Zora Neale Hurston is perhaps one of the mostly widely read authors associated with the Harlem Renaissance – Their Eyes Were Watching God is her most well-known work. However, during her own lifetime, Hurston was a very controversial figure. Her work was often considered to be too “black” for many white publishers who shunned her realistic portrayals of African American life, particularly in the South.
When Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published, the influential black novelist Richard Wright criticized Hurston, stating that “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes ‘white folks’ laugh.” The black minstrel shows of the nineteenth and early twentieth century mainly consisted of white actors playing the role of black people. Their comedy was based on racist stereotypes and portrayals of black people as ignorant and buffoonish. Occasionally black actors would be cast in the shows, and there were even some all black minstrel groups. To a certain extent, it is true that Hurston worked in the black minstrel tradition. The question is whether or not her work in this tradition remains connected to racial stereotyping. Or perhaps it represents a sophisticated effort to reappropriate black culture, while also enticing white audiences to pay for productions which they perceived to be extensions of the more racist minstrel shows with which they were more familiar.
In order to gain a better understanding of Hurston’s complex relationship to her own racial and cultural identity, you will first read an essay about how Hurston came to study anthropology and ethnography (see “The Wellspring of Zora Neale Hurston’s Creative Imagination” in Reading 5). After reading this essay, you will read and/or listen (Links to an external site.) to “Lawing and Jawing”.
In your essay, you will consider Hurston’s portrayal of black culture in her one-act play. Do you tend to agree with Richard Wright’s characterization of Hurston’s work? In this play, is she simply perpetuating racist stereotypes of black people? Why or Why not? Additionally, you might consider examining what aspects of the play seem to offer a more complex portrayal of black culture. Are there aspects of the play in which you can see her effort to capture the creativity and adaptability of black language?
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