Jacob Trosen blog on Laura Winkle essay on Nancy Cunard’s anthology featuring Zora Neale Hurston’s essay, “Characteristics of Negro Expression”. Make-up blog.

In Winkel’s essay, the primary argument that I was engaged by is found on page 523, during which Winkle argues that part of the work of the Nancy Cunard’s Negro: An Anthology , especially the work by Zora Neale Hurston, is concerned with refiguring black Modernity as one of the creative forces of, but also in reaction towards, Modernity at large. Central to the problem as Winkle sees it, is that by presenting an alternative history of, as Aldon Nielsen writes, “active producers of the modern” then, “we must have modernity already there before us,” and thus “all such histories must immediately be seen as revisionist” (523). However, Winkle argues that Hurston’s “affirms this temporality” (that the Modern is something black modernity is responding to). She argues that Hurston’s defense of black mimicry constitutes a reaction towards detractors of black arts and culture within the context of Pound’s “make it new”. Continues to argue that Hurston turns this argument about originality around by reinscribing mimicry as a kind of variation on the source material, rather than a slavish imitation. Winkle writes that this is, in fact a way of “actively constitut[ing[ black “experience” as different from everyday dominant modes of perception in modernity…demand[ing] that [the bricolage mimicry] be understood as a confrontation of dominant narratives of modernity in the present moment (523).

While I certainly agree with Winkle that Hurston’s goal is a reimagining of what constitutes originality to include a kind of early sampling, the problem that I have is that I don’t believe Hurston would accept the claim that black modes of life are necessarily in response to modernism, but rather that there is something distinctly modern inherent within black art. That the goals and aesthetics generally agreed to be central to modernity are goals that are simply part of the African-American experience. To this end, we can look to several of the entries in Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” starting with “Negro Folklore”. When Hurston writes, “Negro Folklore is not a thing of the past…nothing is too old or too new, domestic or foreign, high or low, for his use” we could easily imagine the same sentence to describe Joyce’s “Ulysses”, or perhaps with a stretch, “The Wasteland” (27). Central to the concept of simultaneity is this same faith in the ability of art to transcend (to varying degrees) the delineating power of time. This ability, to call upon the work and ideas of the past with the same aptitude and force of the present seems to be the exact same negotiating of allusive power that we see in major landmark works in the white modernist canon. Furthermore, in the sections “Angularity” and “Asymmetry” we find descriptions that cannot be considered without connoting a kind of counterpoint. Hurston writes, “The presence of rhythm and lack of symmetry are paradoxical, but there they are…there is always rhythm, but it is the rhythm of segments. Each unit has a rhythm of its own, but when the whole is assembled it is lacking in symmetry.” (26). Fundamentally, this description of the intertwining of asymmetry and rhythm can be understood in a way as similar to our discussion of the two wheels turning in Stein’s “Four Saints in Three Acts”. Stein’s use of repetition that slowly accumulates and accumulates on the one hand, while charging forward with a steady pace on the other, reminds us of the same kind of play/friction between asymmetry and rhythm in Hurston’s essay.

Fundamentally, however, it is important to note that Hurston’s essay takes the form not of a descriptions of black art and life that is reactive is some constitutive way towards modernity, Rather, the essay seems primarily concerned with a recontextualization, or translation of black ways of viewing and understanding the world that are misconstrued by a white audience. At no point does Hurston argue that these characteristics are a new phenomenon. It is one thing to say that the essay itself is a reaction towards the values of modernism, and the gaze of the white modern. However, what is vital to our reaction to Winkle’s reading of Hurston’s entries in Negro:An Anthology is that the argument is that black modernity is a reaction to, and viewing it as concerned tied to modernism worries the boundaries of revisionary historicizing, negates the fundamental viewpoint of Hurston. These “characteristics of Negro expression,” while certainly fitting within many of the central aesthetic characteristics of modernism, are to Hurston, fundamental to blackness all the way down to its perception of the world, springing from their collective, shared experience of that world.

Works Cited

Cunard, Nancy. Negro: An Anthology. New York: Negro Universities, 1969. Print.

Winkiel, Laura A. “Nancy Cunard’s Negro and the Transnational Politics of Race.” Modernism/modernity 13.3 (2006): 507-530. Web.

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