Mules and Madmen: On the Disabling Habitats of Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer
Keywords:Literary disability studies, Harlem Renaissance, ecocriticism, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, disability aesthetics
This essay reads the work of two major Harlem Renaissance authors as underacknowledged sites of disability politics and aesthetics, situating this moment in African-American artistic innovation as integral to the literary history of disability and illuminating the theories of disability that shaped these authors' experiments in literary form. Specifically, it argues that texts by Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston were attuned to the intertwined vulnerabilities of Black people disabled by early-20th-century labor exploitation and more-than-human ecologies debilitated by the same industries. These works represent a serious challenge to the long-running myth in white disability studies that claims nonwhite authors have historically distanced themselves from disability for fear of racist pathologization. Toomer’s story “Box Seat,” for instance, positions its protagonist's atypical mental state—represented by voiceover-like internal monologues—as both aesthetically generative and materially responsive to the commercialization of racialized, disabled, and nonhuman spectacle. Meanwhile, Their Eyes Were Watching God’s oft-cited “mule of the world” metaphor finds literal representation in the form of a work-disabled mule, whose appearance in the narrative occasions one of Hurston’s most memorable aesthetic innovations: the incorporation of folklore into the realist novel. For both of these authors, disability represents not only vulnerability to the machinations of racial capitalism, but also creative invention and formal resistance to white-dominated narrative norms. They show that a capacious, ecologically oriented disability politics is central to the history of Black cultural production.
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