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Black Voices Matter: Zora Neale Hurston and Black Modernist Form

9 November 2020

Courtney Mullis, Duquesne University

Zora Neale Hurston demonstrates the distinctive character of Black modernism in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), modeling what Houston Baker terms ‘mastery of form’. Baker defines mastery of form as a style of expression that ‘conceals, disguises, floats like a trickster butterfly to sting like a bee’, and describes deformation of mastery as a critique that ‘distinguishes rather than conceals’ difference.[1] More specifically, Hurston critiques traditional and modernist forms by engaging in what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls ‘signifyin’’. Signifyin’ is a kind of wordplay that subverts linguistic norms. Signifyin’ can occur when writers respond to African American folk traditions in artistic or literary expressions.[2] Black modernist texts signify on African American literary tropes, such as enslaved and passing narratives, by incorporating some elements of these tropes and reinventing others. Indeed, writers such as Hurston heed Ezra Pound’s call for modernists to ‘make it new’ by reimagining traditional stories and tropes.[3] Black modernist writers, such as Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Jean Toomer, can all be seen to master traditional literary conventions. These often include a focus on characterisation, imagery, and symbolism. They also excel in modernist conventions, such as experimentation and free indirect discourse, and transgress modernist expectations by deviating from these conventions. Hurston in particular breaks with modernist conventions through her characters’ use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and thereby remakes modernist forms with a distinctly Black tone. Through engaging in signifyin’ on Black folk traditions, altering and remaking traditional literary forms, Black modernist authors surreptitiously subvert white modernist forms’ underlying ideologies.

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Abolitionist Feminism Then and Now #1: Sojourner Truth

9 November 2020

Aija Oksman, University of Edinburgh

Sojourner Truth (ca.1797-1883) was a foremother of abolitionist feminism. She was born and enslaved in New York state, and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language. These were vital parts of her identity but they were also the aspects that became most exploited;  she was often misrepresented as a Southern slang drawling enslaved woman in the contemporary reports of her performances. White mainstream feminism made several efforts to repurpose Truth, and in this piece I will introduce, as an example of such repurposing, Truth’s most famous speech ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ and look at how Truth reclaimed her agency through imagery. It is the first of a three-part series for the Modernist Review that looks at abolition feminism – then and now.

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Call for Papers: Black Lives Matter and Modernist Studies

Content warning: police brutality

Modernist studies has been slow to respond to urgent calls for reform within white-dominated higher education: to decolonise, to diversify, to include. 2020 has witnessed the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the shooting of Jacob Blake and so many more, which have sparked a global sense of urgency in the fight against racial injustice. Modernist studies must acknowledge and examine white modernism’s difficult history of racism, and align itself with the Black Lives Matter movement and active anti-racism work within higher education. These imperatives are not new: students, educators and activists have been calling for decolonisation, diversification and inclusion in the academy for decades. 

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