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.
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)