Migration, Fragmentation, and Identity:
Zora Neale Hurston's Color Struck and the Geography
of the Harlem Renaissance
From A Beautiful Pageant by David Krasner. Copyright © 2002
by David Krasner. Reprinted with permission of Palgrave
Macmillan, NY. (Available for purchase on Amazon.Com.)
The location is not already there before the bridge. . .a location comes into
existence only by virtue of the bridge.
I must be the bridge to nowhere / But my true self / And then / I will be useful.
-Donna Kate Rushin
Geography and migration played a key role in the description and formation of the
Harlem Renaissance-New Negro era. The Great Migration, which began just prior
to World War I and continued well after, had a profound effect both on the cities of
the North and the southern, rural communities left behind. Indeed, during the
1910s, nearly half a million African Americans left the rural South for the urban
North. Within a decade, more than three-quarters of a million would follow,
increasing the black northern population from 1910 to 1930 by 300 percent. Swept
up by what Alain Locke called the "wash and rush of this human tide on the beach
line of the northern city center," black people were rejecting the South's history of
racial violence and lynching, embracing the mass psychology underlying movement,
escaping from poor rural farming, and seeking a better future.
In contrast to the image of the migrating African American is the work of
Zora Neale Hurston (ca. 1891-1960). Hurston was a playwright and
anthropologist who felt that migration, while affording some positive opportunities, was
also violent and costly. She saw the results of the Great Migration as terrifying
and spasmodic, unbearably inhumane and devastating to those left behind. For
Hurston, rural black people were being forgotten, disappearing amidst the heady
enthusiasm of the urban New Negro Movement. Hazel Carby makes the claim
that Hurston wanted to represent "rural folk" and their cultural forms as
measured "against an urban, mass culture."
Analyzing Hurston's play, Color Struck
(1925), as both a document of dramatic literature and an anthropological study
reveals some of the tragic and devastating implications of the Great Migration.
In what follows, I will examine the relationship of African American women and
the Great Migration on the one hand, and focus on the author's personal
expressions of fragmentation as they relate to the play's protagonist on the other,
making use of what Crispin Sartwell calls Hurston's "bits and pieces" of self-identity,
which inform her fiction. Significantly, Hurston shifts the locus of the Harlem-
New Negro Renaissance from the urban North, with its relatively positive,
upbeat outlook, to the impoverished rural South, where she attempts to depict a
tragedy of epic proportions.
Rural culture among black southern women was for Hurston what Hazel
Carby calls the artistic representation of the folk; that is, "not only a discursive
displacement of the historical and cultural transformation of migration, but also
is a creation of a folk who are outside history." In Color Struck, Hurston creates a
world made up of those who are "outside history," having fallen through the
interstices of social recognition. Emma is Hurston's creation taken to the level of
symbolic representation: by dint of the fact that she is black, poor,
disenfranchised, and rural, she epitomizes the outsider in every way. She is not the "New
Negro" fashioned by the doyens of the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, she defies
commodification as a cultural artifact made for the amusement of whites and the
progressive faction of the black elite. Literary historian Barbara Johnson
emphasizes that Hurston both "deplored the appropriation, dilution, and
commodification of black culture" typical during the Roaring Twenties-Jazz Age, and
constantly tried to define the difference between "a reified 'art'" fixed In the
minds of her audience and "a living culture" that is neither unyielding nor
Johnson's point can be extended. Hurston was in revolt
against a black northern elitist culture that rejected the values of the black South
as well as its people, and she was embarking on a creative process of reclaiming
southern, poor, black women from the dustbin of history. Black women of the
South had been deemed out of step with the progressive elements of an
urbanized, sophisticated, and for the most part masculine New Negro culture. And
they were allegedly unfit to represent the "new woman," fully self-sufficient and
modern. Hurston's project of anthropological recovery combined with dramatic
intensity permeates Color Struck.
Much has been written about Hurston's creative writing in relation to her
anthropological study, particularly through her association with Franz Boas
(1858-1942). In 1925,
Hurston entered Columbia University's Barnard
College to study anthropology under Boas. According to him, cultures, races, and
languages have distinctive individualities, which are expressed in their modes of
life, thought, and feeling, and it is the aim of the anthropologist to document and
collate the empirical evidence of cultures and races objectively and scientifically.
Under Boas's tutelage, Hurston absorbed the concept of anthropology as a body
of research following scientific laws that exist in nature and not in the mind of
the scholar. Cultures assessed by anthropologists do not arise from subjective
assertions, Boas said, but rather reflect "external
truth." His brand of
anthropology rejected the perspective of race and culture as linkages to a single, grand
system of evolutionary sequence. Rather, he thought, anthropology must
endeavor to focus on the society in which the subject lives, take inventory of
material artifacts, and examine the detailed patterns, symbols, and myths that
characterize various "cultures." The Columbia School of anthropology initiated
by Boas instituted two significant changes in the discipline that had a direct
bearing on Hurston's research and creative output: the emergence of the "fieldworker
archetype" and the study of culture as the "focal concept and subject matter."
Rather than as a vertical arrangement of "cultures," Boas and his protégées (with
Hurston among them) viewed anthropology horizontally, as a commitment to
social contingency rather than matters of biology or cultural hierarchy. Field
research, contact with the subject, impartiality, and the expression of "laws"
defining reoccurring modes of historical events were the principal objectives of
Columbia School anthropologists.
Hurston's commitment to Boas's anthropology was ambivalent. On the one
hand, she embraced the critical distancing demanded of the fieldworker
archetype, which required onsite research, detached objectivity, and gathering empirical
evidence. In Mules and Men she confessed that her prior experiences within
African American rural culture fit her too closely, "like a tight chemise." This
familiarity inhibited her ability to collect folkloric data unclouded by subjective
interference. Boasian anthropology enabled her to make use of what she called the
"spy-glass of Anthropology" to "stand off and look at my garments." On the
other hand, Hurston was an artist who drew from her personal experiences.
Southern black rural folklife was grist for her writer's mill, the primary source of
her imagination, and the most influential part of her creativity. In both her roles
as fieldworker and creative writer, she sought to preserve black Folklore by
advancing what anthropologist Lee D. Baker terms her "vindicationist concern for
debunking stereotypes while promoting African American culture by using the
Boasian idea of culture." However, juggling objective anthropology and
subjective creativity caused an internal rift, making her dual identity as academic
folklorist and creative artist difficult to reconcile. As biographer Robert E.
Hemenway observed, by balancing her energies "between art and science, fiction
and anthropology," Hurston "searched for an expressive instrument, an
intellectual formula," that might accommodate her twin interests. But the inductive
reasoning of Boasian anthropology chafed against the deductive assertions and
subjective partiality Hurston needed to instill an emotional content in her art.
The ambiguities and tensions between "detached researcher" and "impassioned
artist" failed to be resolved.
Color Struck was completed just prior to Hurston's entrance into Barnard.
Having not yet come under the Columbia School influence, Hurston was free
from the pressures associated with Boas and his demanding impartiality.
Hurston wrote the play using her objective knowledge of folklore and her
empathetic imagination. As a pre-Boasian text, the play is a vindication of black folk
culture and a dynamic drama that is informed by the thoughts and feelings of the
author. It combines Hurston's anthropological research and creativity in the
invention of the protagonist. Through Hurston's research and aesthetics, Emma
becomes a representative of her milieu, drawn from the author's external
observations and, to a certain degree, autobiography. Hurston's balancing act of
docudrama and melodrama-research and cultural analysis on the one hand, and
dramatic art on the other-yields a text that is multifaceted, immersed in
anthropological study yet unburdened by the rigorous scientific objectivity Boasian
anthropology required. In other words, Hurston had already entered into
meta-anthropological research earlier than scholars have indicated, creating a
drama that looks through "spyglasses" at the poverty and ennui of southern
black women. Yet this drama also imbricates the author's imagination and
personal experiences of fragmentation and dislocation.
The play can be summarized this way: Emmaline (called Emma throughout
the play) is a dark-skinned African American woman from Jacksonville, Florida.
Her lover, John, pursues light-skinned women, thus keeping Emma in a
constant state of jealousy. The play is set in an all-black region of rural Florida
during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In four scenes, Hurston
explores the disintegration of Emma and John's relationship. The first three
scenes take place in 1900, the fourth twenty years later. The opening scene
occurs in a railway car where John, Emma, and others from various parts of
Florida-Jacksonville, Augustine, and Eatonville-are en route to a
cakewalking dance contest. Scene two takes place right before the contest, while scene
three occurs during the contest itself. The final scene, twenty years later, depicts
John's return from the North and his attempt to reconcile his differences with
Emma. Emma, however, rejects John's overtures as much too little and too late.
Emma embodies the circumstances of rural, southern black women of the time,
making a "happy" conclusion based on romantic reconciliation untenable.
