Zora Neale Hurston: An Alchemist of Modernism

In “Sweat” and the accounts of Zora Neale Hurston in, “How It Feels To Be Colored Me”, there are many elements of the modernist period in play. The most important being the welfare state of African Americans in America at that point in time. However, Hurston’s effortless depiction of the lives of African Americans during her time, her constant use of female African Americans in her stories to progress feminism, and her influence towards other authors during the Harlem Renaissance makes her one of, if not the biggest, contributor to the Modernist movement. During Hurston’s time there were many other pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, whom Hurston worked with, but what separated Hurston from the pack is the versatility she displays in her writing.

An approach to writing that is inclusive to those who are voiceless, was the ultimate end goal of Hurston’s writing, to represent for those who can’t do it themselves. During Hurston’s time she helped illuminate the identity of all African Americans, not just African American men. Hurston published, “How It Feels To Be Colored Me”, in 1928, a time America still stood in the dark shadow casted by the history of slavery. Hurston’s parents were slaves, so she understood the huge psychological repercussions of living in a post-genocidal culture, and then magically trying to integrate into that same society which only one generation previously, viewed you as property, but most importantly not human. The African American identity was left in shambles, but Hurston understood that in order for African Americans to keep moving forward, they had to have an idea of who they were before slavery. “ Slavery was the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not mine.”(3). Hurston inserts the reader into her direct stream of consciousness, and her explanation of the destruction of her ancestor’s identity is spot on. This assertion of having a past heritage prior to slavery as a means of African American progression aligns with W.E.B. Dubois, in terms of the education involved with it, but as for regaining the identity, that idea belongs to Hurston. During the same time women in America had just gained the right to suffrage, but African American men and women were far away from that point. Harlem had many male African American writers, but for women, there wasn’t as much. Yet it is the scrutiny of African American women that Hurston sheds light on, “ It is thrilling to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise, or twice as much blame”(3). The judgement Hurston refers to is the gender bias in post-slavery America, particularly in the African American community. A man who isn’t the bread winner in the family will get scrutinized much like the criticism Sykes gets from Moss. “ Syke Jones aint wuth de shot an powder hit would tek tuh kill em. Not to huh he aint”(6). Delia is known to her town as the breadwinner of her household, everyone there knows that, but the town also knows about the nature of Sykes, and because of that, Delia is judged for being with him. Like Hurston says about the double edged sword of judgement, it is great when it is in your favor, but it also cuts very deep when it is pointed at you. The identity crisis comes forth in this sense, because if the men who were joking about Sykes had a true sense of identity, they wouldn’t focus on Sykes, but instead put Delia on the pedestal she deserves to be on. Another important ideological reprocussion of slavery that Hurston focuses on is the infantilization of African Americans. After generations of slavery, and being told you’re not capable of basic thinking, there are bound to be deep psychological wounds that need healing. Hurston’s first hand account of that feeling brings out the trauma, “ I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background” (3). Her description of the background as sharp exemplifies the trauma mentioned above. Living in a world meant for white people literally cut into the psyche of African Americans, and the only cure for those cuts, was to reform the African American identity. America created a psychological hierarchy in order to ensure the continuity of white dominance and Hurston reimagines this constant horror as the snake that Sykes brings home. Both the horror of white dominance and the snake share many characteristics. Like the snake in the cage, the threat of white violence was always there, always ready to strike in a moments notice, given the opportunity. The snake also stays in the house for a week, and Delia is forced to live with that threat around her, but she must act as if there is no plausible threat, as if everything is fine. The reader is injected into Delia’s indirect stream of consciousness to understand her feelings towards the snake, “She stayed for a long time in the doorway in a red fury that grew bloodier for every second that she regarded the creature that was her torment”(6). Regarding the female African American identity, Delia is written as a strong woman, who can not only withstand the tension and violence of the snake, she is capable of wielding the horror of the snake in her favor. On the surface, Delia seems like the ordinary hero of the story who walks with no fear, yet she does feel fear, it is what drives her on the inside. Delia is aware of the danger and the fear of being around the snake, but she remains herself at all times, adapting to the situation. This scene metaphorized Delia into the identity of the African American woman, and the snake into oppressive force trying to keep that identity at bay. Delia is strong, her will can’t be broken as easily as it could before. The snake is trying to impose who Delia should be, but as dangerous as the snake is, it is caged, Delia isn’t afraid of the snake’s poison. Delia is truly her own person, and has a concrete identity. Hurston creates a concrete identity of the African American woman through her work of fiction, the Harlem Renaissance, Modernism, and a few branches over, feminism all benefit greatly from this characterization of Delia, because her traits embody the characteristics of those movements.

