The “Spunk”-y Zora Neale Hurston “speaks pieces”

Zora Neale Hurston, beating the hountar, or ma...
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(A slightly different version of this “mini-paper” was delivered on Friday, 24 February 2012, before select PLM and US Embassy audience on the event of the celebration of Black American Week at the Thomas Jefferson Information Center, US Embassy, Manila.)

For most Filipino students, knowledge of black Americans is perhaps limited to Whitney Houston (whose recent substance-induced death made worldwide headlines) and/or the Cali Swag District for “Teach Me How to Doggie.” For most of us in the academe, a little better but not entirely satisfactory: we may have read and watched Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and enjoy Maya Angelou’s poetry but not Richard Wright’s Native Son or James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”. At a pinch, we may be able to ask our students to read Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man or Langston Hughes‘ poetry but would be hard-pressed to discuss the politics in Amiri Baraka’s poetry. And how many here, apart from Stef, have actually read any of the seven books or any of the more than fifty (50) short stories, plays and essays written by Zora Neale Hurston, the most successful and most significant black American woman writer of the first half of the 20th century (Baym 1982) before she was consigned to the back of American literary consciousness?

My own actual “encounter” with Zora Neale Hurston was as a graduate student in UP Diliman in the 1990s, then a time of great creative synergy, when every graduate student and critic seemed to be engaged in search of a lost “mother’s garden” in an effort to chart a maternal literary tradition and provide a compass for other women writers to follow. Many of the white American writers abroad were energetic going about it that many Filipino women writers had been inspired to do the same. Alice Walker began the project of recuperating “lost” or “ignored” black women writers in a curious way–by first identifying Hurston’s unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, in Florida (Gates, Jr. 196; Boyd 3): in Hurston’s case “ignored” and “abandoned” were no less psychological as physical. Of course, American women writers prior to the 1970s did not habitually make it to the exalted literary canon composed of white, male writers, (never mind black women writers!) not because of a deficiency in genius, but because they did not fit into expectedly male moulds.

Let me first give you a short biographical backgrounder on Hurston.

Born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, Zora Neale Hurston’s family moved to the exclusively Negro community of Eatonville, Florida, America’s first incorporated black township, where the young Zora flourished. Surrounded by so much life-affirming achievements of the blacks, foremost among whom were her parents who exercised religious and political influence in the county, (and the only Whites they see were only passing through), she was never “indoctrinated in inferiority” (Boyd 3) and her color–a “fast brown” –never got in the way of her creative genius. That is, until she needed to move out of Eatonville because her mother had died. This self-assured, confident woman articulated this in a cheeky early essay, “How it Feels to Be Colored Me” :

             But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all but about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world–I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (http://grammar.about.com/od/60essays/a/theireyesessay.htm)

In 1920, she received an Associate degree from Howard University, at the time the premier black university, and started publishing her short stories in the campus literary society’s magazine Stylus, beginning with her first short story “John Redding Goes to Sea”, followed by “Drenched in Light”, and in 1925, submitted “Spunk”, the short story that will win her second prize in Opportunity magazine‘s literary contest. She attended Barnard College to study anthropology with famed Dr. Franz Boas, was awarded two Guggenheims, went to Haiti and Jamaica to collect folklore which will become material for such novels as Mules and Men, Tell My Horse, and Moses, Man of the Mountain. The publication in 1937 of her oeuvre, Their Eyes Were Watching God, solidified her position in the Harlem Renaissance, an elite group of black American writers, and clinch for herself a spot in the annals of influential black American writings before the 1950s.

But Hurston had problems with moulds, especially moulds provided by vocal polemicists such as black American male writers who saw Hurston’s works as pandering to a white stereotype of the blacks as ”primitive”, “violent”, “shiftless”, etc. Because Zora Neale Hurston championed a different polemic, which was often at odds with the “social realism” of the thirties and the cultural nationalism of the Black Arts movement, pre-eminent speakers of which were Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, her works went largely unread and did not receive the wide distribution as her male contemporaries’. Criticized for endorsing a nonpolitical stance regarding race relations, because she did not provide her readers an ideal, fictionalized black model, Hurston was in fact actually engaged, according to David Headon in “’Beginning to See Things Really’”: The Politics of Zora Neale Hurston” in eradicating all forms of oppression with a “far-reaching political agenda” (28). By choosing to interest herself in characters who tell it like it is, who are a mixture of both bad and good, the Negro experience is shown to be as valid, authentic and as deserving of literary space as the whites’. Not interested in uplifting the blacks’ status because for her it was already uplifted, she was more interested in seeing the blacks as “complete, complex, undiminished human beings” (italics in the original; Walker, qtd. in Gates 200) and thinks the whites “arrogant” for thinking that “black lives are only defensive reactions to white actions” (in Gates 199).

