The Distinctive Voice of Zora Neale Hurston
“It’s thrilling to think- to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame”(Hurston 2). Zora Neale Hurston has a remarkably positive but realistic outlook on the duality of the African American female. She understands and therefore is aware that the African American female is greatly magnified in the blurred eyes of the white male world that distorts all of her achievements and shortcomings. Hurston was caught between the emphasis on the exotic aspects of the Harlem Renaissance and the angry voice of black literature during the 1940’s and 1950’s. During the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston decreased those injustices of race and sex. She challenged the traditional position of women and exceeded the traditional space they had been provided: She dared to see herself as a writer with talent equal to if not greater than her peers at representing the “folk” orally and in writing. Hurston rose above the challenge by becoming the most extraordinary writer of the group. Hurston’s works deserve literary and scholarly attention because they acknowledge universal themes, view individuals at all levels of society, and represent the diversity and complexity of the African American female at the turn of the century. Hurston reveals themes in literature that are universal despite the fact that they often experienced divided fidelity to the culture that she lived. The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) has become a perennial classroom favorite because it does not focus on one class, but the entire
community as a whole-representing its language, morals, and prejudices-as context. She went against the “norm” to voice her opinion on controversial issues. Those who misunderstood her, like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, thought her “black minstrel” characters were created to humor patronizing white audiences. It cannot be denied that her work becoming a classroom favorite shows the respect due to her literature’s exploration of universal themes with obvious philosophical and social significance.
Hurston’s view of individuals at all levels of society allowed various audiences to relate to her literature. Her work is powerful because it works to bring about social change through learning and understanding. She does not focus on one specific group of people. For example,
Her education allowed her to go beyond boundaries and relate to everyone, despite their differences, as human beings. Hurston’s preoccupation with protesting societal inequalities and admonished to preserve the traditions of African Americans suggests she wrote for culturally different audiences. Hurston has been severely criticized for not making race and the plight of blacks more centralized in her work. Yet she writes almost exclusively about blacks. Hurston personally progressed beyond bitterness, as seems clear from the last line of her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road: “I have no race prejudice of any kind. My kinfolks, and my ‘skin folks’ are dearly loved…But I see their same virtues and vices everywhere I look. So I give you all my right hand of fellowship and love, and hope for the same from you. In my eyesight, you lose nothing by not looking just like me.” Through her works, she affirms blackness, while not denying
whiteness in a black-denying society. She does this by presenting characters that are realistically human. Despite the fact that Hurston tended to be “politically incorrect” and her work fell out of print in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it must be noted that she articulated issues that were on society’s mind. She voiced the opinions that too many people were afraid to let be heard. She wrote with such knowledge, eloquence, and human emotion that everyone could relate. In Hurston’s time, society was not ready for such a strong voiced women to confront such topics the way she did. Her literature went deeper than her time and ours-her views on individuals, at all levels of society, triumph over time because she looked at human nature in general.
The diversity and complexity of African American female writing at the turn of the century is seen in Hurston’s writing. The atmosphere, in which Hurston lived, fostered controversy. There were so many different ideas of race, gender, political awareness, status, and religion, to name a few, that many people were afraid to go against the “norm”. Not Hurston though. She viewed things based on her education and her experience, not what others thought. She wrote what she viewed and felt. It did not matter to her what people thought of her. Unfortunately, relative judgment of Hurston seems to be determined by the gender of the scholar or writer; black male scholars hold one view of her, and black female writers hold another. Mary Helen Washington, in the course of her essay on Hurston’s most popular novel, Their Eyes Are Watching God, has commented on what might be considered a skewed version of black life rendered by black authors:
The black writer sometimes gets his eyes so fixed on the white world and its ways of acting toward us that his vision
becomes constricted. He reflects, if he is not careful, but one aspect of his people’s experiences: suffering, humiliation, degradation. And he may fail to show that Black people are more than simply reactors, that among ourselves, we have laughter, tears, and loving that are far
As refuted by Ralph Story, this debate has more to do with the specific focus of the writer at a given point in historical time and space. “Black male writers, throughout most of the twentieth century have seen the issues of justice, equality and respect for the ‘race’ affecting black folk as being more suitable for fictional recreations of black life because these issues were more important for the vast majority of black folk.” Conversely, black women writers have generally taken the opposite stance saying the black community should have been the central focus. (Story 28) Consequently, black male writers tend to critique Hurston’s novels negatively. Confirming this is the fact that even today contemporary black women writers are more sympathetic and have a more specific understanding of Hurston’s unappreciated work than do black male writers. Despite disparaging criticism from her male counterparts, Hurston’s works developed a distinctive female voice in literature. Her work represents the diversity and complexity of African American female writing at the turn of the century.
Those who loved Hurston like Alice Walker and Robert Hemenway thought her a controversial, but brilliant feminist. Hurston has stirred the emotions of critics and devotees in a variety of ways. As an African American female from the rural south who challenged racial, class, and sexual, assumptions in her writing, Hurston has become an
icon for many African American and women’s studies scholars interested in authors promoting feminist and black national aesthetics. Her studies of literature and anthropology at Howard University and Barnard College provided her with a critical method for viewing individuals at all levels of society. It cannot be denied that Hurston’s
works deserve literary and scholarly attention from all people because of the universal themes confronted, view of individuals at all levels of society, and the representation of diversity and complexity of the African American female at the turn of the century.
Story, Ralph. “Gender and Ambition: Zora Neale Hurston in the Harlem Renaissance”
1989 The Black Scholar. 28 May-July 1989