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How Zora Neale Hurston Changed African-American Culture

“How does it feel to be a problem?”

That’s what W.E.B. Du Bois asked of black people in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. It was the beginning of a philosophical change for African-Americans, whose role in American society to that point had been relegated to “the Negro problem.”

Du Bois was one of the forerunners of the racial uplift idealogy. Middle and upper class African-Americans were sick of being portrayed in negative stereotypes, so these community leaders attempted to change those perceptions.

According to our dear friends at Wikipedia:

[Du Bois] advocated an Uplift program to improve the image of African Americans in society. The Uplift agenda presented fine and upstanding African Americans who conformed to the social mores of the day. Pursuing this aim, the black women’s club movement attempted to combat the stereotype of licentiousness for black women. Their response was a stigmatized or entirely muted presentation of black female sexuality in African-American literature and art.

My interpretation: The uplift movement attempted to counter these stereotypes by presenting African-Americans in a way that white Americans would find acceptable. Another way of saying it: They were trying to conform to someone else’s standards.

Enter the Harlem Renaissance and Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is viewed as a response to Du Bois’ racial uplift movement. The novel portrays African-Americans in the early 20th Century realistically—at least as Hurston saw them.

She used southern-American dialect—reminiscent of Go Tell It On The Mountain and similar to, but not insulting like Gone With The Wind.

Wikipedia, again:

Hurston rejected the Racial Uplift efforts to present African Americans in a way that would accommodate the cultural standards of the white majority. Yet she also asserted her work as distinct from the work of fellow Harlem Renaissance writers she described as the “sobbing school of Negrohood” that portrayed the lives of black people as constantly miserable, downtrodden and deprived. Instead, Hurston celebrated the rural, southern African-American communities as she found them. In addition, Hurston refused to censor women’s sexuality, writing in beautiful innuendo to embrace the physical dimension to her main character’s romances.

I like this woman, Zora Neale Hurston. She seems like an optimist, and she also seems like someone who is going to give her viewpoint and not care what other people think—even those within her own circle.

I’m impressed by her nerve and strong-will, how she wasn’t afraid to stand up to the philosophy of other prominent African-American writers.

Like I mentioned in my preview, I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in college and loved the book. But I don’t remember reading much about the details of Hurston’s life. I believe this one will be a enjoyable novel in which to dig deeper.

I’m sure I did a terrible job of explaining the racial uplift program and Hurston’s response, so please clarify in the comments and share your thoughts.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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22 Comments Post a comment
  1. harrisfr #

    Nora Neale Hurston is such an exciting author! She goes to the core and hands it back to us full bore! I love her writing!

    Like

    February 18, 2014
  2. deweydecimalsbutler #

    I remember reading that people were furious with her over the use of dialect. But from what I can tell, she had a really strong personality, and folks either really liked her or really hated her. She was fired a lot. But I’d still sit down to a drink with her any day of the week.

    Like

    February 18, 2014
    • harrisfr #

      When she was fired, it appears to have been because she went beyond the disintegrating race rules or because she did not meet the ego needs of the person who hired her. And she was so creative beyond understanding to many. She is the outstanding jewel of Harlem Renaissance.

      Like

      February 18, 2014
      • deweydecimalsbutler #

        Agreed completely. I adore her.

        Like

        February 18, 2014
    • I guess people didn’t appreciate a black woman who was willing to speak her mind at this point in our history. We’ve come a long way, though we still have a long way to go.

      Like

      February 18, 2014
      • deweydecimalsbutler #

        Yea, verily.

        Like

        February 18, 2014
  3. harrisfr #

    Is there a Zora Neale Hurston book club? Fan club?

    Like

    February 18, 2014
  4. Daniel Casey #

    Reblogged this on Gently Read Literature.

    Like

    February 18, 2014
  5. my introduction this author, thank you.

    Like

    February 18, 2014
  6. Thanks for the great post! FYI, I recently read an anthology of her work and for those of you who haven’t read her but would like a taste of her dialogue (which I happen to love!) try “Sweat” or “The Gilded Six-bits” – you can find both online.

    Like

    February 18, 2014
  7. Thanks for the post. I love Zora Neal Hurston and I find her life very intriguing. It was sad that she was not recognized financially for her contributions, sad that her neighbors had to collect money to bury her and that her grave was unmarked for sometime. Nevertheless, without the money, I believe that she lived a full life. In fact, she still lives on through her work. I am reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God” now. It is such a powerful piece that I find it hard to imagine that Ms. Hurston isn’t speaking though it even now.

    Like

    February 18, 2014
  8. I think you did a pretty good job of explaining the general sentiment of Du Bois and Hurston. I think she was a bit ahead of her time, reflects more of the post war African-American independence that led to the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement. I read this in High School, but I think I am going to have to pick it up again!

    Like

    February 18, 2014
  9. She seemed to have been amazing character, although it’s awful to think that she didn’t get the recognition she deserved in her life time, and was at one point living in virtual poverty. As you said in your comments Robert, people just werent ready for an African American women who was not willing to toe the party line as it were. Good post. Thank you

    Like

    February 18, 2014
  10. lifeofareaderblog #

    Reblogged this on Life of a reader and commented:
    Festival celebrated here in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida every year honoring her life and her work. Little known black history facts.

    Elle Henry.

    Like

    February 19, 2014
  11. I loved Their Eyes Were Watching God. Great book!

    Like

    February 19, 2014
  12. Really outstanding post. Makes me like Zora Neale Hurston, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, even more. Cheers.

    Like

    February 19, 2014
  13. I’m also currently in the middle of reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. Like all great novels, there are gems to be gleaned every few pages. It’s helping me, a white girl from the North, to understand a reality that I’ve never lived and to experience the fact that at bottom, in spite of all our superficial differences, we are all human beings with the same desires and fears.

    Like

    February 20, 2014
  14. I’m currently reading The Souls of Black Folks and didn’t know there was a connection to Their Eyes Were Watching God. Since the book is a series of essays, I don’t find it very engaging, but it is full of interesting historical information. I like it best when Du Bois reflects on his personal connection to the areas of Atlanta where he started his teaching career.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  15. Nora Neale Hurston still lives on through her work. I believe that she lived a full life. Very good post. Thank you

    Like

    April 12, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Zora Neal Hurston’s Politics Might Surprise You | 101 Books
  2. Book #68: Their Eyes Were Watching God | 101 Books

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