Hurston, Zora Neale

Assigned: Hurston, Zora Neale. “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (938-50); “What White Publishers Won’t Print” (950-54). Also read the editors’ introduction (936-37).

“Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934)


1. On 938-39 (“The Negro’s universal mimicry…”), what special significance does Zora Neale Hurston attribute to metaphor in the everyday speech of African-Americans in her time? How does she characterize metaphor, and, according to her, what is the root of its great significance and value in black people’s speech and daily routines? How does she illustrate the “drama” of a scene from everyday life?

Will to Adorn

2. On 939-41 (“The will to adorn is the second…”), how have the characteristics of African-American speech, according to Hurston, “done wonders to the English language” (939)? In context, how does she describe the impact of “black” speech on white Americans’ way of talking, especially in the South? She offers three categories to encapsulate this contribution to English. Give an example or two from among the ones Hurston lists, or offer an example of your own that you find interesting, and discuss it. How does Hurston’s observation about what she has seen on “the walls of the homes of the average Negro” (940) illustrate the nature and origin of the “will to adorn” that she finds in many black Americans’ speech?

Angularity and Asymmetry

3. On 941-42 (“After adornment the next most striking…”), What does Hurston apparently mean by the quality she identifies as “angularity” (941)? How do you interpret the value of this characteristic? Similarly, what is meant by “asymmetry”? What is asymmetrical about the verses Hurston quotes from Langston Hughes’ poem titled “Evil Woman” (941)? According to Hurston, how does the “paradoxical” presence of rhythm turn out to be beneficial in relation to the asymmetrical quality she has been talking about? (942)


4. On 942 (“Negro dancing is dynamic suggestion…”), according to Hurston, what accounts for the spellbinding or “compelling” quality of the movements of African-American dancers? What role does a certain suggestiveness, a holding in reserve, have to do with this quality? What is the difference, in Hurston’s view, between white dancers and black dancers in terms of what they are trying to accomplish?

Negro Folklore and Culture Heroes

5. On 942-43 (“Negro folklore is not a thing…”), in what mode, according to Hurston, does African-derived folklore persist into the present, and how does it reveal “the adaptability of the black man” (942)? What is so significant about “Jack” as a culture hero, and about the Devil as well? How does Hurston describe what she considers the link between modern African-American religion and the supposedly “primitive” gods of early African religions?

Examples of Folklore and the Modern Culture Hero

6. On 943 (“Now, I want to tell you…”), the first example of black folklore Hurston offers is “Why de Porpoise’s Tail Is On Crosswise.” Why is the porpoise’s tail on crosswise, according to the story? What lesson does this story teach, in your view, about God and perhaps about the natural world? As for the second tale, “Rockefeller and Ford,” how does the car-maker Henry Ford get the better of oil baron John D. Rockefeller when the latter boasts that he could easily “build a solid gold road around the world”?


7. On 944 (“It has been said so often…”), how does Hurston deal with absurd claims about black people’s alleged lack of originality in the arts and other areas of life? What is her own definition of “originality,” and how, according to her, do many black Americans show this capacity to a very strong degree?


8. On 944-45 (“The Negro, the world over…”), in what sense, according to Hurston, is mimicry or imitation “an art in itself” (944)? How does she defend this proposition by reference to the realm of artistic production? What criticism does Hurston offer not of the working class or the upper class, but the middle class of African-Americans regarding their attitude towards strong self-expression via “mimicry” in the arts?

9. On 945-46 (“But, this group aside…”), in Hurston’s view, what accounts for black people’s supposedly having developed “the art of mimicry” (945) more highly than whites? What observations does she make about black people’s sense of community and openness, fighting, and lovemaking? What does she infer by way of an eponymous black man expounding upon the supposed deficiencies of white men when it comes to courting women? (946)

The Jook

10. On 946-47 (“Jook is the word for…”), what kind of establishment, as Hurston explains, is a “Jook”? Why, in her view, is it—in terms of music, dance, and theater—“the most important place in America” (946)? How does she suggest that the music and dancing in Jooks is overtly sexual in a way that white American culture of the 1930s would not allow and that cuts into the dominance of the idea that a woman must be impossibly beautiful to succeed at romance? (Etymological point of interest: look up “juke” or “jook” and “Gullah language.”)

