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  • ZORA NEALE HURSTON'S EXPERIMENTATION WITH THE NARRATIVE VOICE IN HER SHORT STORIES

    ANA MARÍA FRAILE Universidad de Salamanca

    (Abstract)

    Literary critics such as Henry Louis Gates and Barbara Johnson have already approached the issue of voice in Zora Neale Hurston's novels-especially in Their Eyes Were Watching God. However, little attention has been directed to her short stories, despite the fact that they constitute an excellent ground to study the evolution of her narrative technique when considered chronologically. This paper responds to the need to flll that gap. I will show that between 1921 and 1942 Hurston créales successive narrative voices whose difterentiating trait is the gradual approach to and eventual identification with the language of the folk. In doing so Hurston demonstrated that it was viable for the Afro-American writer to acknowledge the folkloric oral tradition as the foundation of a genuine Afro-American written tradition.

    The representation of the Black voice in literature has always been a topic of debate among Afro-American writers. At the beginning of the twentieth century the stance in favor of the assimilation of black culture to white culture in order to work out the differences between blacks and whites —supported by Booker T. Washington, for instance- gave way to a new attitude in the early I920s. Afro-Americans began to think in more positive terms about the past and there was a re-evaluation of their roots. The Hariem Renaissance artists, at the same time echoing and voicing this popular change in attitude, looked back at their origins and discovered the richness of black folklore and language.' Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and Sterling Brown, among others, considered these as irrefutable proofs of the artistic and intelligent spirit of the race. They intended to re-assert their culture and flght the existing stereotypes about the Afro-American, showing the true essence of their people. AfroAmerican folklore became their source of inspiration. This was clearly expressed by Wallace Thurman when, speaking about the contributors to Fireü, he explained: "Hoping to introduce a truly Negroid note into American literature, its contributors had gone to the proletariat rather than to the

    I. For well documented studies of the Hariem Renaissance as a whole see David Leverin Lewis, When Hariem Was in Vogue (New York: Knopf, 1981), Jervis Anderson, This Was Hariem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900- 1950 (M.Y.: Earrar Straus Giroux, 1981), and Nathan Irvin Huggins, Hariem Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971). Specific aspects of the Hariem Renaissance are dealt with in the following collections of essays.The Hariem Renaissance Re-examined. Ed. Victor A. Kramer (New York: Ams Press, 1987), and The Hariem Renaissance: Revaluations. Eds. Amritjit Singh, et al. (New York: Garland, 1989). On Hariem and Modemism see James De Jongh, Vicious Modernism: Black Hariem and the Literary Imaginalion ^Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990), and Houston A. Baker, Modernism and the Hariem Renaissance. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987).

  • 28 Ana María Fraile

    bourgeoisie for characters and material, had gone to the people who still retained some individual race qualities and who were not totally white American in every respect save color of skin. " (Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston 45f

    Given their attitude towards the valué of popular black culture, there is little doubt that they would not have agreed more with Ellison when, years later, he argued;

    What we have achieved in folklore has seldom been achieved in the novel, the short story or poetry. In the folklore we tell what Negro experience really is. We back away from the chaos of experience and from ourselves, and we depict the humor as well as the horror of our living. We project Negro life in a metaphysical perspective and we have seen it with a complexity of visión that seldom gets into our writing. (Lenz 3)

    However, it was still hard in the early I920s to accept black dialect as a written literary language when it had been discredited by a long tradition that used it for comic and disparaging effects. During the nineteenth century the popular minstrel shows had effectively worked in this direction. Neverthless, Black English had been represented in literature by both white and black authors. Joel Chandier Harris had been praised by his accurate representation of the black dialects spoken in Georgia in the late nineteenth century. Charles W. Chesnutt and Paul L. Dunbar reached national popularity with their rendition of Afro-American folklore and dialect.' Nevertheless, standard English was acknowledged as the written literary language, whereas black dialect had been relegated to the role of characterization for realism's sake or for parodie purposes. Black dialect did therefore appear in literature, but always within the frame of a standard voice. This presupposed the subordination of one kind of speech to another, as Wideman has argued:

