’s change over the course of the play can be read as a failed rite of passage. Her body tells the story of the generational rape of the back female. As she is forced to share her shameful secret at being “the octoroon,” she begins the process of separation from her known white identity and community.  The ritual of the slave auction is the culmination of this stripping of her identity, attempting to place her instead back within the narrative of black females. However, rather than completing the change and reincorporating into society as another black woman to become a possession, Zoe remains liminal, rejecting the description of either identity and taking her fate instead into her own hands and allowing her identity to be read fluidly rather than concretely. She won’t be defined or confined, but the cycle of violence will end with her.