Instead of celebrating the Negroes’ oppression, she chooses to tell their story, sometimes in a way she is very good at—when she “speaks pieces”, an entertaining spiel that makes liberal use of  the black vernacular. In “Spunk”, in “Sweat”, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, and in her many other short stories, she does just that, animating her characters with “black idiom” (arguably the kind that Wright and Hughes decry as not helping the cause of the Negro any.) The black vernacular that she uses in all but one of her works is an attempt to re-create the English language with a ‘distinct’ and aural quality, thereby rendering not only their experiences but also the characters who come alive through the dialect an authentic feel. Believing that language is one arena where bondage is effected, Hurston allowed the blacks to speak in this manner, which technique later writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison had adopted as well.

In “Spunk”, the aural quality of the language of her African-American characters identifies their class, their race, their gender, and how they were positioned in the story. Essentially bystanders who comment on the morality (and immorality) of Spunk’s behavior, the seeming timidity of Joe Kanty, the characters Elijah Moseley, Walter Thomas and the other loungers in the county’s general store may here be seen as the town’s “conscience”. They narrate, pass judgments on, and make sense of the whole sordid affair through the lens of their own experiences and through which we also come to understand how certain values of integrity, responsibility, vengeance, crime and punishment are viewed in such a society.

These are impressions I would like to leave you with, and hopefully in so doing, inspire a desire to read more works by the spunky Zora Neale Hurston, she who made a career of “speak[ing] pieces”!

 WORKS CITED

  • Baym, Nina, ed. “Zora Neale Hurston.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: Norton,   1995.1982.
  • Boyd, Veronica. “She Was the Party.” Their Eyes Were Watching God. By Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Harper   Perennial, 1990. 2-7.
  • Danticat, Edwidge. Foreword. Their Eyes Were Watching God. By Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990. ix-xviii.
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Afterword. Their Eyes Were Watching God. By Zora Neale Hurston. NY: Harper   Perennial, 1990. 195-205.
  • Headon, David. “`Beginning to See Things Really’: The Politics of Zora Neale Hurston.” Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel, eds. Zora in Florida. Orlando: U of Central Florida P, 1991.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. “How it Feels to Be Colored Me.” About.Com. 19 February 2012. <http://grammar.about.com/od/60essays/a/theireyesessay.htm&gt;
  • “Mules and Men: Ways of Seeing.” 20 February 2012. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma01/grand- jean/hurston/chapters/performance.html>
  • Walker, Alice. “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” Ms Magazine 1975.
  • Wiley, Angela. “The Harlem Renaissance: The Development of a New African-American Consciousness.” American Literature Research and Analysis Website. 30 July 1996. 20 February 2012. <http://itech.fgcu.edu/faculty/wohlpart/alra/hurston.htm&gt;

10 thoughts on “The “Spunk”-y Zora Neale Hurston “speaks pieces”

  1. As an information junkie I love how you provided great details in your post content. Miss Zora Neale Hurston is a talent who is proven to be more recognized in death than in her life.

    1. I agree completely, and it’s sad, right? There are people way ahead of their time. I so love her prose!

      Thanks for the kind words and for liking my post. The opportunity provided by the US Embassy here in Manila to write a bit on Ms Hurston was a wonderful one, so I jumped at the chance haha!

      May I say your blog ain’t bad either!..

      Tc!

  2. I read “Eyes” and it didn’t make much of an impression. Maybe my radio just can’t tune in her station. Maybe by the time I got to Hurston, her influence had spread so wide the originals had lost their punch.

      1. It’s possible, although as I point out to my wife, I like “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Enchanted April” so it might be a class / race / age thing. (On the other hand, the only time I felt like crying during “The Joy Luck Club” was when I realized it wasn’t over yet. So who knows.)

      2. Quite right. That’s not to say I can’t enjoy “Of Mice and Men”, “Fight Club”, “A River Runs Through It” (dick flicks, as I call them, as opposed to chick flick hehe) because I did! So of course, we “read” with our gender, class / race / age, and er, sexual orientation… ;p

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