From a feminist perspective Delia is a great example of the progression of African American women. Eerily similar to Hurston, Delia must also works towards building her identity, as well as her income. The 1920’s was a great time for the white american and woman, but the economy was not in favor of the African American. So for Delia, an African American woman, to have her her own property is outstanding, and just like her identity she has to work hard and “sweat” for it. When Sykes condescendingly scolds Delia about her work, she rebuttals perfectly. “Mah sweat is done paid for this place and ah reckon ah kin keep on sweatin it”(2). Delia never asked to be placed in this line of judgement, but she makes the best of it. The term, “sweat” takes up many new forms in this line.

The first form being the sweat that it takes to work hard for an income, and to be able to withstand the scolding of Sykes. Yet why does Delia sweat for Sykes? Simply put, because she must. Hurston uses Sykes to resemble the lack of male African American identity, and the state of infantilization they faced post-slavery. Sykes is so uneducated about his self-worth that his only option is to bite the hand that feeds him, his actions resemble that of a child. The second form is the literal sweat poured in towards the creation of a concrete African American identity, and the mental frustration of being at the bottom of the food chain, working and sweating away, only to still be considered less than human. All forms point towards the manifestation of an African American identity that has finally emerged from the slums of slavery and enduring the unjust conditions of sharecropping. Hurston’s ability to shape this identity is one of the most critical literary contributions of the Modernist period, because it is reclaiming for African Americans, who for the better part of their time in America, didn’t even know their own name. Hurston gives names to the nameless, and a voice to the voiceless.

Hurston’s inclusion of the African American woman into her shaping of the new African American identity still remains as a foundational platform which more authors have built upon, but Delia as the first brick in that pillar is only too fitting. Delia exhibits and incorporates many traits of the Modernist period, like feminism for example. As a feminist, Delia flourishes as a strong woman, and the difficulties she faces from being a woman as well only contribute to the intersectionality concepts of Hurston’s work. Feminism, progression as an intellectual society, acknowledging the scars of slavery, surely these are staples of the American modernist movement.

The Harlem Renaissance as a whole would not have been the same without Zora Neale Hurston, her influence on her counterparts as a mentor cannot be understated, so she is without a doubt a founder of the conscious emancipation of the African American that helped form the new identity. It is also important to mention the help of her famous colleagues, like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, as vital minds of the Renaissance as well, but it is the inclusion of feminism which sets Hurston above her class of African American intellectuals. The 1920’s was a booming time for white feminism in America, so for Hurston to combine her feminism with all the other aspects of modernism, makes it one of the most substantial intellectual achievements of the 20th century.

Looking From Strange Eyes: A Cultural Analysis

In Zora Neale Hurston’s work, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,”the author pulls from personal experience, and writes about, not only her cultural experience within the negro community, but also her experience outside of her own culture. The work is a detailed recollection of her own personal idea of what her cultural is to her, and what it may mean to others. The work (and thus, Hurston herself) represents the black cultural community within in, in several ways. The work describes how the narrator, Hurston, see’s herself, and thus how she see’s her culture. The work also takes a look from the opposite perspective to give true insight, and lastly the work reveals a bit of insight into how we all fit together culturally.

First, Hurston explains how she sees herself in relation to her culture. Within the text it read, “…I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background (bay. 540)”. After analyzing the text, and reading between the lines, it is obvious that Hurston does not notice her race, and that it is others that bring it to her attention; this can be seen on page 538 and 539 of the text. The text reads, “…I lived in a little negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a colored town. The only white people I knew passed through on the town going or coming from Orlando…During this period, white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there…But changes came…and I was sent to school in Jacksonville…I left Eatonville… [as] Zora…[and arrived in Jacksonville as] a little colored girl…I found it out…in my heart as well as in the mirror (Bay. 538-539)”. This section shows that while the narrator (Hurston) was living in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, she was not hyper aware of her culture, or the cultures and races of others.

In the narrator’s early years she did not recognize the cultural differences because they were not presented in an aggressive manner to her. She understood that there might be people different from her, however, she did not see it in terms of color. As stated in the text, “white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there (Bay.539)”. From this statement it can be concluded that the narrator did not pay close attention to race, color, and culture. Within the text the interactions between the white travelers, and Zora, the narrator are shown . The white travelers often speak kindly to Zora, and most times ask to see her dance and perform. Though, Zora found this odd she enjoyed it thoroughly, and assumed her audience did as well. These peaceful interactions with the white travelers built Zora’s entire impression of white people, and she felt they weren’t much different from herself. It is clear to see the place and reasoning behind young Zora’s impression of the white, and where that early opinion of these people stemmed from. As stated in the text, …I lived in an all negro town…exclusively [for] negroes (Bay 538)”, because Zora’s town was all negro she did not have many opportunities for encounters with people from different races; other than white travelers. Zora remained innocent of racial concerns, because none were openly present for her to witness first hand.