11. On 947-49 (“The sort of woman her men idealize…”), what observations does Hurston make about skin color in African-American people ranging from very dark to light-skinned? How does that make a difference in the way women in particular are regarded in Hurston’s time? In addition, what remarks does Hurston offer regarding the manner in which white entertainers in America tend to adopt or adapt the work and styles of black artists and musicians?


12. On 949-50 (“If we are to believe the majority…”), what basic features of black “dialect” in America does Hurston refer to? How accurate (or the reverse) does she suggest that “writers of Negro dialect” (949) have generally been in their attempts to reproduce the speech of ordinary black people in the United States? As a matter of rhetorical efficacy, why do you suppose Hurston has chosen to end this little segment on dialect with an excerpt from a sermon by the black preacher Jessie Jefferson?

13. General question: In her 1934 study “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Zora Neale Hurston identifies a number of distinct qualities in African-American expression, art, and life generally. Some critics may find such an approach too “essentialist” for their liking (i.e., they will see it as a claim that black people simply are a certain way, have certain innate tendencies, etc.), but Hurston is using the conceptual framework of her time to pay tribute to a vibrant black culture in America. Of course, white American culture has a long history of recognizing the value of black art and expressive forms—jazz, blues, and gospel music, to name major examples, and great literary contributions as well—while simultaneously and miserably failing to acknowledge the equality (and in some cases the very humanity) of black Americans. In a sense, it is considered “cool” to be African-American, but that coolness doesn’t guarantee its possessor equal status or even humane treatment in the U.S.A. How do you account for this brute fact of American history, one that extends all the way to the present time? What factors are involved in its continuation, and what actions and ideas might lead to positive change?

“What White Publishers Won’t Print” (1950)

1. On 950-51 (“I have been amazed by…”), Zora Neale Hurston writes that white America seldom takes any notice of black Americans who have risen above the class of ordinary servants; i.e., “unskilled labor” (950). But then, she says, when a black person does seek out education and rises in status, the white folk call this “an interesting problem.” How does the slave-era story Hurston recounts on 951 help illustrate this racist attitude? Why would it be a mistake, in her view, to blame the lack of published material about upper-class black Americans on the publishers themselves?

2. On 951-53 (“The question naturally arises…”), why, according to Hurston, must we repair to “the American MUSEUM OF UNNATURAL HISTORY” if we want to understand many white Americans’ incomprehension and lack of interest in the non-white people living among them? How are “stereotypes” (952) at the heart of the problem of racism in America, and in what sense do such stereotypes foil any hopes for the country to become a more just and better place, not to mention a place where the arts flourish in a way that recognizes the benefits of diversity (to use a modern cultural studies term)?

3. On 953 (“That brings us to the folklore of…”), how does Hurston explain the lamentable persistence of the concept of “reversion to type” among white people when they think about black people? What does “reversion to type” entail, and why are some white folk, according to Hurston, so infuriatingly fond of it? What examples does she offer of this tendency on the part of whites?

4. On 953-54 (“But the opening wedge for better…”), how does Hurston explore the irony of almost everyone’s disdain for a novel by Carl Van Vechten (a white author and critic who supported the Harlem Renaissance) entitled “N***** Heaven? What does the book do, in her opinion, that other books that deal with “race” ought to be doing as well? What change in the focus of artistic representation of black people in 1950s America is Hurston calling for, and what change in art and society does she seem at least guardedly hopeful such a focus will bring about?

5. General question: in “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” Zora Neale Hurston criticizes certain failures mainly in the representation of African-Americans by white artists and entertainers. At least implicitly, she seems to invest some hope in the power of changes in artistic and cultural representation (no doubt along with other things) to help bring about wider social and political change. How and at what pace, exactly, change is made is always an important question. When improved standing for diverse, once despised or unappreciated groups in America comes, what do you think is mainly responsible for such improvement? As an example, what about the progress made in women’s rights or disabled people’s rights in recent decades, or, most recently, the seemingly rapid progress made by LGBTQ+ Americans? What factors are involved in the achievement of social and justice-based progress, and how do those factors, in your observation, work together to make change happen?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake