Mule Bone: Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston's Dream Deferred of an African-American Theatre of the Black Word.
Michael G. Cooke, in his study of Afro-American literature in the twentieth century, notes that, whereas modernism in Anglo-American literature adapted the form of an artificial detachment from the human, in Afro-American literature "it took the form of a centering upon the possibilities of the human and an emergent sense of intimacy predicated on the human." Consequently, black literature undertook "to reincarnate and reinvest with value the culture's lost sense of being and belonging" (5). This grappling with a sense of intimacy involved a reaching out of the self into an unguarded, uncircumscribed engagement with the world (9). For Harlem Renaissance leaders, one of the ways to accomplish this was with the retrieval of black culture within black drama. Yet their approaches differed substantially. Samuel A. Hay, in his revisionary reading of African American theatre, traces a separation of schools, periods, and classes of most of the plays written by African Americans between 1898 and 1992 to the criteria based on the theories espoused by W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke. The Du Bois school of theatre was "strictly political," since he thought that drama should teach "colored people" the meanings of their history and, above all, should reveal the Negro to the white world as a "human, feeling thing." The sociologist called this new theatre, based on characters and situations that described the struggle of blacks against racism, "Outer Life."  On the other hand, Locke wanted "believable characters and situations that sprang from the real life of the people, from what Du Bois called 'Inner Life'" (2-3). Locke understood that Afro-American playwrights should concern themselves not so much with protest or propaganda plays--specifically those under the aegis of Du Bois--as with folk drama: "the uncurldled, almost naive reflection of the poetry and folk feeling of a people who have after all a different soul and temperament from that of the smug, unimaginative industrialist and the self-righteous and inhibited Pur itan" (Bigsby 241). Locke saw through the surface to discover resources in Afro-American folklore which could be transposed to the stage. As Errol Hill writes, Locke felt "the need for experimentation in form and urged on Black theatre artists the courage to be original, to break with established dramatic convention of all sorts and develop their own idiom" (5). Locke believed that drama was the most crucial form of all arts for the future of black artistic development and emphasized the idea that the literary beauty revealed to the black artist was contained in his oral folk tradition and in its vernacular manifestations with its vast universe of themes and images and its strategies of rendering them into the written medium. The black playwright's problem, then, was how to actualize the oral tradition--profoundly enmeshed in the notion that dialect was an inept imitation of the standard language--in written form and at the same time how to recreate that vital force on stage. Consequently, in their profound d esire to represent African American culture within dominant Western epistemologies, dramatists were urged to become what in Clifford Geertz's readings of culture as texts emerges as the anthropologist who "strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong" (452).
The tandem of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston would actually flesh out these inspiring sentiments in a play they titled Mule Bone, which was never staged during their lifetime because of a quarrel between the authors.  Of these two, Henry L. Gates writes that "a more natural combination for a collaboration among the writers of the Harlem Renaisance, one can scarcely imagine--especially in the theatre!" ("Tragedy" 9). David Levering Lewis also underscores the fact that Mule Bone was "an almost perfect union of the talents of Hughes and Hurston. In Hughes's hands, Hurston's yarn about two hunters who quarrel over a turkey until one knocks the other cold with a mule's hock bone became a well-knit full length comedy" (260).
In February 1930, Hurston headed north, settling in Westfield, New Jersey. Godmother Mason (Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason, their white protector) had selected Westfield, safely removed from the distractions of New York City, as a suitable place for both Hurston and Hughes to work. Delighted to be reunited and eager to make up for lost time, they soon began to plan the folk opera they had debated for so long. Then, after some discussion, they decided to write a comedy instead, based on a folktale Hurston had collected. They wanted to create "the first real Negro folk comedy," a play whose authenticity would stand in sharp contrast to the stereotypical portrayals of black characters and culture in the era's popular dramas, both black and white.  Yet the composition of Mule Bone cannot be rightly appraised if taken in isolation, for it would emerge as the dramatic result of Hughes and Hurston's lifelong literary declarations of artistic independence, the tangible proof that the credo of the Harlem Renaissance as e xpressed in Locke's "The New Negro" (1925) had borne fruit.
"The New Negro" provided a context for examining the creative writing of the Harlem Renaissance. It describes the historical and cultural context which makes it possible to appreciate the radical changes Locke comments on, and it is one of the main keys to understanding the self-conscious redefinition of black self that informs the period. Locke articulates the concept of "the New Negro": "The younger generation is vibrant with a new psychology; the new spirit is awake in the masses" (3). But, for him, this concept of the New Negro could only be realized if artists were free to develop their own black aesthetics and not simply direct their efforts toward achieving incorporation within dominant white culture.  Locke's dictum encouraged black artists to search for the roots that made their cultural inheritance unique; thus, Harlem Renaissance writers turned to the art and music of their African ancestors in an effort to prove that the black American was not a cultural orphan. In 1925 Montgomery Gregory stat ed that, "however disagreeable the fact may be in some quarters, the only avenue of genuine achievement in American drama for the Negro lies in the development of the rich veins of folk-tradition of the past and in the portrayal of the authentic life of the Negro masses of to-day." The twentieth-century Afro-American -- "the New Negro" -- "places his faith in the potentialities of his own people," and "the hope of Negro drama is the establishment of numerous small groups of Negro players throughout the country who shall simply and devotedly interpret the life that is familiar to them for the sheer joy of artistic expression" (159-60).