However, after Zora’s move to a school in Jacksonville, she became more aware of the cultural differences between us all. In realizing the difference in others she now realized the difference in herself, and she was now, “the little colored girl (Bay. 359)”. In realizing there are other different cultures around her, the narrator comes to also understand her own culture, and how some within her culture feel in relation to their culture. Within the text it says, “..But I am not tragically colored. There is no sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all [that I am black]. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about this (Bay. 539) “. This statement brings into mind several questions. First off, how do these individuals, those within the, “Negrohood”, truly see themselves. The text reads, “..I do not mind at all [that I am black] (Bay. 539)”, in stating this is it suggestive that the Negrohood mentioned on the next line does mind? Here they represent a small percent of their culture through the text; those who seem to wish to be apart of another race.

This sentiment of wanting to change races can be seen all across different cultures, and relates to the human desire to “fit in”, so to speak. Does wanting to change races have anything to do with where the individual lives and works? My guess is more than likely. An area may be more or less relatable to a person because of the race of the majority of the people who live there. For example, In certain areas it is not uncommon to see a large influx of immigrants of the same culture, move to a specific area. They bring with them their cultural ways, the way they live, work, worship, and even love. As the area’s population grows in volume it becomes more predominantly reflected on their specific culture. However, this is not really a bad thing, in fact, it allows America to be an oasis for culture, and give us the opportunity to learn about other cultures. However, sometimes individuals from different cultures may be scared to learn and be apart of other cultures, and in turn, sometimes other cultures do not want to invite “outsiders” (such as the issue with the white people not wanting to have black individuals incorporated in their culture as seen within many texts). So, if you take a look from another’s perspective, and see the difficulties that they face in order to assimilate into the other culture(s), you may be able to understand why someone might wish to change their race.

Though integration of the cultures has always been a difficult issue, there is still a sign within the text that both the white community and the black community is trying, though the culture’s difference are obvious, they are still able to blend together. At one point within the text the narrator, Zora, explains that she and a white friend often visit The New World Cabaret, a black jazz club. She explains that while she is with this white friend at the jazz club, her color comes. She explains within the the text that while listening to the jazz music, “..I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww! I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way…My pulse was throbbing…[after the music ends] ‘Good music they have here’ he remarks, drumming the table with his fingertips..Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him (Bay. 540)”. This section shows the cultural and personal differences between the two in the jazz club. Zora’s reaction to the music was a representation of how the text shows how Zora’s culture fits into American culture.

Music is a perfect example of something that can be shared and merge into other cultures. Jazz music has been apart of American culture for quite some time, however, the black community took it to the next level, and in the process created some wonderful music. The music is vibrant, and express quite a lot of deep emotion with each note. As shown within the text Zora felt the music differently than her white companion. Within the text it read, “.I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within (Bay. 540)”, this show Zora felt something strong within the music though her friend seemingly did not. In terms of ethical responsibility, and said action towards the morally sound, the narrator takes the high road. The section of the text read, “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me. (Bay.541)”. Here it is clear that Zora, the narrator, is taking the much less traveled, high road. She now recognizes the discrimination that had been alien to her in the past.

However, Zora does not take the discrimination and turn it into hate. She simply acknowledges that it is there, but does not allow it to take hold of her; she does not lash out at those who hurt her. Within the text, it seems the author defines ethical responsibility as the responsibility of each individual person, in that, they too much decide not to turn discrimination toward them into hate. At one point the narrator has this to say in relation to ethical standards, “..I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the great soul that surges within the boundaries (Bay.541).” This statement reflects the author’s idea that all American citizens, regardless of differences in culture, are the same.

The text often speaks of the differences in our cultures, and thus, the differences between us. However, the narrator chose to tie all of use in together at the end, in a beautiful metaphor. The text reads, “ But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red, yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife blade, old shoes saved for a road that was never and never will be , a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, [and] a dried flower or two still a little fragrant. In your hand is the brown bag. On the ground before you is the jumble it held–so much like the jumble in the bags, could they be emptied, that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content any greatly…Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of bags filled them in the first place…( Bay. 541).” The reader can take several things away from this section of the text. First, the text reveals that we are all the same “bag”, though are colors are different. The text also explains that inside our bags we all carry the same things within us. The text is referring to the contents of the bag as our very soul, and how the same we really are. We all have things that make us beautiful and miraculous, such as the, “First-water diamond”, mentioned in the text. The text also mentions that we all have things inside ourselves that are broken, no matter the culture (or colored bag) we come from.

Within, Zora Neale Hurston’s, “ How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, the narrator who is represented as the young, and later middle aged, Zora herself describes how it feels to live within her culture and the culture of those around her. She explains how she felt as a young child, relatively colorless, and simply Zora. The work shows the results our cultures have on each other, especially those cultures that may be in the minority for the area they reside in. Zora explains how she fits into not only her own culture, but the American culture as a whole. Finally, the work related to the reader in a fairly simple way how we truly fit together, in that, when we take away the color we find that the contents of the soul remain the exact same across all cultures and races.