Major Black American Writers through the Harlem Renaissance

Major Black American Writers through the Harlem Renaissance

Major Black American Writers through the Harlem Renaissance

Major Black American Writers through the Harlem Renaissance

Excerpt

As a narrative fiction, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) evidently was an attempt at exorcism, written in seven weeks or so after the end of an intense love affair. It seems now to owe at least part of its fame to a more general exorcism, one that the fiercely individualistic Hurston might have scorned, since she was no ideologue, whether of race or of gender. Here vitalism allies her art to D. H. Lawrence's; like him she yields only to a visionary politics, and like him also she celebrates a rare sexual fulfillment as an image of finality. The madness of the later Lawrence of The Plumed Serpent might have amused her, yet I think of early Lawrence at times when I reread Their Eyes Were Watching God or "Sweat," the most memorable of her short stories. Delia Jones the washwoman, the protagonist of "Sweat," suffers the brutality of her husband, Sykes, who after fifteen years of marriage sees her only as an obstacle to his happiness. The story begins with Sykes maliciously frightening her by letting his bullwhip fall upon her from behind, so that she believes a snake is attacking her. At the story's conclusion, an actual rattlesnake, introduced into the house by Sykes, rids Delia of her oppressor forever.

She saw him on his hands and knees as soon as she reached the door. He crept an inch or two toward her—all that he was able, and she saw his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining with hope. A surge of pity too strong to support bore her away from that eye that must, could not, fail to see the tubs. He would see the lamp. Orlando with its doctors was too far. She could scarcely reach the Chinaberry Tree, where she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew.

The dispassionate vitality of this terror is free of animus; we are nowhere in the neighborhood of any of our contemporary versions of the spirit of revenge in the defensive war of some African-American women writers against African-American men. What marks the passage, and so much else of Hurston's work, is its power, in the sense of Delia's thwarted potential for more life. The thwarting, in the broadest sense, brings death to Sykes, but brings no trite reflections or morality or of sexual politics, whether to Hurston or to her reader. What is given instead is . . .

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