As a direct consequence of these calls to black authors, Hughes and Hurston established themselves as artists and critics who constructed their works on the unique value of black folk culture. In her study of American culture in the twenties, Ann Douglas argues that the situation at the time was "one of complex and double empowerment; at the moment that America-at-large was separating itself from England and Europe, black America, in an inevitable corollary movement, was recovering its own heritage from the dominant white culture" (5). Hughes and Hurston incorporated this demand in their works. They believed that the authenticity of their own voices depended on their deliberate use of the hitherto non-literary language and idiom of blacks, and argued that they could not exclude from their writings the way Afro-Americans had refashioned English to make it a more expressive language. For them the elevation of things intellectual above the lives of ordinary people might result in a split between the artist and the roots of experience. Consequently, Hughes wrote poetry that drew its inspiration from blues and jazz rhythms. Meanwhile, Hurston published stories, plays, and essays based on anthropological research around Afro-American vernacular lore and myths to "take back a language obscured by travesty and stereotype, so negatively charged that educated blacks were afraid to use it" (North 176). At the same time, they also wrote essays--Hughes's "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" and Hurston's "Characteristics of Negro Expression"--following Locke's credo that stand as their black manifestoes, informing the way they tackled theoretical expressive questions regarding their own creative production.
In 1926 Langston Hughes captured the essence of the spirit that animated the Renaissance in an essay that could aptly be described as one of the movement's theoretical underpinnings--"The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." In it he warned that "the urge within the race towards Whiteness"--to be as little Negro and as much American as possible--was a self-denying, suicidal aspiration. Hughes wanted the advancement of the Negro, yet at the same time attempted to resist an over-politicizing of black artists' work which could lead to the loss of personal recognition for them as individual artists. In his article, Hughes expresses the aims of these Harlem writers:
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not their displeasure doesn't matter either. We will build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves. (309)
According JoAnne Neff, this manifesto has three key aspects: (1) "the insistence that the depiction of the 'Negro world' is appropriate for literary treatment"; (2) "the intention of basing literary creation on the values of the Negro folk community, not on those of the middle-class ('mainstream') Negro"; and (3) "the intention of revising Negro literature so that it might serve as an inspiration for future generations, the 'temples for tomorrow'" (182).
In 1930 Zora Neale Hurston wrote "Characteristics of Negro Expression," which stands as her retrieval of black oral culture. In this article--published in Nancy Cunard's anthology Negro in 1934--she analyzes the complexity and inventiveness of Negro expression and observes that they offer a direct counter-statement to the belief that the Afro-American's language is evidence of his/her inability to master a complex Western language. Hurston's essay explains how Afro-Americans, deprived of a written language, vivified their nouns by affixing to them an "action" word (as in cookpot and sitting chair) and created new verbal nouns such as jooking and bookooing. She also notes African Americans' facility for intensifying descriptions by double descriptions such as kill-dead, high-tall, and little-tee-nichy; the vivid amalgamations such as knee-bent and body-bowed; and the invention of new wordslike bodacious and schronchuns. Hurston describes the black interpretation of English as a pictorial one, making full use of simile and metaphor, usually drawn from the natural world. Finally, she insists on the fact that drama is inherent to Negro life: "Every period of Negro life is highly dramatized. No matter how joyful or how sad the case there is sufficient poise for drama. Everything is acted out. Unconsciously for the most part of course. There is an impromptu ceremony always ready for every hour of life. No little moment passes unadorned" (225).
As their manifestoes make clear, Hurston and Hughes--in contrast to other Harlem writers such as Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen, who wanted to work with purely literary patterns, whether traditional or experimental--were intent on capturing the dominant oral and improvisatory traditions of black folk culture in written form, for they found the essence of Afro-Americanness in the vernacular. Mule Bone stands as evidence of how they desired to translate this interest into dramatic terms.
"The first Afro-American comedy (not minstrel show) by Afro-Americans," as Lewis (260) calls Mule Bone, is based on an unpublished short story by Hurston entitled "The Bone of Contention."  In the first of the play's three acts, Dave Carter and Jim Weston are best friends, but one day on the front porch of Joe Clarke's store they start quarreling over Daisy Taylor until Jim strikes Dave on the head with the hock-bone of "Brazzle's ole yaller mule" (53). Jim is arrested and Dave is taken away so that his wound can be tended to, leaving Daisy alone, wondering who will walk her home. Act Two consists of two scenes. The first shows the social background against which Dave and Jim's quarrel takes place--the struggle between Joe Clarke and Elder Simms for mayor and the tension between the two opposite local factions, the Baptists and the Methodists. In the second scene, we see Joe Clarke presiding at the trial in the Baptist Church, now transformed into a court-house. Jim is found guilty and banished from town for two years. Act Three describes the reconciliation between Jim and Dave, their intention of returning happily to Eatonville, and their rejection of Daisy.
In Mule Bone Hurston and Hughes attempt, in the first place, to articulate a dramatic form far from the aesthetic ambivalence of the works on black experience by contemporary white authors of the era. At the beginning of the twentieth century the black experience had been and was being exploited successfully by white playwrights as a source of exoticism, naivete, lyricism, and melodrama.  Yet, for the black writer things had not been and were not so triumphant. According to Cary Wintz,
During the first decade of the twentieth century the area around 53rd Street became a center for black actors, prizefighters, and show people in New York. For the first time black performers and acting companies were being booked in first-class New York theatres. Most of this was in vaudeville, where black casts replaced black-faced ones and performed the minstrel show songs and dances to delighted white audiences. (65)
As a result of this state of things, as Bigsby observes, "to be a black playwright was an ambiguous exercise. On the one hand success on Broadway made it less possible to dismiss black culture; on the other hand that success threatened to reinforce a stereotype which white critics took for realism" (240).
