Challenges:Other Sides of the New Negro Claude McKay & Zora Neale Hurston
Claude McKay (1889-1948) Major Works Poetry Collections Songs of Jamaica (1911) Constab Ballads (1912) Spring in New Hampshire (1920) Harlem Shadows (1922) Novels Home to Harlem (1928) Banjo (1929) Gingertown (1931) Banana Bottom (1933) Autobiography: A Long Way From Home (1937) Sociological Study: Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940)
Home to Harlem (1928)• Published while McKay was in France; he had left the United States in 1922, six years before its publication.• Wildly popular in New York before the stock market crashed in 1929. • Sold 11,000 copies in its first two weeks of publication, 50,000 during the first year.• Considered one of the first African American best sellers.• Praised by white critics and condemned by African American leaders and publications.
Responses to Home to HarlemPraised by white critics One white reviewer wrote that the novel showed “the real thing in rightness. . . the lowdown on Harlem, the dope from the inside.”Condemned by African American leaders when it was published “Home to Harlem] for the most part nauseates me, and after [reading] the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath. . . . It looks as though McKay has set out to cater to that prurient demand on the part of the white folk for a portrayal in Negroes of that licentiousness which conventional civilization holds white folk back from enjoying.” —W. E. B. Du Bois, review in Crisis (1928) “White people think we are buffoons, thugs, and rotters anyway. Why should we waste so much time trying to prove it? That’s what Claude McKay had done.” — Dewey Jones, Chicago Defender (black newspaper)
Responses to Home to HarlemCelebrated by younger Harlem Renaissance writers“Undoubtedly it is the finest thing ‘we’ve’ done yet. . . . Your novelought to give a second youth to the Negro Vogue.”Home to Harlem will become “the flower of the Negro Renaissance,even if it is no lovely lily” (1 Mar 1928 letter to Alain Locke).—Langston Hughes on Home to HarlemScholars are fascinated, even perplexed by it today“Few African American works have aroused more unease among blackmiddle-class reformers and critics than Home to Harlem.” —Wayne F. Cooper, Oxford Companion to African American Literature“Of all the major Afro American writers who emerged in the 1920’s,Claude McKay remains the most controversial and least understood”(ix). —Wayne F. Cooper’s 1987 foreword to Home to Harlem
Responses to Home to HarlemWith Home to Harlem, McKay began a fictional search for value,meaning, and self-direction in modern Afro-American existence thatwould preoccupy him in future works. Despite all the brave assertionsof Afro-American vitality and joy in the novel, it was a troubled book byan author whose own tensions and doubts were never far from thesurface. Nevertheless, McKay’s portraits of Jake and Ray were positiveones. Threads of affirmation and hope pervade their story that, with fewexceptions, have remained constant in black fiction, despite theenormity of the problems that still beset America’s black inner citiestoday. McKay believed that the black folk wisdom brought to thenation’s cities in the Great Migration northward that began in his daywas exemplified in men like Jake in home to Harlem. These menpossessed both a hard realism and a generosity of spirit upon whichthe black community had to build if it were ever to take control of itsown destiny and cease to be the victim of heedless Americancapitalism that viewed Afro-Americans as inert pawns upon achessboard of profit and loss.” (xxv-xxvi)—William S. Cooper’s 1987 foreword to Home to Harlem
Zora Neale Hurston 1891 - 1960 Portrait by Carl Van Vechten (1938)
The Multi-Faceted Zora Neale Hurston Howard University Washington, D.C. (c. 1920-1950)Hurston as a young woman
The Multi-FacetedZora Neale Hurston Collecting folklore in Florida, in the 1920s and 1930s
The Multi-Faceted Zora Neale Hurston“In the crowd with the people” in Haiti . . .
The Multi-FacetedZora Neale Hurston . . . in rural places . . .
The Multi-Talented Zora Neale Hurston. . . and in urban locations.
Major Published Works• Jonahs Gourd Vine (1934) novel• Mules and Men (1935) African American folklore• Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) novel• Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938) Anthropological collection• Moses Man of the Mountain (1941) novel• Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) autobiography• Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) novel
“Halimuhfack”Performed by Zora Neale Hurston(from an interview at the Library of Congress in 1935)
colorism, “color struck”: a hierarchywithin African American culture (andwithin many communities) in whichlight skin is more valued than darkskin. The lighter skinned a person is,the more worthy the person isconsidered within the community.
The CakewalkAfrican American performers demonstrating thecakewalk in the 1890s.
The Cakewalk“Close Competition at the Cake Walk,” by H. M. Petit, 1899.Original caption in Leslie’s Weekly read: “A popular diversion of thecolored people, in which many white persons manifest greatinterest.”
The Cakewalk Watch a cakewalk, c. 1900http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG03/lucas/cakewalk.mov
Hurston on Writing Beyond the Stereotypes• “What White Publishers Won’t Print” (1950): A call for publishers to publish literature that considers “the internal lives and emotions” of African Americans.• Her essay laments “the lack of literature about the higher emotions and love life of upper-class Negroes and minorities in general.”• “It is urgent to realize that the minorities do think, and think about something other than the race problem. That they are very human and internally, according to natural endowment, are just like everybody else.”• “As long as the majority cannot conceive of a Negro or a Jew feeling and reacting inside just as they do, the majority will keep right on believing that people who do not look like them cannot possibly feel as they do.”
On Hurston’s Contribution• Their Eyes celebrates African American culture while revising those traditions to empower black women, according to literary critic Mary Helen Washington.• It portrays the emotion and internal thoughts of African Americans, something Hurston lamented that white publishers would not print.• It is the story of a woman in search of self, moving from the position as object of the male gaze to her own subject who has agency.• It is a story of self-empowerment, ultimately a story of an African American woman finding voice in a racist capitalist patriarchy.• Janie’s journey says something that is still relevant today.Lucy Anne Hurston wrote in her recent biography ofher aunt: “She thought and acted like a feminist,before the term was even coined.”Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of ZoraNeale Hurston (2004)
On Hurston’s Detractors• Criticized in 1937 by some Harlem Renaissance leaders and younger African American writers for romanticizing African American life and avoiding the race problem.• Richard Wright argued that the novel caters to whites by portraying African Americans the way whites want to see them and perpetuating the harmful stereotypes of the minstrel tradition (review in New Masses, October 1937): “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition that was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that make 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 Wright, literature by and about African Americans needed to make the racial injustices of the period the central focus of the text.
On Hurston’s Supporters• In 1937, The New York Times Book Review immediately praised the novel: “From the first to last this is well-nigh a perfect story, but the rest is simple and beautiful and shining with humor.”• Novelist Alice Walker says that Hurston presents “a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and literature.”• The late poet June Jordan called Their Eyes the “most successful, convincing and exemplary novel of blacklove that we have. Period.”
A Forgotten Text Zora Neale Hurston "A Genius of the South" 1901 - - - 1960 Novelist, Folklorist Anthropologist Tombstone erected by: Alice Walker Ms. magazine, 1973
Their Eyes Were Watching God 1937Original cover in 1937 Cover in the 1980s