Academic journal article Hecate

Reclaiming a Legacy: The Dialectic of Race, Class, and Gender in Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West

Academic journal article Hecate

Reclaiming a Legacy: The Dialectic of Race, Class, and Gender in Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West

Article excerpt

Many significant happenings had those cloisters looked down on, but surely on none more significant than on this group of men and women of African descent, so different in rearing and tradition and yet so similar in purpose. The rod of the common oppressor had' made them feel their own community of blood, of necessity, of problem. (Jessie Fauset)(1)

The realistic story around a Negro insurance official, dentist, general practitioner, undertaker and the like would be most revealing. Thinly disguised fiction around the well-known Negro names is not the answer, either. (Zora Neale Hurston)(2)

We would like to print more articles and stories of protest. We have daily contact with the underprivileged. We know their suffering and their soul weariness. They have only the meager bread and meat of the dole, and that will not feed their failing spirits. Yet the bourgeois youth on the southern campus, who should be conscious of these things, is joining a fraternity instead of the brotherhood of serious minds. (Dorothy West)(3)

Despite the tendency to categorize their fiction with labels such as 'folk' and 'bourgeois,' Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West's literary legacy resists classification. Although Fauset is often categorized as a representative of the 'bourgeois' class, the passage above from the Crisis reveals a 'proletarian aesthetic' as she promotes unity among blacks of different classes and geographical regions and calls for an end to end oppression in 'Impressions of the Second Pan-African Congress.' While Hurston has been categorized as a writer of 'folk realism,' her suggestions above from 'What Publishers Won't Print' illustrates a desire to see more African American fiction which portrays a broad spectrum of the black community, especially professional middle-class black men and women. West, who has been labelled a 'bourgeois' writer, displays in her comments above an interest in bridging class and regional barriers in an effort to protest against discrimination and transform society, revealing a 'proletarian' and 'folk' aesthetic.

Their comments call attention to how the three break through the categories of 'folk,"bourgeois,' and 'proletarian.' These can be seen as three parts of a triangle, with each aesthetic representing a different part of the overall structure. The triangle remains incomplete and unbalanced when we label writers such as Hurston as 'folk' or Fauset and West as 'bourgeois,' exclusively. Instead, what is clearly needed is a reassessment and reevaluation of their works to illustrate that all three models - the 'folk aesthetic,' the 'bourgeois aesthetic,' and the 'proletarian aesthetic' - are incorporated into each writer's fiction. Acknowledging this will offer us a new reading of women writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Of the three, Jessie Fauset most embodies the 'bourgeois aesthetic.' In her role as a mentor and literary editor of the Crisis from 1919-1926, she contributed fiction and non-fiction essays to the magazine. Directed primarily at a middle-class readership, her articles and stories tended to promote the ideas of family, religion, culture, refinement, and gentility as she sought to present 'the better class of colored people.'(4) Although she frequently valorized the 'folk' as the center of African American art and advocated social, political, and economic equality among the races, her body of work suggests a tendency toward the 'bourgeois' aesthetic. This tendency may have grown out of her editorship, and membership in the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) as part of the Du Boisian Talented Tenth.

Zora Neale Hurston, who presented herself as a daughter of all black Eatonville, Florida, reflects primarily a 'folk aesthetic' in her self-representations and her field work in the rural South collecting folklore. Although Hurston attended prestigious institutions such as Howard University and Barnard College, most of her fiction and nonfiction tends to valorize the 'folk' experience as the root of African American art, culture, and tradition. …

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