Among the undeniable accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance were the momentum it gave to black culture and how it shaped the perennial Afro-American need to rediscover blackness, which for its leaders implied the study of the black past and literature as sources of inspiration that guaranteed expression for the black experience--"to write about life as they saw it and look deeply into the black race's existence in America" (Wintz 231). Mule Bone--written by two of the most important representatives of the Harlem Renaissance--is a play which draws its inspiration from the cultural priorities of Afro-Americans. Hughes and Hurston's interest in furthering the impulses of folk drama can be considered part of what George Hutchinson considers "anything but a decisive attempt on the part of black artists to make a clean break from white American modernism." The writers were "motivated by a decisive reinterpretation and reevaluation of the inherent theatrical qualities of black vernacular speech and distinctively black traditions" and "by a Herderian romanticization of the folk inspired chiefly by the successes of the Abbey Theatre and the Moscow Art Players in the years immediately preceding the 'negro renaissance'" (197). In the "Preface" to The Book of American Negro Poetry (1931). James Weldon Johnson had already envisioned the task as a reflection of what other marginalized national cultures across the Atlantic had been doing since the turn of the century: "The colored poet in the United States needs to do...something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without" (41).  Hence Mule Bone offers no daguerreotype trying to sensitize white audiences molding black experience into limited, familiar frames of reference such as black poverty, black exploitation, and black vindication, but a vivid illustration of the process of "acting out" what Hurston calls "Negro expression."
Hurston had been collecting black folklore for her doctoral research in anthropology, and as an anthropologist, she intended to construct new art forms based on the Afro-American cultural tradition she was helping to recover. Critics have noted that, regarding the relation of literature and ethnography in her work, "it is difficult to say whether she fictionalized her ethnographic reports or whether her fiction had always been in part the product of ethnographic collecting" (North 187).  Her training as a professional folklorist seems to have encouraged her to undertake new forms of dramatic exploration which would emerge from the genre she seems to have cultivated throughout her entire literary production: the performance. In April 1928 she shared with Hughes her idea of what an authentic African-American theatre--that is, one built on the foundation of a black vernacular tradition of performance--might be:
"Did I tell you before I left about the new, the real Negro theatre I plan? Well, I shall, or rather we shall act out the folk tales, however short, with the abrupt angularity and naivete of the primitive 'bama Nigger. Quote that with native settings. What do you think? ... Of course, you know I didn't dream of that theatre as a one-man stunt. I had you helping 50-50 from the start. In fact, I am perfectly willing to be 40 to your 60 since you are always so much more practical than I. But I know it is going to be glorious! A really new departure in the drama." (qtd. in Gates, "Tragedy" 9; my emphasis)
Paul Carter Harrison observes that "authentication ... seems to come to the author who diligently details black life in a manner receptive to white curiosity, rather than to the author who attends the native ethos of the African/American community." Whereas authors from the Caribbean or Africa are allowed legitimacy when exposing their own native cultures, for Harrison, "the Afro-American is discouraged from the landscape of his culture. He is not rewarded for seizing upon its myths, its rhythms, and its cosmic sensibilities so as to designate a mode of theatre which reflects the African continuum, one that has permanency and provides cultural/educational consequences for the future of black life" (Kuntu Drama 5). Yet this is exactly what Hurston and Hughes tried to achieve with Mule Bone: to read the culture of nonliterate rural blacks as a text, yet become ethnographers using performance as both a mode of investigation and representation so as to change "the gaze of the distanced and detached observer to t he intimate involvement and engagement of 'coactivity' or co-performance with historically situated, named 'unique individuals'" (Conquergood 187-88).
In 1926, in "The Negro and the American Stage," Locke added a new note declaring the importance of the African continuum to the arts of the Afro-American:
One can scarcely think of a complete development of Negro dramatic art without some significant artistic re-expression of African life and the traditions associated with it .... If, as seems already apparent, the sophisticated race sense of the Negro should lead back over the trail of the group tradition to an interest in things African, the natural affinities of the material and the art will complete the circuit and they will most electrically combine .... Here both the Negro actor and dramatist can move freely in a world of elemental beauty, with all the decorative elements that a poetical emotional temperament could wish. (119)
Max Reinhardt had pointed the way in 1924 when he had told Locke in an interview that the way to distill a distinctively Negro drama was for Afro-American artists to work within their capacities as explorers of folk drama: "Only you can do it, you yourselves.... You must not even try to link up to the drama of the past, to the European drama. That is why there is no American drama as yet. And if there is to be one, it will be yours" (145-46). Hughes and Hurston attempted to make a definition of this black experience which implied an apprehension of the attendant forces and rhythms of black life inspired in their historically original folk roots, which would oppose the urban bourgeois vision of African-American culture being marketed at the time by certain sectors of the Harlem Renaissance literati. In this sense, Mule Bone can be included, as James Hatch points out, in the list of plays Harrison anthologizes as belonging to the African continuum.
According to Hatch, Mule Bone shares with other plays the African Continuum of Sensibilities not only in content, but also in form and style. On the one hand, the plot "meanders in circuitous association, returning at key moments to center (alter) the action." The story is "much like the courtship of a male pigeon: he circles the female, doubles back, walks away, plumes himself, pecks at the earth, struts back, circles her again, all the while burbling, cooing, clucking various songs in a slowly developed dance, which for all its apparent diversion still has but one purpose to be fulfilled when the female is ready." On the other, "its style of writing is quite different from the straight line, build-to-a-crisis at the end of the scene, Western formula" (27).
Even if the differences between black and white dramas are far from being more than just an opposition between linear versus circular, for Harrrison the models for an African-American theatre must be searched for in the tradition of Kuntu drama. According to Oliver Jackson, Kuntu drama is "a reflection and an objectification of the concepts of the African continuum. Those concepts and beliefs common to African peoples the world over are the basis of the unbroken continuity of the African continuum. Foremost among those concepts is the belief in the fundamental spiritual nature of the universe, as well as the attendant belief that man is essentially spirit, and as such basically irreducible." This African continuum is particularly evident in "the music of Africans, and in the use of words, images, and sounds" (Jackson ix). Harrison's work on the drama of Nommo also offers significant insight into two of the most effective modes of depicting the socio-cultural experience of the African-American--the collective force of music and speech, both of which are ubiquitously present in Mule Bone. First, African-American music is a manifestation of Nommo because it communicates the ethos and pathos of black people by speaking in "concrete form" (61). And, second, Nommo as expressed through a variety of speech genres "is born out of an African sensibility for concise imagery; while having multiple cognitive choices, its meaning is subordinate to the context in which it is used and defies interpretation unless one is familiar with the mode" (55).
