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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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