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Volume 3, Number 2, Winter 2005 Monica L. Miller, Guest Editor
Jumpin' at the Sun: Reassessing the
Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston
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Zora Neale Hurston's Essays:
On Art and Such

Cheryl A. Wall

On January 13, 1938, Zora Neale Hurston finished the essay she was writing for "The Negro in Florida," a volume that was prepared for the Federal Writers Project. The essay, "Art and Such," would not be published for more than four decades, but it provides rare and useful insights into Hurston's understanding of African American literary and artistic traditions and of herself as an artist.[1] Hurston judges African Americans' contribution to the arts harshly: "creation is in its stumbling infancy." She is not concerned here with the legacy of folklore and music, which confirm the existence of "many undreamed-of geniuses."[2] She concentrates instead on those who would call themselves artists and who, only three generations removed from slavery, continue to wrestle with its legacy of enforced silence. Crippling too are the ideological constraints under which they labor. Compelled to write as race leaders, they are unable to think as individuals or to draw a character as anything other than "a tragic unit of the Race."[3] The tradition that gives pride of place to unimaginative "Race Men" silences artists, clearly including Hurston herself, who do not adhere to its dictates. Hurston does not name these men, but when she refers to the misnaming of the spirituals as "Sorrow Songs," she identifies W. E. B. DuBois as one of her targets.[4]

As she highlights the handful of black artists born in Florida, Hurston identifies Brooks Thompson, a woodcarver whose work is a thing "of wondrous beauty." Asked how he achieved it, Thompson states, "The feeling just come and I did it."[5] Hurston wants to create a free space for writers who can do in words what this unheralded artist has done in his medium. When describing the interior of the house Thompson decorated with his carvings, Hurston notes that "without ever having known anything about African Art, he has achieved something very close to African concepts." Not surprisingly, Hurston posits a racial art that owes more to culture than to politics. Although she offers no explanation for the transmission of this artistic tradition, she had previously identified African survivals in the folklore and music she documented in a decade of fieldwork. The storytellers and singers whose words and music she transcribed knew no more of African traditions than Thompson.

In "Art and Such," Hurston insists that the pressure on blacks to conform to political dictates stymied creativity. The paucity of artists is proof. She cites one painter, one sculptor (Augusta Savage, whose subjects are racial, but whose work is free of propaganda), one musician, and two writers—James Weldon Johnson and Hurston herself. Hurston's argument with the tradition she inherits is that it has no room for an artist like her. Her critical intervention anticipates pronouncements by black women artists such as Ntozake Shange and Alice Walker, who similarly faced the need to create, revise, and extend a tradition in which to locate their art. Writing in the third person about her own work, Hurston cites as defining qualities its "objective point of view" and its language, which give "verisimilitude to the narrative by stewing the subject in its own juice."[6] "Objective" is Hurston's way of expressing her commitment to artistic freedom. It marks her refusal to advance the race leader's political agenda and asserts that her refusal has made her a better writer. The theme recurs in Hurston's essays, as do the reflections on language that are at the core of her aesthetic. Indeed, I will argue that to understand that aesthetic, we need to pay much closer attention to Hurston's essays than we have done.[7]

Tools 3.2 Online Resources Recommended Reading S&F Online in the Classroom
S&F Online - Issue 3.2, Jumpin' at the Sun: Reassessing the Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston
Monica L. Miller, Guest Editor - ©2005.