Zora Neale Hurston and the Problem of Audience

My first real understanding of the power of affinity on attention came in 9th grade.  When my teacher assigned a project called “The African-European Connection,” I was enthralled by history for the first time, as I read stories I had never heard before about African kings and Queens and their vast empires.  But when we got to the European section, I found it unendurably boring.  To my surprise, my close friend, who was white, had the opposite experience.  She found the European history captivating and couldn’t care less about the African revelations.

So much of the shape of the world comes down to the basic fact I learned that year.  We all find the portions of human culture we personally identify with to be more interesting, more important, more compelling and more memorable.  It’s entirely natural, and we can’t help it.  And yet it skews our perceptions in ways that are all the more powerful because it is almost impossible to perceive them as personal prejudices, rather than as truths about the external world.

Black history, women philosophers, Latino artists, Arabic empires, Asian inventors –these are just a few of the examples of influential and objectively important facets of the world that are almost impossible to find in mainstream European and American sources.  To a member of a minority group, this feels like the deliberate suppression of the truth, but the actual situation is yet more tragic and inescapable.  Our work, as minorities, is forgotten, less often as an intentional act of sabotage, but because it simply doesn’t interest white men (the majority of them) that much.  It is a mirror they don’t see themselves reflected in, and so they discard it.  Would any of us do any different, if we were the ones in power and the majority?

Regardless of the intentions behind this phenomenon, it creates a sharp challenge for the minority artist when it comes to the question of audience.  You can be popular, and successful, and lauded solely by appealing to your own community, but only if you are reaching out to the most mainstream audience of your race or culture.  Otherwise, as we discussed earlier, you are confined to a niche segment of an already smaller audience, and it becomes very difficult to make that work.  Thus, if you want to survive as a minority niche artist, you must appeal to a crossover audience outside your race.

Picture it like this.  Suppose there are 100 people in a town.  10 are black, and the rest are white.  10 are science fiction fans (including one of the black people), and the rest are not.  You can survive as an black artist with all ten black residents as your fans, or as a science-fiction writer with all ten SF lovers as your fans, but if you are a black science fiction writer, you can’t survive on the one black science-fiction fan.  You’ll have to be embraced by at least some of the people outside your home demographic, and the numbers mean that the majority of your fans our likely not to be black.  This may raise, for you, questions about your own authenticity, or make you feel that you are being rejected by your own kind, but neither is (necessarily) the case.  It is rather an inevitable consequence of the math.

There have been many different strategies minority artists have pursued in relationship to this problem, over the years.  Langston Hughes and many of the other Harlem Renaissance artists were promoted by white patrons and mentors.  Conversely, blues musician B.B. King’s success, particularly later in life, came at least partly from his status as a mentor and an inspiration to several famous white musicians, most notably Eric Clapton. Michael Jackson built his fame as a mainstream artist inside the black community, and then crossed over to a global audience by embracing the musical idioms of mainstream white rock.  The movie Black Panther presents black actors and cultural iconography through the thoroughly familiar and mainstream idiom of comic book superheroes.  Similarly, the Motown label consciously presented its artists both personally and musically in a manner calculated to appeal to the mainstream white audience.  writer/actor Issa Rae helped coax her web series “Awkward Black Girl” into a big underground hit through a conscious decision to include some white people in main roles, so that she could gain white viewers for a show thoroughly grounded in the black experience.  Musical legend Sweet Honey in the Rock presents a musical experience that is very authentically African-America, but that reaches a niche audience that is largely not black (for the mathematical reasons discussed above).

One of the most innovative and uncompromising strategies ever pursued successfully by a black artist, however, comes from iconoclast Zora Neale Hurston in her groundbreaking book Their Eyes Were Watching God.  A master at playing the game, Hurston had a complicated relationship with her own community, and made many of the same compromises as other Harlem Renaissance figures in pursuit of her career.  But in Their Eyes she did something largely unparalleled.   It’s a book about a poor black girl in rural Florida.  It has no prominent white characters.  It is written almost wholly in a difficult-to-penetrate black dialect.  It doesn’t pander to the taste for black suffering and degradation that has always titillated white audiences.  And yet, this very uncompromising book has somehow made its way into the established American canon.  How did Hurston do it?

I would argue that a lot of the success of this work is right there in its masterful opening paragraphs:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.

The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human.

The first sentence, “Ships at a distance…”, quite deliberately situates the book within the European literary tradition.  It is a classic literary thesis statement like “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” or “It was the best of times…”  This is the opening into the book for the educated white reader.  Hurston knew when writing it that she could reliably expect her audience both to read “every man” as meaning “all humans” (since that was the then-standard reading of that phrase) but to reference it largely to white males (since that was the standard reference group of the times).

It thus makes it all the more striking when the paragraph ends by contrasting the life of women, because it forces you to go back and mentally change the first reference from a neutral one to a gendered one, and simultaneously make room in your mind for the story of a woman when you were expecting a man. It makes you subtly aware that your previous “universal” frame of reference was actually exclusionary.

The next paragraph starts the story with a bang.  If you’ve read this far, you’re hooked.  You want to know what happens next.  Finally, the next paragraph begins the process of easing you into an all-black world, with a black musicality to the words, and a light sprinkling of black idioms.  And then, that last sentence, which starts “now, the sun and the bossman were gone.”  The “bossman” is you, white reader, and this signals that you’re about to learn what black people are really like when the sun is down, they are off duty, and all the white people are gone.  And what is it that happens?  “the skins [feel] powerful and human” (emphasis added).  And there it is.  You are now as prepared to read the story Hurston actually has for you as any white reader in 1930’s American could possibly be.

Note: Portions of this essay adapted from my own answer to this question on StackExchange.

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