Alice L. Nicholas, M.A. Africology
Department of African American Studies
“‘The Negro Speaks in Heiroglyphic:’ Zora Neale Hurston and Agency-Affirming African American Literary Theory”
Part of the rich legacy of Zora Neale Hurston is a uniquely African way of looking at African American writers and their literary characters. This research examines Hurston’s 1934 essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” In the essay, Hurston describes the non-verbal, visual type of communication that is intrinsic to African culture. She presents African American literary theory, a way of reading African American literary characters from the perspective or center of the African. Hurston presents from her center (her way of seeing through the filter of her history and experiences) as a Southern-born, African American woman, a woman who is well-aware and celebratory of her place in the world. In “Characteristics” Hurston emphasizes the Afrocentric concept of the importance of knowing the culture and history of African American writers in order to fully explicate their African American literary characters. She teaches the reader how to “read” African-American writers. Making the connection to Africa, Hurston also asserts that this non-verbal, visual type of communication is “primitive” (original). In doing so, she continues the tradition of Seshat, the ancient and celebrated Kemetic scribe.
Much of the research on Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God focuses on the “voice” and discusses whether or not the main character, Janie has fully developed her voice. That type of research focuses on Janie’s lack of “voice” and works within the limitations of the perceived powerlessness of her words. An aspect that largely remains unseen and unstudied are the ways in which Janie communicates, non-verbally and visually. This research examines how epic memory prevails in the African American literary tradition. It analyzes some of the varied, alternative, agency-affirming ways of communication created and (re)created by African American people, and employs Afrocentricity as a paradigm and the basis for its liberatory focus. It is inspired by Hurston’s 1934 African American literary theory and expands upon it by adding a functional, agency-affirming aspect. It poses the question: What are some potential implications of (re)examining and (re)interpreting Hurston’s works using her framework? This research is also an exercise in Africana Literary Visualty Theory (ALVT) in praxis. This theory, which I am currently developing, examines the non-verbal, visual aspects of Hurston’s writings as forms of agency and messages of liberation. ALVT asserts that African American language includes unique types of non-verbal, visual communication: silence, body language, gestures, touch, other sounds and symbols/metaphors, etc. For African American women writers and their African American literary characters, these alternative forms of communication are used to exercise and affirm agency.