Zora Neale Hurston: An Alchemist of Modernism

April 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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