Early Civil Rights "Voice Work" in Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston

By Obourn, Megan | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Early Civil Rights "Voice Work" in Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston


Obourn, Megan, Twentieth Century Literature


The differences between Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston are both well known and highly exaggerated. Though they mutually rejected each other's literary aesthetic approaches to representations of racial blackness, they shared a political aesthetic approach--an approach I will define below as "voice work"--to the emergent political power of black female voice in. the United States. The now infamous mutual literary reviews of Hurston by Wright and Wright by Hurston have led many critics to read their work as oppositional, and continue to shape the ways in which we read these authors as representative of a set of dichotomies in African American literary history: sociological versus anthropological, communal versus individualistic, masculine versus feminine, political versus aesthetic, rhetorical versus authentic, northern versus southern, and communist versus folk. (1) Wright and Hurston, however, did not frame their mutual critiques through all of these binaries, but rather focused specifically on the gendered nature of the other's text and his or her narrative representation of voice. Wright attempted to distance his writing from Hurston's more "feminine" narrative techniques that "cloak" her prose in "facile sensuality" ("Their Eyes" 17), while Hurston dismissed Wright's "masculine" aesthetics with her comments on the lack of "act[s] of understanding and sympathy" in Uncle Min's Children ("Uncle Torn" 3). In addition to critiquing each other's positions through reading the other as hyper-feminized or hyper-masculinized, each critiqued the other for improper use of dialect, an important form of political voice work in their respective texts. Hurston says of Wright, "Since the author is himself a Negro, his dialect is a puzzling thing. One wonders how he arrived at it. Certainly he does not write by ear unless. he is tone-deaf" (4). And Wright calls Hurston's use of dialect a continuation of "minstrel technique" ("Their Eyes" 17). It is worth putting some pressure on the particularities of these reciprocal critiques. It may be that the things Wright and Hurston found most troubling about each other's work were the very aspects of their own projects they held most dear--i.e. an explicit interrogation of the gendered nature of racial politics and the political possibilities of voice work in character representation and audience address.

Historically, the power of voice has been a theme central to African American literature and literary criticism. Writing out of a history of enforced silence, African American authors have represented voice as an important source of personal and political agency; and the search for language in African American fiction is often simultaneously a search for identity and an affirmation of individual selfhood. (2) Much the same can be said for women's fiction and feminist literary concerns. Women have historically been constructed as women by silencing their access to public speech. Ursula K. Le Guin has theorized this as a "split" in voice: a "father tongue" that speaks in the language of public discourse and social power versus a "mother tongue" that is interlocutionary, conversational, and that "expects an answer (149). Gaining voice is not, however, a simple process. Political freedom, including the freedom of speech, has historically in no way insured a personal or social ability to voice one's sense of identity. Frederick Douglass says of his own story that the mere ability to speak it was not enough. "My simple narrative," he says, "was an old story and to go through it night after night was a task altogether too mechanical for my nature. ... I must speak the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me" (qtd. in Callahan 18). One way of continuing to pay attention to voice in women's and African American literature while avoiding what Douglass here points to as an overly simplistic understanding of the voice of the oppressed as transparent self-expression is to think about narrative constructions of voice not as external articulations of a preexisting but silenced interiority (or internal minority), but instead as voice work, which attempts a rearticulation of the field that defines what can be politically and socially said or understood and how it can be said or understood. …

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