Mule Bone represents, then, not a theatre of action but a theatre of the word, or, better still, a drama based on a conception of performative language. The enactment of the African-American vernacular tradition in the play aims at reestablishing the traditional folk rituals in a non-racist history and at celebrating the cultural identity of a rural Southern community which is understood as the foundation and inspiration of a new art form which escapes the notion that black arts and folkways are inept imitations of European forms (North 185). The two main characters are thus described according to their verbal skills. Jim is presented as "ready with his tongue," and, contrarily, Dave is "slightly dumb and unable to talk rapidly and wittily" (45). The comedy emerges as one of the first extraordinary celebrations of a drama of the black word. Hence, to understand Hurston and Hughes's unique dramatic experiment, it becomes necessary to realize, as Gates explains, that "the black vernacular has assumed the singu lar role of the black person's ultimate sign of difference, a blackness of the tongue," since" it is in the vernacular that, since slavery, the black person has encoded private yet communal cultural rituals" (Signifying xix).
Hurston and Hughes were determined to retrieve the lore and language of Afro-Americans from out of "the prison of white-created black dialect" (North ii). Their use of black dialect for the stage--largely manipulated and deformed by the white tradition of the minstrel shows and nineteenth-century plantation literature--offered a direct challenge to the dominant view, and as such it was directed to free the language from domination and damnation.  Mule Bone acknowledges that the source of creativity for a new Afro-American theatre lay in the race's folk heritage and in the exploration of the culture of rural black community life. For its authors, the retrieval of this black culture emerged as an imposing contrast not only to the mystification of the black image by contemporary white playwrights and to the barren mindscape of white society at large, but above all as a monument of black self-glorification.
The play, set in the street and on the porch of a general store in a tiny black Southern town, contains an arsenal of black folklore which displays itself on stage in a wide variety of linguistic treasures which derive their power from the original folk genre of verbal performance. The characters speak a language pregnant with rich vernacular imagery--proverbs, riddles, stories, and children's games linked together by the Afro-American rituals of the word, outstandingly signifying.  According to Robert E. Hemenway,  Mule Bone transforms "black vernacular as an appropriate vehicle for dramatic expression," and the characters not only "unconsciously order their existence and give it special meaning with elaborate verbal rituals" (176), but owe their very existence to language. Eatonville is a world defined and governed exclusively by the vernacular. This is a black community kept to itself and built up on the only foundation that maintains it isolated from the white world--the way of verbal interaction . Thus, the play's effect does not depend on the final denouement of the events presented at the start, following a linear process of dramatic exhibition, but largely, as Hemenway states, on "the devices characteristic of black speech" (176). As such, Mule Bone was designed "around the traditional verbal behavior of black people. Its comedy came not so much from the authors' wit as from the skillful verbal communication of the folk" (Hemenway 186).
Relationships in Mule Bone tend to develop through ritualized black vernacular contests which not only establish an ethnic atmosphere, delineate character, and advance the dramatic plot, but in fact are the plot. These verbal rituals stand for a repertoire of survival strategies which, as Ralph Ellison interprets them, embody a growing sophistication in overcoming oppressive social circumstances and symbolically express "a complex double vision" through the cultural resources of language, music, and dissimulation (136-37). Mule Bone is an encomium of the linguistic powers of a certain sector of the black collectivity which bursts out class boundaries to emphasize a sense of community. This acknowledgment of Afro-American aesthetic traditions and motifs lends itself to what Kariamu Welsh-Asante calls "the consciousness of victory," which becomes "a world-view that organizes perspective, minimizes defeat, and encourages an Afrocentric aesthetic imperative" (7).
In Mule Bone black oral culture stands as the supreme triumph over white oppression, and thus it is not coincidental that its Afro-American aesthetics is encouraged by humor. In 1925 Jessie Fauset in her article "The Gift of Laughter" stated that "the black man bringing gifts, and particularly the gift of laughter, to the American stage is easily the most anomalous, the most inscrutable figure of the century." But Fauset was well aware of the fact that the popular musical comedies of the past and of the present with their unfortunate minstrel inheritance were responsible for a fateful representation of Negro life. Accordingly, she pointed out that "the medium through which this unique and intensely dramatic gift might be offered has been so befogged and misted by popular preconception that the great gift, though divined, is as yet not clearly seen" (161). Hurston and Hughes, however, made sure it was seen. Thomas W. Talley, in his collection of Negro folk rhymes, also stressed the positive aspects of Negro h umor and declared that what had enabled blacks to come into contact with white civilization without being destroyed and to survive slavery and emerge from it was their "power to muster wit and humor on all occasions, and even to laugh in the face of adversity" (244-45). Mule Bone uses humor not only to transcend the black stereotypes exploited by white literature in minstrel shows and black-faced plays but assertively to depict black experience in the first decades of the twentieth century in America from a hilarious stance and through language that sets its roots in communal knowledge, wisdom, and the capacity of regeneration.
Blues rhythms, "lying," playing the dozens, signifying, among other Afro-American verbal manifestations, appear in this comedy as elements denoting a racial expression of energy and power. The characters of Mule Bone engage in Afro-American verbal rituals in three different places that can be taken as symbolic of the settings where black life develops as a communal experience. The social setting is represented by the porch of Joe Clark's general store, where the sitters illustrate their verbal talents, telling stories long before the protagonists appear. These village characters reject the stock comic types of the minstrel tradition, since they appear as real human beings who express their enjoyment of life through their language skills. Moreover, the main conventions of these ethnic forms of linguistic exchange--rhyme, repetition, and wit--are also learnt by little boys and girls in their games offstage, both to assert their manhood and womanhood among themselves and to show a sense of security when faced w ith the hostility of other social groups--grown-ups, for example. Any excuse is good enough to engage in verbal improvisation and signal the target of black humor. For example, when Methodist Elder Simms informs the sitters at Clarke's porch that his wife is "feelin' kinda po'ly today," this sets motion a lying contest:
VOICE: (Whispering loudly) Don't see how that great big ole powerful woman could be sick. Look like she could go bear huntin' with her fist.
