Defining Blackness in How it Feels to Be Colored Me by Zora Neale Hurston

663 Words2 Pages

Defining "Blackness" in Terms of "Whiteness" in How it Feels to Be Colored Me

Wald argues that any social critique must work to divest the rhetoric of the dominant discourse of its co-optive power. American rhetoric readily co-opts stories of Black selves through an incorporating language of difference that obscures the actual nature of that difference. Writers of slave narratives and, later, Black autobiographers, countered charges of racial inferiority with testimonies to their industry, ingenuity, and Christian virtues, adopting precisely those terms of the Protestant work ethic through which the culture justified its domination and thereby mitigated their differences(Andrews, 95 ).

Defining "blackness" in terms of "whiteness" (reference to the concept of binary opposition in which one term negates the other) submits to the authorization of the dominant discourse and enters into the cultural subjectivity implicit in language. The altemative is equally problematic, however, since the American democratic idealism ensured that any assertion of difference that could not be incorporated into the pervasive national rhetoric was systematically excluded (Wald, 80).

Perhaps because of her anthropological training and her doubly marginal status as an African-American woman, Hurston invented a strategy that enabled her to speak from the margins. She employed an African-American language, a symbolic system that reconstituted representation itself and disrupted the dualism of the dorninant discourse. "The Negroes...very words are action words... the suggestiveness of African-American art transforms the spectator into an actor who participat[es] in the performance himself carrying out the suggestions of the performer" (Hurston, 49). Blackness becomes experiential rather than essential, a "quality that permeates and suffuses rather than defines"(Wald, 87). The vitality of the language blurs oppositional boundaries and whatever the meaning of 'blackness' is, the performer and spectator are mutually involved in a relationship that undermines the representation of blackness as sin against a moral white background (Wald, 87).

Hurston draws us into the dynamics of"coloration" by redesignating "color" as performance. She inverts her experience of feeling different in a white environment by setting "a white person ...down in our mist," and, again, her "color comes"(Anthology, 1985). Hurston represents the difference in the context of a jazz performance, in which the orchestra "plunges into a number ...constricts the thorax and splits the heart... grows rambunctious, rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury, rendering it, clawing it until it breaks through to a jungle beyond"(Anthology, 1985).

Open Document