The Harlem Renaissance was an age of cultural development for all forms of African-American, most important literature. However, the Afro-American artists of this age had a choice to make. They had to decide between staying true to their African roots and assimilating into the Euro-American population. This pressure to choose was christened “double consciousness” by W.E.B DuBois in his 1903 essay “The Souls of Black Folks.” DuBois described it as feeling internal turmoil between one’s identity as an American and as a Black in a constant state of war (689). DuBois states that the goal for any Afro-American is to be able to accept both sides of their identity without receiving ridicule from their fellow Blacks and without alienating themselves from opportunities (690).
Two of the most prominent writers to emerge during the Harlem Renaissance addresses the issue of their racial identity within America and the literary world in two completely different ways. Despite sharing many general themes Hughes and Hurston differ when it comes to dealing with the ‘double consciousness’ of their audiences. Langston Hughes took the approach of being unapologetically Black in his works and not concerning himself with his work being liked or producing a profit. On the other hand, Zora Neale Hurston chose to assume the role of the token black writer and drew on the traditional character of the trickster to subtly critique the society surrounding her.
Throughout his life and his works, Langston Hughes chose to have pride in his African roots despite being in a racist country and to express his thoughts unapologetically. Hughes saw no point in censoring his work to gain approval from the black bourgeoisie or the Euro-American population of the nation, had very little sympathy for Afro-American artist who wished to avoid speaking on race or wanted to find success as “just an artist”, and accepted all that being Afro-American encompassed with pride and without shame.
Hughes solidifies these ideas in his seminal essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” In this essay, Hughes describes a poet whose upbringing has caused him to attribute virtue, purity, and success with whiteness, and therefore does not want to be known as a Black poet, and says he is embarrassed for this poet because he does not know the beauty of his culture. Hughes closes this essay by saying the artist of his generation is going to create with no restraint and do not care if people are content or disappointed by what they produce (Negro Artist 1320-1324).
Hughes’ identity as an unabashed spokesman for Black beauty is also visible throughout his short stories as well as his poetry. One short story that encapsulates Hughes’ value of being comfortable in one’s skin is “Cora Unashamed.” This short story is about a Black woman in the predominately white town of Melton. Cora is a servant for the Studevant family and mistreated by everyone except Jessie, the Studevant’s high school-aged daughter. However, at no point, does Cora ever wish to live a ‘’whiter” life or curse the color of her skin. Cora is comfortable with herself, although she is not respected or liked by her white counterparts (Ways of White 3-18). Cora is the perfect example of the self-pride that was such a large part of Hughes’ identity as a writer and as a person.
On the other hand, when faced with the issue of reconciling her racial identity with her national identity, Zora Neale Hurston chose to take on the role of the token Black in order to gain funding and exposure. The majority of critics have relegated Hurston to nothing more than a Black writer pandering to the Euro-American majority. She seemingly forsook her blackness to become acceptable, while in reality, she was covertly commenting on the racial and gender-based oppression facing Afro-American women at the expense of the Euro-American. Hurston sought to be both a successful Black and a successful American, and was ready to take on the good and the bad that came with those titles and often did not consider herself colored unless it made undeniably clear upon her because of her background of growing up in the entirely Black neighborhood of Eaton (Colored Me 1040-1042).
In his autobiography, The Big Sea, Langston Hughes described Hurston as the “perfect darkie” condemning her for being paid to be nothing more than an acceptable representation of the Negro people. (Big Sea 1333). However, Hughes hints at the idea of there being more to this role Hurston was playing when he says “But Miss Hurston was clever, too” (Big Sea 1333) and describes how Hurston could asses the people she was collecting folklore from and act as if all her years of education had never happened.
Hurston originally planned to eradicate the stereotypes imposed on Afro-American when she worked with Hughes and many other Harlem Renaissance writers on Fire!!. However, the experience highlighted her need for economic stability and forced her back into mainstream publishing. From that point on Hurston donned a mask of subservience and worked the existing system to her advantage. This method is exemplified in her work as well. “High John de Conquer” is the best literary example of this deception at play. In her essay, Hurston states that
It was no accident that High John de Conquer has evaded the ears of white people. They were not supposed to know. You can’t know what folks won’t tell you. If they, the white people, heard some scraps, they could not understand because they had nothing to hear things like that with. They were not looking for any hope in those days, and it was not much of a strain for them to find something g to laugh over. Old John would have been out of place for them. (High John 451)
Just like the characters of Old Massa and Old Miss, Hurston’s Euro-American readers could find entertainment in her stories without realizing the manipulation that was occurring. The technique Hurston used to hid racial commentary in her white funded work is straight from the trickster tradition that is a fundamental part of Black literature. A tradition that is visible through stories such as “The Signifying Monkey” (Anthology 30) and Brer Rabbit in “How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox”(Anthology 69-70).
Another example of Hurston playing the trickster comes in the form of her autobiography “Dust Tracks on a Road.” “Dust Tracks on a Road” has been criticized as being shallow and duplicitous in its depiction of Afro-American life and for being riddled with contradictions. Annette Trezfer introduces the idea that the identity Hurston creates in her autobiography suffers from “an irreconcilable contradiction” from living in “a home that is unhomely” (Trezfer 70).
Trezfer claims that Hurston focuses on the town of Eaton and black culture in the segregated south as a way to destabilize the idea of the south as a “single definable reality with clear ideological boundaries” (Trezfer 71). Trezfer highlights Hurston ability to a play part and reverses roles when she speaks about how she played the role of the southerner for a group of actors, which turns the actors into spectator (Trezfer 74). This example relates to Hurston being a trickster because she lets her white patrons believe they have found their “perfect darkie” when in reality she is using their network to spread messages of resistance they are too content to hear.
How Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston sought to rectify their individual “double consciousness” is perhaps the greatest contrast between the two. Hughes took the road of outright resistance to the stereotypes the literary world attempted to put him in. He chose to be proud of being black in a country that was trying to convince the Afro-American community that they were less than based purely on their skin tone. Meanwhile, Hurston choice to rework those stereotypes and into a situation that worked to her advantage. She adopted John de Conquer’s way of rectifying her identities with her seemingly warring audiences: “Hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick. Winning the jack pot with no other stake but a laugh. Fighting a mighty battle without outside showing force, and winning his way from within” (High John 452).