ANOTHER VOICE: She look jus' as good as you-all's Baptist pastor's wife. Pshaw, you ain't seen no big woman, nohow, man. I seen one once so big she went to whip her little boy and he run up under her belly and hid six months 'fore she could find him.
ANOTHER VOICE: Well, I knowed a woman so little that she had to get up on a soap box to look over a grain of sand ....
LIGE: (Continuing the lying on porch) Well, you all done seen so much, but I bet you ain't never seen a snake as big as the one I saw when I was a boy up in middle Georgia. He was so big couldn't hardly move his self. He laid in one spot so long he growed moss on him and everybody thought he was a log, until one day I set down on him and went to sleep, and when I woke up that snake done crawled to Florida (Loud laughter). (74-75).
Verbal exchanges resemble those performed by "the lead dancer, storyteller or singer in traditional African societies ... in harmony with an accompanying chorus or responsive community," and those by "many contemporary African American ministers [when they] preach the word with accompanying responses from their congregations." Without the rhythm of the drums to establish the mode, these Eatonville friends have" 'performed' their verbal jousting and significations so many times that they have created their own harmonizing rhythms." For Carolyn L. Holmes, the rhythm of dialogues like the abovementioned, as well as its call-and-response pattern, reflect "the African aesthetics synthesized and transformed in the diaspora" (228).
Hurston and Hughes exploit what Lawrence W. Levine calls "intragroup humor" concerning the rural black, the uppity negro, and black religion. When the hockbone of the mule appears, the sitters on the porch start to show arimosity toward each other on behalf of their religious membership, and, thus, the rivalry between the Methodists and Baptists is framed in linguistic terms, too. This gives way to the second setting present in the play--the religious. The interior of Macedonia Baptist Church converted into a courthouse becomes not only the setting for the trial but the stage for a humorous depiction of the sacred world view. The trial is ultimately solved by the cunning black manipulation of the white biblical story of Samson, but previously the audience has seen how humor has been used as a weapon for interdenominational rivalry aimed at tapping the characters' sense of identification. As Levine explains, the butt of Negro humor on black preachers and the entire spectrum of black religion, "by its very ubi quity, indicated that they remained a force in Afro-American life," and this humor "allowed the articulation of criticism concerning characteristics of the race that troubled and often shamed certain members" (329-30).
Act Three takes places in what may be called a natural setting--a high stretch of railroad track through a luxuriant Florida forest. Here Jim and Dave rival again verbally for the attention of Daisy. But the plot of Mule Bone has a circular structure, following the predicaments of Kuntu drama, and the road which might take them out of the community will finally lead them back home, back to the heart of blackness, thanks to another verbal game--the courting ritual. Jim and Dave patch up their quarrel through laughter and thereby gain some perspective on their own anger and place in the world. The temporary loss of control and confusion that initiated the play disappears, just as words do, because, as Dave declares, "We's just friendly-fightin'-like" (119). What transpires in the play is just a "play," a game, in which to manipulate words is to embrace the collective notion of reality created by a community founded on what Michael North calls "sacramental performance" (189).
Henry L. Gates highlights the fact that with Hughes and Hurston's turn to the vernacular, they "also seem at times to reinscribe the explicit sexism of that tradition, through discussions of physical abuse and wife-beatings as agents of control, which the male characters on Joe Clarke's store-front porch seem to take for granted as a 'natural' part of sexual relations," as well as "Daisy's representation in a triangle of desire as the object of her lovers' verbal dueling rather than as one who duels herself." Gates concludes by saying that "... the depiction of female characters and sexual relations in Mule Bone almost never escapes the limitations of the social realities that the vernacular tradition reflects" ("Tragedy" 22). This is so because Mule Bone struggles to acknowledge the reality of sexual politics and thus offers no utopian description of rural black life. Yet, there are certain elements in the play that might undermine its alleged offensiveness.
In Act One, when Daisy disappears and Clarke tells about the fruit flavor she reminds him of, there is "general laughter, but not obscene" (60); and in Act Three, they explain that the dialogue/contest between Jim and Dave obeys the ritual. For example, Dave is directed to speak "very properly in a falsetto voice" and, immediately after, both he and Jim are told to "laugh" (146). Hurston and Hughes show in this way the sense of verbal play of the black culture being recreated. On the other hand, if we agree with the idea that the rich oral tradition reflected in African-American folk life is revealed through the various townspeople who congregate on the front porch of Starks' general store, in the village street, and in the church, then part of this group is outstandingly made up of women. Mule Bone does literally overflow with verbal exchanges between men and women which not only reveal the familiar tensions in the community but also demonstrate that men might not always be the agents of control. For example, the ritual of insult between Deacon Lindsay and Sister Taylor before the trial shows how a man is rhetorically destroyed:
LINDSAY: (Angrily) What's de matter, y'all? Cat got yo' tongue?
MRS. TAYLOR: More matter than you kin scatter all over Cincinnati.
LINDSAY: Go 'head on, Lucy Taylor. Go 'head on. You know a very little of yo' sugar sweetens my coffee. Go 'head on. Everytime you lift yo' arm you smell like a nest of yellow hammers.
MRS. TAYLOR: Go 'head on yo'self. Yo' head look like it done wore out three bodies. Talkin' 'bout me smellin'--you smell lak a nest of grand daddies yo'self.
LINDSAY: Aw rock on down de road, 'oman. Ah don't wan-tuh change words wid yoh. Youse too ugly.
