The presidential theme for this year’s MLA Annual Convention is Celebration: Joy and Sorrow. My columns this year have therefore celebrated literary figures and conversations that changed our understanding of race. In this issue, I pay tribute to two women authors whose work I encourage you to revisit.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)
In the 1920s, Harlem was awash in young Black talent. Among the talented were a few courageous women. Despite oppression by various dominant groups, Zora Neale Hurston, who studied her condition as an anthropologist and novelist, distinguished herself through the force of her imaginary. The history of ideas teaches us that, in altering the imaginary, we act upon the real, and in altering forms of masculine language, we turn the power game upside down. This is what Zora Neale Hurston achieved.
Through her work within the language used on small farms, she examined Southern history and showed Black suffering. In Their Eyes Are Watching God (1937), her most famous novel, she reveals her innovative abilities with language. She expresses herself in the local language, signaling a clear rejection of the dominant language. This aspect of her work is well documented; less celebrated, however, is her attention to love and sexual desire. What a luminous idea to bring love to the center of our lives again. In remembering Zora Neale Hurston, I want to celebrate love.
Nella Larsen (1891–1964)
Nella Larsen is another important novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. The ideas conveyed in Passing (1929), her second and final novel, dominated the American social scene in the ’20s and ’30s; yet, because discussing these ideas was so radical when Passing first appeared, the novel was little appreciated by Blacks or whites. Now it is considered part of the Black American literary canon.
In the novel, two childhood friends, Clare and Irene, are both of African and European ancestry. After Clare’s father dies, she moves in with two white paternal aunts. They allow her to “pass” as a white woman, and then, bam, she marries a white racist. What follows is the well-known tragic mulatto storymatrix: She is “not good in her skin.” Again, while the novel’s attention to passing as a subversive act has been well documented, what is less frequently discussed are its attention to lesbian relationships and the erotic. Even today sexual desire between two Black women remains radical. Larsen was already challenging the status quo, and for that she must be recognized and celebrated.
Beyond Hurston and Larsen
These two Black women paved the way for so many of us in the world of letters. Hurston and Larsen challenged systemic racism and sexism, and for their courage to dare, their boldness to insist, they must be celebrated over and over again. They show us how to celebrate love and sexuality. Moreover, we can still learn from their truly radical acts of joy.
In the small world of the Harlem Renaissance, most representative figures are Black men. They include W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and many others. And yet this list remains incomplete without mention of the Black women writers of political and social stature, including Hurston, Larsen, Jessie Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Georgia Douglas Johnson, to name only a few.
As soon as we mention women, suspicion can set in. In “Strength of the Weak,” the great philosopher Jean-François Lyotard reminds us that there exists a “dialectic in which woman, like the slave in Hegel,” has both positive and negative roles in acculturating processes, “a tremendous affair” (9). This is the case of the women of the Harlem Renaissance. Although they do not always benefit from the same visibility, they fought alongside their male colleagues in denouncing racist, American oppression. They were part of the philosophy of change. I would argue that they shared in the quest for human dignity more radically and with greater aesthetic sophistication than their male counterparts. They were talented, cultured, and rebellious. If they refused allegiance to whites’ morals, it’s because they operated from their consciences and their experiences as women struggling within the racial and sexist oppression of a patriarchal world. They were the historically dominated, yet their innovations against this domination—especially in the realm of love and sexuality—are not celebrated enough.
If I were to give a call to action, I would urge readers to visit these literary sites of power and to honor and celebrate them in all their innovative dimensions.
Lyotard, Jean-François. “On the Strength of the Weak / Sur la force des faibles.” L’Arc, no. 64, 1976, pp. 4–12.