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Race and Gender in the Work of Zora Neale Hurston
This comprehensive study examines the ways Hurston circumvented the constraints of the white publishing world and a predominantly white readership to critique white culture and its effects on the black community.
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is the first single-authored book-length study of Zora Neale Hurston and provides the most thorough and meticulous examination of her full body of work. A number of earlier critics have concluded that Hurston simply capitulated to external demands, writing stories white people wanted to hear. Susan Edwards Meisenhelder, however, argues that Hurston's response to her situation was much more sophisticated than her detractors have recognized. Meisenhelder suggests, in fact, that Hurston's work, both fictional and anthropological, constitutes an extended critique of the values of white culture and a rejection of white models for black people. Repeatedly, Hurston's work shows the divisive effects that traditional white values, including class divisions and gender imbalances, have on blacks.
While Hurston openly criticized white culture in letters, in articles for black publications, and in the manuscript version of her autobiography, her attack is more indirect in most of her work, which was largely published by white publishers and in white periodicals. Meisenhelder convincingly demonstrates that Hurston, drawing a lesson from African American folk tales dealing with black survival in a white world, plays the role of the artful trickster in such publications. In the tales of Daddy Mention, High John de Conquer, and other figures that she recorded and commented on in her anthropological works, Hurston found models of black people self-consciously donning a mask of subservience, even living up to racist stereotypes, to make fun of and win something from whites. Seeing Hurston as such a trickster figure in her writing invites substantial reinterpretation of many of her works.
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is a ground-breaking study valuable for classroom use and recommended for all academic libraries—undergraduate, graduate, and research.
Susan Meisenhelder is Professor of English at California
State University-San Bernardino.
Race and Shame in America
As Bill Clinton said in his second inaugural address, “The divide of race has been America’s constant curse.” In Honor Bound, David Leverenz explores the past to the present of that divide. He argues that in the United States, the rise and decline of white people’s racial shaming reflect the rise and decline of white honor. “White skin” and “black skin” are fictions of honor and shame. Americans have lived those fictions for over four hundred years.To make his argument, Leverenz casts an unusually wide net, from ancient and modern cultures of honor to social, political, and military history to American literature and popular culture.He highlights the convergence of whiteness and honor in the United States from the antebellum period to the present. The Civil War, the civil rights movement, and the election of Barack Obama represent racial progress; the Tea Party movement represents the latest recoil.From exploring African American narratives to examining a 2009 episode of Hardball—in which two white commentators restore their honor by mocking U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder after he called Americans “cowards” for not talking more about race—Leverenz illustrates how white honor has prompted racial shaming and humiliation. The United States became a nation-state in which light-skinned people declared themselves white. The fear masked by white honor surfaces in such classics of American literature as The Scarlet Letter and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and in the U.S. wars against the Barbary pirates from 1783 to 1815 and the Iraqi insurgents from 2003 to the present. John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers is used to frame the 2008 presidential campaign as white honor’s last national stand.Honor Bound concludes by probing the endless attempts in 2009 and 2010 to preserve white honor through racial shaming, from the “birthers” and Tea Party protests to Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” in Congress and the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the front door of his own home. Leverenz is optimistic that, in the twenty-first century, racial shaming is itself becoming shameful.
Verbal and Visual Strategies of the Harlem Renaissance
Focusing on the years from 1922 to 1938, this book revisits an important moment in black cultural history to explore how visual elements were used in poems, novels, and photography to undermine existing stereotypes. Miriam Thaggert identifies and analyzes an early form of black American modernism characterized by a heightened level of experimentation with visual and verbal techniques for narrating and representing blackness. The work of the writers and artists under discussion reflects the creative tension between the intangibility of some forms of black expression, such as spirituals, and the materiality of the body evoked by other representations of blackness, such as “Negro” dialect. By paying special attention to the contributions of photographers and other visual artists who have not been discussed in previous accounts of black modernism, Thaggert expands the scope of our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance and contributes to a growing recognition of the importance of visual culture as a distinct element within, and not separate from, black literary studies. Thaggert trains her critical eye on the work of James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, Carl Van Vechten, James Van Der Zee, and Aaron Siskind—artists who experimented with narrative and photographic techniques in order to alter the perception of black images and to question and reshape how one reads and sees the black body. Examining some of the more problematic authors and artists of black modernism, she challenges entrenched assumptions about black literary and visual representations of the early to mid twentieth century. Thaggert concludes her study with a close look at the ways in which Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance were reimagined and memorialized in two notable texts—Wallace Thurman’s 1932 satire Infants of the Spring and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968.”
Experimental African American Literature after Civil Rights
The post–Civil Rights era was marked by an explosion of black political thought and aesthetics. Reflecting a shifting horizon of expectations around race relations, the unconventional sounds of free jazz coupled with experimental literary creation nuanced the push toward racial equality and enriched the possibilities for aesthetic innovation within the Black Arts Movement. In Imagine the Sound, Carter Mathes demonstrates how African American writers used sound to further artistic resistance within a rapidly transforming political and racial landscape.
While many have noted the oral and musical qualities of African American poetry from the post–Civil Rights period, Mathes points out how the political implications of dissonance, vibration, and resonance produced in essays, short stories, and novels animated the ongoing struggle for equality. Situating literary works by Henry Dumas, Larry Neal, and Toni Cade Bambara in relation to the expansive ideas of sound proposed by free jazz musicians such as Marion Brown and Sun Ra, not only does this book illustrate how the presence of sound can be heard and read as political, but it recuperates critically neglected, yet important, writers and musicians. Ultimately, Mathes details how attempts to capture and render sound through the medium of writing enable writers to envision alternate realities and resistance outside of the linear frameworks offered by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
In precise and elegant prose, Mathes shows how in conceptualizing sound, African American writers opened up the political imaginations of their readers. By exploring this intellectual convergence of literary artistry, experimental music, and sound theory, Imagine the Sound reveals how taking up radically new forms of expression allows us to speak to the complexities of race and political resistance.
African American Masculinity in the Harlem and Southern Renaissances
Andrew B. Leiter presents the first book-length study of the sexually violent African American man, or “black beast,” as a composite literary phenomenon. According to Leiter, the black beast theme served as a fundamental link between the Harlem and Southern Renaissances, with writers from both movements exploring its psychological, cultural, and social ramifications. Indeed, Leiter asserts that the two groups consciously engaged one another’s work as they struggled to define roles for black masculinity in a society that viewed the black beast as the raison d’être for segregation. Leiter begins by tracing the nineteenth-century origins of the black beast image, and then provides close readings of eight writers who demonstrate the crucial impact anxieties about black masculinity and interracial sexuality had on the formation of American literary modernism. James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Walter White’s The Fire in the Flint, George Schuyler’s Black No More, William Faulkner’s Light in August, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Allen Tate’s The Fathers, Erskine Caldwell’s Trouble in July, and Richard Wright’s Native Son, as well as other works, provide strong evidence that perceptions of black male sexual violence shaped segregation, protest traditions, and the literature that arose from them. Leiter maintains that the environment of southern race relations—which allowed such atrocities as the Atlanta riot of 1906, numerous lynchings, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, and the Scottsboro trials—influenced in part the development of both the Harlem and Southern Renaissances. While the black beast image had the most pernicious impact on African American individual and communal identities, he says the “threat” of black masculinity also shaped concepts of white national and communal identities, as well as white femininity and masculinity. In the Shadow of the Black Beast signals a fresh interpretation of a literary stereotype within its social and historical context.
Race, Crime, and American Civic Identity
From Puritan Execution Day rituals to gangsta rap, the black criminal has been an enduring presence in American culture. To understand why, Jeannine Marie DeLombard insists, we must set aside the lenses of pathology and persecution and instead view the African American felon from the far more revealing perspectives of publicity and personhood. When the Supreme Court declared in Dred Scott that African Americans have "no rights which the white man was bound to respect," it overlooked the right to due process, which ensured that black offenders—even slaves—appeared as persons in the eyes of the law. In the familiar account of African Americans' historical shift "from plantation to prison," we have forgotten how, for a century before the Civil War, state punishment affirmed black political membership in the breach, while a thriving popular crime literature provided early America's best-known models of individual black selfhood. Before there was the slave narrative, there was the criminal confession.
Placing the black condemned at the forefront of the African American canon allows us to see how a later generation of enslaved activists—most notably, Frederick Douglass—could marshal the public presence and civic authority necessary to fashion themselves as eligible citizens. At the same time, in an era when abolitionists were charging Americans with the national crime of "manstealing," a racialized sense of culpability became equally central to white civic identity. What, for African Americans, is the legacy of a citizenship grounded in culpable personhood? For white Americans, must membership in a nation built on race slavery always betoken guilt? In the Shadow of the Gallows reads classics by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, George Lippard, and Edward Everett Hale alongside execution sermons, criminal confessions, trial transcripts, philosophical treatises, and political polemics to address fundamental questions about race, responsibility, and American civic belonging.
Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography
It is no coincidence, Daphne Lamothe writes, that so many black writers and intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century either trained formally as ethnographers or worked as amateur collectors of folklore and folk culture. In Inventing the New Negro Lamothe explores the process by which key figures such as Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Sterling Brown adapted ethnography and folklore in their narratives to create a cohesive, collective, and modern black identity.
Lamothe explores how these figures assumed the roles of self-reflective translators and explicators of African American and African diasporic cultures to Western, largely white audiences. Lamothe argues that New Negro writers ultimately shifted the presuppositions of both literary modernism and modernist anthropology by making their narratives as much about ways of understanding as they were about any quest for objective knowledge. In critiquing the ethnographic framework within which they worked, they confronted the classist, racist, and cultural biases of the dominant society and challenged their readers to imagine a different set of relations between the powerful and the oppressed.
Inventing the New Negro combines an intellectual history of one of the most important eras of African American letters with nuanced and original readings of seminal works of literature. It will be of interest not only to Harlem Renaissance scholars but to anyone who is interested in the intersections of culture, literature, folklore, and ethnography.
Ralph Ellison and the American Canon
In 1952 Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award for his Kafkaesque and claustrophobic novel about the life of a nameless young black man in New York City. Although Invisible Man has remained the only novel that Ellison published in his lifetime, it is generally regarded as one of the most important works of fiction in our century.
This new reading of a classic work examines Ellison's relation to and critique of the American literary canon by demonstrating that the pattern of allusions in Invisible Man forms a literary-critical subtext which challenges the accepted readings of such major American authors as Emerson, Melville, and Twain.
Modeling his argument on Foucault's analysis of the asylum, Nadel analyzes the institution of the South to show how it moved blacks from "enslavement" to "slavery" to "invisibility"—all in the interest of maintaining an organization of power based on racial caste. He then demonstrates the ways Ellison wrote in the modernist/surreal tradition to trace symbolically the history of blacks in America as they moved not only from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, and from the rural South to the urban North, but as they moved (sometimes unnoticed) through American fiction.
It is on this latter movement that Nadel focuses his criticism, first demonstrating theoretically that allusions can impel reconsideration of the alluded-to text and thus function as a form of literary criticism, and then reading the specific criticism implied by Ellison's allusions to Emerson's essays and Lewis Mumford's The Golden Days, as well as to "Benito Cereno" and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nadel also considers Ellison's allusions to Whitman, Eliot, Joyce, and the New Testament.
Invisible Criticism will be of interest not only to students of American and Afro-American literature but also to those concerned about issues of literary theory, particularly in the areas of intertextual relationships, canonicity, and rehistoricism.