MRS TAYLOR: You ain't nobody pretty baby, yo'self. You so ugly I betcha yo' wife have to spread uh sheet over yo' head tuh let sleep slip up on yuh.
LINDSAY: (Threatening) I done tole you I don't wanter break a breath wid you. It's uh whole heap better tuh walk off on yo' own legs than it is to be toted off. I'm tired of yo' achin' round here. You fool wid me now an' I'll knock you into doll rags, Tony or no Tony.
MRS TAYLOR: (Jumping up in his face) Hit me! Hit me! I dare you tuh hit me. If you take dat dare, you'll steal uh hawg an' eat his hair.
LINDSAY: Lemme gunn down to dat church befo' you make me stomp you. (He exits, right) (105)
Women in Eatonvile are more than ready and eager to engage men in verbal rituals which challenge their authority and dominance. And this is the other side of a comedy which minimizes black women's defenselessness, even surprisingly little girls', as in Act One, when Lum Boger -- "young town marshall about twenty, tall, gangly with big flat fleet, liked to show off in public" (46) -- tries to order the children away:
LUM BOGER: Why'nt you go on away from here, Matilda? Didn't you hear me tell you-all to move?
LITTLE MATILDA: (Defiantly) I ain't goin' nowhere. You ain't none of my mama. (Jerking herself free from him as LUM touches her.) My mama in the store and she told me to wait out here. So take that, ol' Lum.
LUM BOGER: You impudent little huzzy, you! You must smell yourself ... youse so fresh.
MATILDA: The wind musta changed and you smell your own top lip.
LUM BOGER: Don't make me have to grab you and take you down a button hole lower.
MATILDA: (Switching her little head) Go ahead on and grab me. You sho can't kill me, and if you kill me, you sho can't eat me. (She marches into the store.) (66)
Little children in Mule Bone are not only learning the central importance of verbal art but are presented as masters of rhetorical improvisation in duels with the representative of authority.
Women also engage with other women in playing dozens which take as a source of inspiration their domestic life. Among the many hilarious examples, the interchange between Sister Taylor, Methodist, and Sister Lewis, Baptist, in the courthouse merits recording here for several reasons.
First, it offers a clear illustration that black verbal rituals are not exclusively limited to males; second, since one of the images which Sister Taylor uses against her rival had been employed before against her by Deacon Lindsay (see prior excerpt), this shows that the black vernacular is communal property and passed down from mouth to mouth, without recognizing gender boundaries, class distinctions, or age differences; finally, when these two women are interrupted in their battle of wits by a man--Deacon Lindsay--both take turns tearing him to pieces and annihilating him:
SISTER TAYLOR: Some folks is a whole lot more keerful 'bout a louse in de church than dey is in dey house. (Looking pointedly at Sister Lewis)
SISTER LEWIS: (Bristling) Whut you gazin' at me for? Wid your popeyes lookin' like skirt ginny-nuts?
SISTER TAYLOR: I hate to tell you whut yo' mouf looks like. I thinks you an' soap an' wate musta had some words. Evertime you lifts yo' arm you smell like a nest of yellow hammers [my emphasis].
SISTER LEWIS: Well, I ain't seen no bath tubs in your house.
SISTER TAYLOR: Mought not have no tub, but tain't no lice on me though.
SISTER LEWIS. Aw, you got just as many bed-bugs and chinces as anybody else. I seen de bed-bugs marchin' out of yo' house in de mornin' keepin' step just like soldiers drillin' ....
SISTER TAYLOR: (To LEWIS) Aw, shut up, you big ole he-looking rascal you! Nobody don't know whether youse a man or a woman.
CLARKE: You wimmen, shut up! Hush! Just hush! (He wipes his face with a huge handkerchief.)
SISTER LEWIS: (To SISTER TAYLOR) Air Lawd! Dat ain't your trouble. They all knows whut you is eg-zackly!
LINDSAY Aw? Why don't you wimmen cut dat out in de church house? Jus' jawin' an chewin' de rag!
SISTER TAYLOR: Joe Lindsay, if you'd go home an' feed dat rawbony horse of yourn, you wouldn't have so much time to stick yo' bill in business that ain't yourn.
SISTER LEWIS: Joe Lindsay, don't you know no better than to strain wid folks ain't got no sense enough to tote guts to a bear? If they ain't born wid no sense, you can't learn 'em none. (111-14)
For Harrison, when playing the dozens, Nommo creates power "beyond the natural frailty of the body" (Drama 39). Men and women characters in the play reveal their flaws as well as their assets, making a portrait of the community far from incomplete. These are individuals who quarrel, gossip, love, care for each other, and, above all, laugh not at themselves but together. As Levine writes, "Black laughter provided a sense of the total black condition not only by putting whites and their racial system in perspective but also by supplying an important degree of self and group knowledge" (320). Consequently, while black women may recognize their inferior status in the community, they engage in a fierce struggle that erases their passivity and enhances their commitment to gender retribution. As Sister Pitts states, "Chile, if you listen at fokses talk, they'll have you in de graveyard or in Chattahoochee--one. You can't pay no 'tention to talk" (121). Yet, it is precisely language that makes the black community go round. As Jim realizes and tells Dave before the trial, "Lawd, Lawd! We done set de whole town fightin'." And Dave agrees: "Boy, we sho is!" (119). Jim and Dave's dispute has become a training ground for the choric exhibition of Eatonville's verbal facility across social classes, ages, and genders, because for this community oral culture plays a central role and verbal ability is regarded as the main asset. The town has come alive and fought a cathartic cleansing game of words through verbal rituals native to Afro-American culture and alien to the white world and, consequently, to the white audience, since as Levine writes, black humor presupposes "a common experience between the joke-teller and the audience" and it functions "to foster a sense of particularity and group identification by widening the gap between those within and those outside of the circle of laughter" (359). Jessie Fauset was convinced that "the remarkable thing about this gift of ours is that it has its rise ... in the very woes which bes et us. Just as a person driven by great sorrow may finally go into an orgy of laughter, just so an oppressed and too hard driven people breaks over into compensating laughter and merriment. It is our emotional salvation" (166). But in Mule Bone black humor is not just a lifesaver. It is a serious, committed ideological vehicle for a new African-American drama that searches for both racial dignity and aesthetic merit.
