Table of Contents
1. Depiction of Southern black speech and folk humor
2. Janie’s quest for self-fulfillment and the acquisition of an assertive female voice
3. The figure of God as the ultimate joker
4. The critical response to Hurston’s humor
The Harlem Renaissance, an African American cultural movement of the 1920s and early 1930s, also refered to as New Negro Renaissance, marked the first time that black literature and arts were seriously recognized by American publishers, critics and intellectuals. Participants in the movement attempted to refute the negative racist stereotypes of black life deeply imbedded in white popular as well as high culture. In a time when many black middle class intellectuals shamefully distanced themselves from their cultural heritage, artists of the Harlem Renaissance showed a strong sense of racial pride in exploring the African and Southern roots of black experience and experimenting with elements of traditional African American folk culture in different genres.
One of the most significant figures emerging from this literary period was the anthropologist and fiction writer Zora Neale Hurston. After her college education, she engaged in extensive anthropological field research on rural black tradition in her all-black hometown Eatonville in Florida as well as the Carribean region and published the collected tales, sermons, songs and jokes in folklore collections, e.g. Mules and Men. As a novelist, she made use of her extensive knowledge of African American Southern rural dialect and oral culture by texualizing it in the dialogues of her fictional characters. Zora Neale Hurston was one of the first black writers to give an acurate depiction of African American humor. She demonstrated that humor is a crucial element of speech within the black community not only for establishing communal bonds through laughter but also because it plays an important role in the assertion of one’s voice.
Hurston’s second and best-known novel Their Eyes Were Watching God focuses on the black woman’s place in society. The protagonist and story-teller Janie presents her quest for self-fulfillment and struggle against verbal oppression, over two decades and three marital relationships; as she gains experience by experimenting with different roles, she learns how to assert her voice within the community and to humor life.
1. Depiction of Southern black speech and folk humor
Through her novels, Zora Neale Hurston introduced a large readership to the rich oral tradition of southern black folklore. Her fictional characters are known for their story-telling skills, creative use of language and unmatched humor. She regarded herself as a spokeswoman of her own people who had been culturally marginalized and misrepresented through negative racist stereotypes. Unlike southern local color writers of the late 19th century, as for example Joel Chandler Harris in his Uncle Remus tales, Hurston did not primarily aim at didactically explaining black folk wisdom to white readers. During the Great Migration movement, many African Americans migrating from the rural south to the industrial cities of the north, cast off their southern cultural heritage and felt ashamed of their dialect. Through her literary work, the author attempted to help them reclaim black oral tradition and establish a sense of pride.
Hurston used an interesting narrative structure in Their Eyes Were Watching God by splitting the novel into an omniscient third person narration in Standard Written English and Janie’s first person narration as well as direct speech dialogues in southern black dialect. She refuted the pejorative treatment of Black English as “bad” truncated English. By regularly applying its distinct grammatical and phonetic characteristics, e.g. the pronunciation of a voiced plosive /d/ instead of a voiced fricative /ð/ or the use of double negation, Hurston suggested that the speakers use fixed rules, thereby establishing the notion that Black Vernacular English is a linguistically noteworthy variant of English. The lengthy passages of direct speech are marked by highly colloquial language which is enriched with colorful similes and aphorisms, e.g. “Unless you see de fur, a mink skin ain’t no different from a coon hide”, presenting a body of black folk wisdom hardly expressed in writing before.
Hurston demonstrates how the assertive voice of African American folk culture comes alive in the performative speech acts of community members on the porch which functiones as a stage for the oral artist. Being raised in the all-black environment of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston grew up listening to porch talk and memorizing tales and jokes long before becoming an anthropologist. In her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” she explains her early fascination with this communal event:
The front porch might seem a daring place for the rest of the town, but it was a gallery seat for me. My favorite place was atop the gate-post. Proscenium box for a born first-nighter. Not only did I enjoy the show, but I didn’t mind the actors knowing that I liked it.
Through verbal performance, the members of a racially oppressed out-group had the opportunity to recover their silenced voice and empower themselves culturally within their in-group. The first sentences of direct speech uttered in the novel come from the porch sitters who have been “tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long” but change into “lords of sounds” through the exchange of porch talk. Through the sharing of stories and jokes with other members of the black community, a strong sense of we-ness is established which is crucial to in-group identity formation. For the individual speaker, skilled verbal ability can result in communal recognition and the elevation of one’s social status. The porch sitter’s society has a clear perception of well-crafted oral production and an orator has to utilize certain rhetorical techniques to receive praise. Less skilled speakers lacking knowledge in black oral tradition are quickly hushed, if they “jump up tuh make speeches and don’t know how”.
In most cases, the bond between speaker and listener is created through humor which is the most important mode of communication between characters of the novel. The relieving ring of hearty laughter often becomes more important than the contents of the speech that provoked it. In her anthropological field research, Hurston collected numerous pieces of African American folk humor created in different tale-telling modes and comical performance rituals. To reach an authentic depiction of black folklore in Their Eyes Were Watching God, she integrated samples of her recordings into certain contexts within the plot. The most significant examples of humor are the mule tales, , the mock-courtship contest of Sam and Lige and the comical depiction of the Turners’ marital relationship.
The episode of Matt Bonner’s yellow mule was borrowed from the opera Mule Bone, written in collaboration with Langston Hughes. Among the inhabitants of Eatonville, the mule talk has become a set ritual with three men serving as ringleaders initiating the talk sessions on the front porch of the general store as soon as the mule’s owner passes by. Each mule tale is followed by a “great clap of laughter” and Matt’s stuttered expression of anger after realizing that he has been tricked again. By demonstrating the porch sitters’ never ending invention of new tales, Hurston reveals the imaginative potential of black oral culture. Furthermore, she points to the phenomenon of signifying in black speech. The mule is the personification of the oppressed black man/woman. This motif also appears in earlier parts of the novel, as the narrator explains that the people’s skins are occupied by “mules ” throughout the day or as Nanny defines the black woman as “de mule uh de world” . The mule talk forms a creative subversion of the oppression by the dominant white society. By subvertively humoring their situation, the tale-tellers find a means of belittling racism and relieving their frustrations through laughter. This is consistent with Trudier Harris’s description of southern African American humor: “humor made the South not only endurable but transcendable, for humor reduced the South to a laughably manageable level of insanity.” Joe Starks’s freeing of the animal from its owner who has nearly worked it to death like a white slave driver or bossman humorously rephrases the abolition of slavery. The greatest irony lies in Janie’s speech in which she equates her husband to the slave liberator Abraham Lincoln; considering the fact that he oppresses his wife by denying her the right to speak and therefore excluding her from the speech community, her comparison turns into an implicit sarcastic joke.
 Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. London: Virago, 1986 (1937), 19.
 Walker, Alice, ed. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … - A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. New York: Feminist Press, 1979. p. 152.
 Hurston, 9f.
 Ibid., 68.
 Ibid., 82.
 Ibid, 10.
 Ibid., 29.
 Bennett, Barbara. Comic Visions, Female Voices – Contemporary Women Novelists and Southern Humor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1998. 5. quoted from Harris, Trudier. ”Adventures in a ‘Foreign Country’: African American Humor and the South”. Southern Cultures I (1995), 458.