    [t]he frame implies a linguistic hierarchy, the dominance of one language variety over all others. This linguistic subordination extends to the dominance of one versión of reality over others." (80)

    Despite the absolute lack of prestige of black dialect it became clear that it could function as a literary language, as in fact it did in folklore. This was noted by James Weldon Johnson when, though admitting that "dialect has only two main stops, humor and pathos'" he added:

    That this is not a shortcoming inherent in the dialect as dialect is demonstrated by the wide compass it displays in its use in the folk creations. The limitation is due to conventions that have been fixed upon the dialect and the conformity to them by individual writers. Negro dialect poetry had its origins in the minstrel traditions and a persisting pattem was set. When the individual writer attempted to get away from that pattem, the fixed conventions allowed him only to slip over into a slough of sentimentality. (Jones 58)

    2. The magazine Fireü was edited by Thurman in 1926 in association with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, among others, and has become the New Negroes' manifesto,-even more than the anthology The New Negro edited by Locke, which seemed too "main stream" to them. 3. See Holton.

  • ZoraNeale Hurston 's Experimentation wiih .... 29

    Thus, dialect was established as a literary language only in the Afro-American oral tradition, whereas standard English dominated in the printed text. This status quo is called in question when nationalistic feelings demand that both literary ianguages be treated equally and that blacic experience be representad without the mediation of the whites' language that distorts reality. Such a nationalistic atmosphere emerges in the !920's during the Harlem Renaissance, and later on with black cultural awareness in the 1960's and 1970's. These are periods of great experimentation in the black arts, and writers, conscious of the importance of the narrative volee, experiment with it.

    Zora Neale Hurston is one of the writers who worked in such an experimental direction since the beginning of her career in 1921. Hurston's first literary efforts -those which inscribe her into the Harlem Renaissance— came out in the form of short stories. Her choice of structure, themes and language gives evidence of her commitment to the folk. Since the beginning of her career as a writer Hurston tried to make the oral quality of folklore compatible with the written quality of the text. In her successive attempts at capturing the cadenee of black speech and the rhetorical games characteristic of the black oral tradition, Hurston modified her characters' volees as well as the narrative volee, demonstrating that It was viable for the AfroAmerican writer to acknowledge the folkloric oral tradition as the foundatlon of a genuine Afi-oAmerican written tradition. It is not accurate, therefore, to state, as Sylvia Wallace Holton does, that by 1952, when Elllson's Invisible Man was published, there was no tradition of experimentation with a black narrative volee.

    Hurston states her discomfort with the literary representation of black speech In her essay "Characteristics of Negro Expression" published in 1934. In this essay she differentiates between the Afro-American culture and its interpretatlon by "the majority of writers of Negro dialect and the bumt-cork artists." "Fortunately" -she says- "we don't have to believe them. We may go directly to the Negro and let him speak for himself" (Sanctified Church 67). This Is exactly what she did. As an anthropologist she listened and recorded the volee of the folk. As a writer she totally responded to Alain Locke's observation that the black poet came írom the folk and had assumed hls heritage. "Our poets" -argued in The New Negro— "have now stopped speaking for the Negro -they speak as Negroes" (48).

    It was Hurston's artistic premise that Black Aesthetics should be founded on the existing oral literary tradition rather than on a protest and propaganda basis. She felt that the AfroAmerican artist had been constrained to writing about one single subject: "The one subject for a Negro" -she polnted out- "is the Race and Its sufferings. . . So the same oíd theme, the same oíd phrases get done again to the detriment ofart." (Emphasis mine) ("Art and Such" 24). This kind of protest was against her nature. Hurston was for celebrating Afro-American Ufe and culture, whIch she found in folklore, and against any posture -like that of complaining or protesting- that could sound llke the cry of the weak. As she put it: "I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood wh