According to Amritjit Singh, a good deal of black literature in the 1920s was shaped by and tried to satisfy the white preconceptions of what the Negro was. A consideration of literary works by black authors highlights two dominant trends that form a revealing pattern of near-obsessive concern with the main white stereotypes of Afro-American existence. The first trend is defined by black writing which, like much writing on the subject by white contemporaries, presents black life as exotic and primitivistic. And the second trend includes works which attempt to show that black Americans are different from their white counterparts only in the shade of their skin (37). Mule Bone does not fit either of these two trends. For Bigsby, one of the crucial goals of black drama in America has been that of "presenting the Negro to himself, of reflecting not so much the public being, forced to wear the abstracting mask shaped by an implacable white hostility, but the private self whose resources lie partly in an historical experience and partly in a shared present" (240). This is precisely what Hughes and Hurston's comedy achieves, since it situates itself outside these constrictive boundaries, as one of the first black dramas depicting folk Afro-American life from the inside. Departing from the premises that the oral nature of black cultural traditions would have to be reworked into a written tradition, Hurston and Hughes developed in Mule Bone a new dramatic technique based on the use of the black vernacular to portray an extraordinarily rich segment of the original folk genre of verbal performance. These two authors--as they had already done in their fiction and poetry--traced the path for a new dramatic writing that would enable the black playwright to carry out the same social function as "the folklore artist (creator of community) who would provide inspiration for future Negro generations" (Neff 183). Mule Bone was a temple for the future, unfortunately unknown to worshippers, but still a founding stone for later generat ions, as further developments in the twentieth-century black drama demonstrate.
Langston Hughes in "Notes on Commercial Theatre," published in The Crisis in March 1940, gave voice to the threat that the appropriation of black experience by commercial theatre embodied for the Afro-American identity:
You've taken my blues and gone--
You sing'em on Broadway
And you sing 'em in the Hollywood
And you mix 'em up with symphonies
And you fixed 'em
So they don't sound like me--
Yep, you done taken my blues and
You also took my spirituals and gone.
You put me in Macbeth and Carmen
And all kinds of Swing Mikados
And in everything but what's about
But someday somebody'll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me--
Black and beautiful--
Hurston and Hughes stood up and wrote about "black and beautiful" in a play that is part of what Larry Neal called "a truly original Black literature." Their portrayal of black folk language in Mule Bone was an attempt to establish what Neal terms "some new categories of perception; new ways of seeing a culture which had been caricatured by the white minstrel tradition, made hokey and sentimental by the nineteenth[-]century local colorists, debased by the dialect poets, and finally made a 'primitive' aphrodisiac by the new sexualism of the twenties." 
Hughes and Hurston's perspective embodied the principles of what today is called "Black Aesthetics." By rebuking those artists who saw no beauty in their life and who therefore avoided black themes and styles or deprecated the black heritage or apologized for it in their writings, they led the way toward an affirmation of the Afro-American heritage and embraced the black struggle. Their call to Afro-American writers to look to black life for themes and to black folk culture for techniques would be echoed and amplified by later dramatists. Mule Bone dramatizes a full display of the vernacular voice, which is at the core essentially lyrical, uniting richness of language with a determined view of facts which underscores Hughes and Hurston's strategy of empowerment through art. Unfortunately, their attempt to embody dramatically the distinctiveness of the black folk experience in America and as such the root of its poetry remained, until recently, a dream deferred.
Carme Manuel is Assistant Professor of English at the Universitat de Valencia, Spain, where she teaches American literature, with a special focus on African American writers. She is the author of a book on nineteenth-century Southern fiction and of critical editions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. She is currently working on a translation into Catalan of a selection of poems by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century black women writers.
(1.) For a study of the Crisis, Opportunity, and Messenger crusades for black drama throughout the twenties, see Hutchinson's chapters Invoking a 'National Negro Theatre'" (158-66)," If There Is to Be One, it Will Be Yours': American Drama" (189-97), and "Theophilus Lewis and the Black Theater" (304-12).
(2.) For a detailed account of the reasons for their dispute, see Gates' edition of the play. For illustrations from the 1991 stage production of the play, see Lynda Marion Hill.
(3.) For a detailed chronology of the series of events that trace the cause of the dispute and the ending of the authors' friendship, see Gates, "Tragedy" 11-13. For a description of Hughes's achievements in theater, see Turner, and for a survey of black women playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance, see Nellie McKay. Will Harris, surveying women's plays from Angelina Weld Grimke's Rachel (1916) to Alice Childress's Florence (1950), describes what he sees as these dramatists' creation of an artistic program for social uplift, along the way mentioning Hurston as a writer "who was able and willing to write exotic theater" (209). For a study of lynching plays written by Harlem Renaissance women which followed Du Bois's dicta regarding black drama, see Judith Stephens's "'And Yet They Paused' and 'A Bill to be Passed': Newly Recovered Lynching Dramas by Georgia Douglas Johnson" as well as her many pathbreaking studies on this important dramatic genre listed in her Johnson essay.
(4.) According to Ralph Ellison in Shadow and Act, if black contributions to American culture were to be recognized, black artists needed to cherish, reclaim, and build upon the oral culture which had preserved their sense of identity and self-esteem during the years of enslavement.
