The racial prejudices of 1930s America were many, and included a common presumption that African American art was unoriginal - merely poorly copying white culture.
African-American novelist, anthropologist and essayist Zora Neale Hurston crushingly evaluated such assumptions in her 1934 essay `Characteristics of Negro Expression.' While Hurston's approach and premises seem in many ways dated to modern readers, the essay still shows an incisive mind carefully evaluating arguments and cutting them down to size. African-American art of the time did not - Hurston influentially argued - play by the same rules as white art, so it could not meaningfully be discussed by `white' notions of aesthetic value.
Where white European tradition views art as something fixed, Hurston saw African-American art works as a distinctive form of mimicry, reshaping and altering the original object until it became something new and novel. In this way, she contended, African-American creative expression is a process that generates its own form of originality - turning borrowed material into something original and unique. By carefully evaluating the relevance of previous arguments, Hurston showed African American artistic expression in an entirely new light.
Dr Mercedes Aguirre holds a PhD in American literature from University College, London. She is currently Curator of North American Published Collections at the British Library. Dr Ben Lempert holds a PhD in rhetoric from the University of California at Berkeley for his research on form and voice in post-war American jazz and poetry. He has held a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford and his research interests focus on the idea of "race" as it plays out in poetry, music, and fiction. Dr Lempert currently teaches college courses on literature, film, music, and writing.
Ways in to the text Who was Zora Heale Hurston? What does Characteristics of Negro Expression say? Why does Characteristics of Negro Expression matter? Section 1: Influences Module 1: The Author and the Historical Context Module 2: Academic Context Module 3: The Problem Module 4: The Author's Contribution Section 2: Ideas Module 5: Main Ideas Module 6: Secondary Ideas Module 7: Achievement Module 8: Place in the Author's Work Section 3: Impact Module 9: The First Responses Module 10: The Evolving Debate Module 11: Impact and Influence Today Module 12: Where Next? Glossary of Terms People Mentioned in the Text Works Cited