Dr. James Mellis is an Assistant Professor of English at William Paterson University. His scholarly interests include African-American and Jewish American literature and culture. He received his M.Phil from Trinity College, Dublin and his PhD from Tulane University and has taught at St. Bonaventure University, Temple University and William Paterson University. He lives in New Jersey.
Abstract for “Reflections on the Global Legacy of Zora Neale Hurston on the Occasion of Her 125th Birthday.”
The continued fascination with the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston can be partially attributed to the variety of roles she performed throughout her life. As a short story writer, novelist, playwright, satirist, feminist, patriot, Voudou priestess, “New Negro,” social critic, wife and anthropologist, Huston’s life and career is a study in intellectual curiosity, race pride, ambition, talent, tragedy and can be seen as a lifelong effort of “revelation,” in the sense that Huston repeatedly attempted to both display and interpret African-American culture and life for both white and black America.
While this is certainly a central part of Hurston’s legacy, an examination of her career reveals an even larger project, one that sought to re-write foundational western religious and cultural assumptions. This paper argues that from early in her career, Huston sought to re-write and reinterpret Biblical stories, sometimes using African-American vernacular and motifs, and that in doing so, Hurston engages in an enormous project of creating an African-American foundational myth. She hoped this history would provide an alternative to the works of Roark Bradford, Marc Connelly, and traditional readings of the Bible which, according to Ann Douglas, “was the dominant text in the world of nineteenth century Euro-America, and the text that purportedly supplied precedent and justification to its ‘peculiar institution,’ slavery. The Bible, as Euro-America used it, exemplified as no other text did the planned divide between white power and black powerlessness.” My paper argues that Hurston’s early religious education, when coupled with her race pride and anthropology studies, initiated an evolving and increasingly ambitious project of rewriting the Bible, and the western world’s racial assumptions and interpretations of it that would last her entire life.
In order to rewrite, however, Hurston first had to re-interpret these stories, borrowing them from the Judeo-Christian tradition and merging them with African and Caribbean folklore. Through this amalgamation of cultures, Hurston sought to posit these stories as African-American originary tales, told through an Afrocentric lens.
By examining Hurston’s 1927 play “The First One,” her 1934 short story “The Fire and the Cloud,” her 1939 novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, as well as selected letters and excerpts from her unfinished novel Herod the Great, I will argue that the thread of Biblical revisionism that runs throughout her career is central to understanding one of Hurston’s great ambitions, namely, to change traditional western racialist assumptions of the Bible and re-posit it as an African text. This would invert not only interpretations of the various stories, but, in Hurston’s view, recover and reveal their origins to her audience from whose ancestors she felt the stories had been appropriated by both Biblical authors and reified historians like Flavius Josephus. Through this analysis, I hope to show that Hurston’s status as a cultural historian seeking to right a two-thousand-year-old tradition of perceived misinterpretations of the Bible should be a central component of her legacy.