This essay examines the ways in which discourses concerning masculinity, religion, and aesthetics converge in the work of Zora Neal Hurston. This convergence participates in a much larger confluence of these three discourses during the Harlem Renaissance. The migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north provoked massive changes in almost every aspect of African American life. It was a period when, in Du Bois's words, African American men felt their best chance to attain "self-conscious manhood." In fact, definitions and ideals of manhood were thrown into flux, and a newly developing secular intelligentsia found itself in an uneasy and sometimes competitive relationship with older models of black masculinity associated with the black preacher. While cosmopolitan authors like Du Bois sometimes created images of black manhood that stood in continuity with but were not contained by the institutional power of the black preacher, writers of the Harlem Renaissance often pictured the preacher of the old south as corrupt images of failed masculinity, embodiments of an "Old Negro" culture that had to be transcended to realize "New Negro" possibilities.
Zora Neal Hurston's work tends toward imagining Afro-Christian culture as a failure and often posits that failure in images of failed masculinity. Indeed, the weaknesses of this culture most often inhibit rather than contribute to the development of a vibrant literary and artistic culture. It is true that some characters, such as John Pearson of Jonah's Gourd Vine, approach the admirable status of a kind of virile preacher-poet. Nevertheless, Pearson's best attributes seem to come from something other than his status as a Christian, and in fact the church seems finally unable to accommodate the sources of his physical and imaginative strength. Indeed, ultimately Pearson seems to bear out Hurston's declaration that "Negro is not a Christian really," that instead the sources of African American imagination must be found more clearly in folklore and in religious practices associated with voodoo and other neo-African religions. Consistently throughout her autobiographical, folkloric, and fictional writing, she derides Christianity as a fainting and unsexed religion, one without the imaginative resources to produce great literature. Ironically, then, Hurston invokes a form of explicitly anti-Christian primitivism as a model of artistic excellence for the cosmopolitan and modern New Negro.
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