(5.) According to Gates, the story is "particularly fascinating as a glimpse into Hurston's manner of revising and transforming the oral tradition (she had collected the story in her folklore research) and because of its representation of various characters (such as Eatonville, an all-black town where Hurston was born, Joe Clarke and his store, the yellow mule and his mock burial) who would recur in subsequent works, such as Mule Bone and Their Eyes Were Watching God' ("Tragedy" 18). As far as Hughes is concerned, the connection between his interest in folk drama and his actual participation in the writing of Mule Bone might revolve around Rowena Woodham Jelliffe and her husband, with whom Hughes maintained a lifelong friendship. Rowena believed in a Negro drama that recalled Reinhardt's observations and the dramatic qualities inherent in black vernacular expression. Moreover, she staged Hughes's plays in the thirties. For a more detailed description of Jelliffe's artistic agenda, see Hutchinson 195-96.
(6.) Writers such as Ridgely Torrence, Marc Connelly, Paul Green, and Eugene O'Neill, among others, made use of Afro-American materials for what they understood as "the extraordinary richness of his daily life" (Bigsby 237). This was the period when the taste of the Western world, including that of New York bohemians, discovered the Negro, although cast in the stereotypical mold of the primitive. This image was not new, but it became paramount in the American consciousness during the so-called Jazz Age. The reasons that this was so are manifold. From the historical point of view, "commercialism and standardization that followed industrialism led to increasing nostalgia for the simple, forceful and unmechanized existence that the Negro came to represent" (Singh 32). The Afro-American represented, according to Robert Bone, "the unspoiled child of nature, the noble savage--carefree, spontaneous and sexually uninhibited" (59). Secondly, European artists such as Pablo Picasso, George Braque, and Henri Matisse fou nd inspiration to revolutionize Western art in African artistic manifestations--sculptures and ritual masks of the city states and kingdoms of West Africa. Finally, the appeal of primitivism found promotion through the misinterpretation of Freudian theory. Consequently, "this Negro fad of the twenties in the United States led to an unprecedented artistic activity that focused on the depiction of the Negro in fiction, drama, poetry, painting and sculpture" (Singh 32), as Afro-Americans became "for white bohemian and avant-garde artists a symbol of freedom from restraint, a source of energy and sensuality" (Cooley 52).
In 1917 Torrence's Three Plays for a Negro Theatre was acclaimed by James Weldon Johnson, one of the launchers of the Harlem Renaissance, for the playwright's "intimate knowledge" of, "deep insight" into, and "sympathy" for Negro life. But it was Eugene O'Neill who was widely applauded for having marked a new step in the treatment of the Afro-American on the American stage with The Emperor Jones (1920). In 1925 Montgomery Gregory, the organizer of the Howard Players and their director from 1919 to 1914, in "The Drama of Negro Life" praised O'Neill as the author "who more than any other person has dignified and popularized Negro drama" and given "testimony of the possibilities of the future development" of it (153). The Emperor Jones, produced by the Provincetown Players, would remain in history as "a beacon-light of inspiration," since it marked "the breakwater plunge of Negro drama in the main stream of American drama" (157). Yet, as John Cooley explains in his analysis of the play, O'Neill's most significa nt black portrait is "an example of the way in which old racial cliches and myths were perpetuated, even in highly regarded literature" (53). But, at least, works like O'Neill's play, Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" (1917), Waldo Frank's Holiday (1922), and Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven (1926) were instrumental in paving the way for black writers. As Bone suggests, "They created a sympathetic audience for the serious treatment of Negro subjects" (60). In fact, when Alain Locke included in his volume The New Negro "A Select List of Plays of Negro Life," the vast majority of those listed were white playwrights of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (432-33). Other dramas written by white authors which were acclaimed at the time were
Abraham's Bosom by Paul Green, the opera Porgy and Bess by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, The Green Pastures by Marc Connelly, as well as O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings (1923). According to George Hutchinson, "however ideologically flawed we may find these white 'Negro plays' today, they were enabling cultural performances for black artists of the time, according to even the often-suspicious Du Bois" (161). This is not to say that reviewers in black journals failed "to attack literary exploitation and white thirst for the primitive and exotic," but the works they attacked were not those of authors whose names have been handed down from literary history to literary history, but of those ones "we never even heard of today"; in addition, black reviewers lamented "inappropriate and 'degrading' uses of the spirituals by 'Negro revues,' black-directed and -produced shows deriving from the black blackface minstrel show tradition" (Hutchinson 195).
(7.) Nathan I. Huggins states that "the same ethnocentrism that had engulfed Europe in war made self-determination one of the major war objectives. This principle, which was to justify nationhood for [the] Irish, Magyars, and Czechs, would have implications for Africans as well" (6).
(8.) In Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale Hurston (1996), Lynda Marion Hill argues that Hurston's artistic mastery is based on her ability to use language as performance technique and proposes to "use performance as a bridge between anthropology and art" Hill suggests "reading Hurston's texts as plays" and highlights the fact that Their Eyes Were Watching God is built on parts from Mule Bone, which in turn is based on the story "The Bone of Contention."
(9.) Michael North distinguishes between a white and a black modemism. On the one hand, "linguistic imitation and racial masquerade are so important to transatlantic modernism because they allow the writer to play at self-fashioning"; on the other, for African-American poets of this generation, "dialect is a 'chain,'" for "in the version created by the white minstrel tradition, it is a constant reminder of the literal unfreedom of slavery and of the political and cultural repression that followed emancipation" (11).
(10.) On the different definitions of signifyin(g), see Gates, Signifying and his detailed account (74-78) of previous definitional attempts by Roger D. Abrahams.
(11.) The quotations from Hemenway belong to the excerpt from his Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1977) which Gates includes in his edition of Mule Bone on pages 161-89.
(12.) Larry Neal, "A Profile: Zora Neale Hurston," Southern Exposure 1 (Winter 1974): 162; cited by Hemenway 184. Neal was extremely critical toward the Harlem Renaissance, yet Mule Bone shows that during this period "truly original Black literature" took place in the guise of writing that, paraphrasing his definition of the Black Arts Movement, did not alienate writers from their community.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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