Hurston as Performer
"My favorite place was atop
the gate post. Procenium box for a born first nighter...During this period, white people
differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there.
They liked to hear me "speak pieces" and sing and wanted to see me dance the
parse-me-la, and gave me generously of thier small silver for doing these things, which
seemed strange to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to stop. The
colored people gave no dimes. They deplored any joyful tendencies in me, but I was their
"How It Feels to be Colored Me"
Just as she created fictional characters for her books, plays and stories, Hurston created many fictional personas for herself. Perhaps more than any other element of her character Zora's reputation as a performer explains the shadow of obscurity in which her work dwelt until recently.
Interestingly, it is her peers who provided the most damning charactrizations of Hurston as a performer.In his fictional interpretation of the Harlem Renaissance, Infants of the Spring, Wallace Thurman depicts Hurston as a writer only interested in reaping rewards from white patrons. In the her monologue Hurston's personification, Sweetie Mae Carr, explains that her art functions merely to provide her with income:"It's like this... I have to eat. I also wish to finish my education. Being a negro writer these days is a racket and I'm going to make the most of it while it lasts....My ultimate ambition...is to become an gynecologist[anthropologist]. And the only way I can have the requisite trainign is to pose as a writer of potential ability." Thurman's depiction not only characterized Hurston as a performer but also as a minstral, who "cut[s] the fool" in order to please wealthy whites(Thurman p.).
Zora Neale Hurston Directing The Great Day
In his autobiography,The Big Sea, Langston Hughes solidified Hurston's reputation as a performer by describing her as a "most amusing" woman who only needed to write books in order to reach a wider audience "because she is a perfect book in and of herself." Like Thurman, Hughes characterized Hurston as a minstral who pandered to "wealthy whites, some of whom simply paid her just to sit around and represent the negro race for them (Hughes 239).
Hurston's work was also obscured by her reputation as a performer. When she published her epic text Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 the atmosphere of African American letters was dominated by the aesthetics of the overtly political Richard Wright. In Wright's review of the novel Hurston was critically assaulted and once again labeled as a performer.Failing to see the inherent gender and racial politics of the text, Wright viewed Hurston's text, "a mere love story," as a minstrel show:
|"Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in the traditon which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is the minstrel technique that makes the "white folks" laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears."|
For decades Thurman and Hughes' depiction of Hurston as a performer who pandered to white patrons proved definitive.Of the two short pages that Nathan Huggins devotes to Hurston in his classic work Harlem Renaissance Thurman's depiction occupies at least half. Only in the past two decades have scholars begun to view Hurston not as a performer but as a woman who lived of many lives.
Because of her reputation as a performer until Hemenway and Alice Walker's re-discovery of Hurston, many of her ironic comments were mostly taken at face value by those who misunderstood, and wrongly simplified her technique. To read such statements as Hurston makes in her essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," that "slavery is the price I paid for civilization," "straight up" is to fail to take into account Hurston's ironic tendencies, as well as her interest in anthropology, which is essentially the study of culture.
Read as cultural commentary Hurston's essay "How it Feels to be Colored Me," emerges as a catalogue of the stereotypes and the misguided ideas of white artists and intellectuals. Hurston represents these stereotypes as different forms of herself. Understanding that she was at "the center of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or weep," Hurston undertakes these many different roles in order to report on the culture out of which New Negro modernism emerged. Hurston's statement about slavery being the price for civilization mirrors the ideas of white artists and intellectuals, who looked to blacks for originality.
Further miscuing readers, in this essay is the story Hurston tells of her own childhood, a story strikingly similar to the tale of "Isis, the joyful" in "Drenched in the Light." When she was young, Hurston tells readers, white people would ride through her town and stop "to hear me 'speak pieces' and sing and wanted to see me dance the parse-me-la," for which they would, to her astonishment, pay her. These white patrons were in effect seeking her sunshine much like the characters in "Drenched in the Light." Her depiction of Zora "the joyful" instead of "Isis" signifies the "happy darkie" stereotype that, according to Langston Hughes, many of Hurston's white friends expected. In addition to declaring her allegiance to the southern roots from which she worked her folk magic, Hurston concludes the essay by expressing the theme of black primitivism through a visceral response to jazz. Zora attends a jazz bar where a white man is in attendance:
|"This orchestra grows rambunctious, rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal
veil with primitive fury, rending it, clawing it until it breaks through the jungle
beyond. I follow those heathen--follow them exultingly. I dance wildly inside myself; I
yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark
yeeeooww! I am in the jungle living in the jungle way& I creep back slowly to the
veneer we call civilization with the last tone and find the white friend sitting
motionless in his seat, smoking calmly.
'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. He had only heard what I felt."
The "primitive" Zora, who seeks the jungle when hearing jazz is ultimately a rendering of one of the most prevalent stereotypes of her day, but it is important to read beneath the surface of the passage.
By considering Hurston's adherence to folk forms, forms which "were a code of communication-- interracial propaganda-that would protect the race from the psychological encroachments of racism," the statements made in "How it Feels to be Colored Me," can be considered subversive. Like the creators of folk culture, Hurston here subscribed to a "communicative tone that could simultaneously protest the effects of racism and maintain the secrecy of that very same protest." While she enacts these stereotypes, she is simultaneously decrying their presence. It is only with a white man for company that she becomes the "primitive" Zora. It is white patrons who commodify her activities as a child because of their desire for the "sunshine" she provided through her childish play. The last paragraph of the essay points to Hurston's innate belief that people are all the same, they are different colored paper bags "that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the contents of any greatly." The contrast between this appraisal of humanity and the stereotypes that Hurston allows her persona to take on, illustrates the incongruity between stereotypical personifications of black experience and reality.
Hurston did write stories and articles that could be read by unenlightened audiences as pandering to the white pursuit of primitivism. Yet, understanding her role as an anthropologist, essentially as a reporter of culture, as well as her adherence to folk forms, is key to understanding her work. Although Hurston understood the commercial value of being a black artist during the vogue of the Negro, she also understood how to use that commercial value to explore, report on, and render the culture in which she lived.