While it won second prize in the drama division of the 1925 Opportunity
Magazine contest for best play, Color Struck has, with few exceptions, received scant
critical attention. Critic Pearlie Mae Fisher Peters summarily dismisses the play,
calling the protagonist a "clinging-vine woman obsessed with the dynamics of
intra-racial color prejudice." Other studies have emphasized the play's
"colorism." Colorism within the African American community makes use of the
degree of blackness or whiteness to assign privileges. There is considerable
evidence to support this claim. Hurston wrote in her autobiography, Dust Tracks
on a Road,, that "the blackest Negro" is often "the butt of all jokes, particularly
black women." Certainly colorism is part of the play; both Emma's self-
effacement and racial prejudice add to her tragedy. Emma's inferiority complex
creates a twin condition, one that both internalizes a self-depreciating identity
and externalizes it by focusing on the color prejudice of others. There is more in
the play, however, than a study of color bias and self-pity; there is a statement
about regionalism and the dislocation of character.
Cultural historians Sandra L. Richards, Anthea Kraut, and Michael North
provide an analysis of Color Struck that examines regionalism and the significance
of identity. In her reading of Color Struck, Richards makes the point that "because
the body onstage, through its carriage, gesture, and spatial relationships to other
bodies, resonates with social history, the viewing experience is considerably
different." She rightly points out that Hurston intended to place the black body in
visible proximity to other bodies onstage, and In so doing establish the "potential
interlocking" of characters, which depends not so much on "the written
structuring elements" but instead on the "dynamic triangulation between these formal
elements, performers, and spectators." The visual presence of Emma becomes a
performatlve strategy, creating a potential for receptivity that must be considered
together with the written text.
Richards is also right to weigh the importance of historical circumstances
and locale. She notes that the opening scene in the Jim Crow railway car, which
because of segregation shows an all-black cast of characters, is a stage picture
that black audiences at the time would no doubt immediately recognize. She calls
attention also to the presence of whites in the audience, since Hurston, she says
"wanted to speak to white Americans, too"; Richards suggests that the opening
scene of the play, with its characters carrying on rambunctiously, fell victim to
"primitivism." The presentation of rowdiness, says Richards, served as a "site of
the irrational," creating "negative signifiers on the scale of civilization," and
revealing "examples of the primitive who unself-consciously provide salvation
models for white sophisticates, chafing at the stultifying materialism and
positivism of American culture."
Little evidence is adduced, however, to substantiate the claim that the play
was written for white audiences. The evidence, in fact, suggests that the play
was specifically written for a black audience. To begin with, the play was
originally published in Fire!, a radical black journal intended primarily for African
Americans. While the journal was certainly made available to whites, it was
specifically a work by writers and artists who rejected stereotypes and discussed
African themes, jazz, the blues, and black folk culture, which would be familiar
to blacks but anathema to whites. The journal also represented an alternative to
middle-class "New Negro" audiences, particularly those of Locke's book, The
New Negro (1925), and Du Bois's magazine, Crisis, where tastes were inclined
toward urbanity and alleged assimilationism.
Locke himself dubbed the short-lived (one issue) Fire! "left-wing
literary modernism" containing a "charging
brigade of literary revolt, especially against the bulwarks of Puritanism."
Furthermore, an African American company may have produced the play
for a black audience in Hurston's lifetime. Hurston's letter to Annie Nathan
Meyer (10 November 1929) provides some evidence, though it is hardly
conclusive. Hurston wrote, "The Negro Art Theatre of Harlem is fairly launching now
and the first program will include my 'Color Struck.'" The publication in Fire!
and the potential production suggests, in this instance, that Hurston neither
curried white favor nor sought to publish in white journals. Finally, the play's
ambiance lies wholly within black culture, invested in what Anthea Kraut astutely
terms a "circumscribed, southern black space." The play's cakewalking contest,
for instance, a plot device dominating the first three scenes, is exclusively of an
African American milieu.
The cakewalk was a high-stepping dance that emerged through a
combination of black vernacular culture, minstrelsy, and the cultural exchange of black and
white. Yet in Color Struck
the dance is completely devoid of a white
presence; in fact, throughout the play the subject of white people hardly arises. A
white doctor does appear at the end, but his presence is brief and insignificant.
Michael North raises the significant point that in Color Struck the cakewalk "is a
black rural ritual that has no reference to anything outside itself." Thus, says
North, by removing the "white frame around the cakewalk" the play
"recommends its own sublime indifference to white opinion as a way of redeeming black
folk culture from its popularized and vulgarized white versions." For Hurston,
the cakewalk is no longer a dance Influenced by or connected to whites, but a
self-enclosed community ritual. In Color Struck, Hurston draws from her
experience of growing up in an all-black rural region of Eatonville, Florida. She creates
a world of black southern folklore through her protagonist, Emma, who is
rejected both by mainstream society and by her own community.