Hitting A Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick
Zora Neale Hurston is a controversial figure, equally praised and criticized for her representation of African-Americans; while some critics emphasize her ebullience and celebration of Black culture, others call her fiction stereotypical and essentialist. Observing the workings of the recurrent humor in her works helps explode this critical binary opposition. Specifically, the carnivalesque and the heteroglossia often subvert essentialist notions of (Black) identity.
Jonah's Gourd Vine's protagonist, the preacher-womanizer John Pearson, can be seen as an African rather than an African-American trickster figure, i.e. as a mobile character whose liminality helps him fight essentialist definitions imposed on him by both the white establishment and his own community. Janie's romantic search for self-fulfillment in Their Eyes Were Watching God is undermined by the humor and the carnival, which emphasize her shifting and multiply defined identity. Finally, the African-Americanized story of Moses and the Hebrews shows the conflicts involved in their search for a unified national and cultural identity. In these three novels, Hurston appears as a subversive presence whose manipulation of humor underscores a complex political vision.