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Voix afro-américaines. Les Afro-américains : la voix de l’esclavage

“Not a Thing of the Past”, Zora Neale Hurston and the Living Legacy of Folklore

« Not a Thing of the Past », Zora Neale Hurston et le legs vivant du folklore
Margaret Gillespie
p. 17-30

Résumé

Auteur important bien qu’atypique de la Renaissance de Harlem et premier anthropologue afro-américain à avoir étudié sa propre culture, Zora Neale Hurston est, à de nombreux titres, un écrivain d’exception. Contrairement à d’autres, dont Robert Wright et Alain Locke, Hurston ne renie nullement le legs culturel que représente le folklore noir qu’elle apprécie selon ses propres critères, folklore qui influencera tant la forme que le fond de son art. Anthropologue de formation, Hurston appréhende néanmoins la culture noire américaine du sud non pas comme un vestige du passé qu’il conviendrait de conserver précieusement intact, mais comme une partie intégrante du vécu actuel. À travers les stratégies discursives orales vernaculaires qu’elle adopte et adapte de la tradition folklorique afro-américaine, Hurston, en pionnière, ouvre une voie et donne une voix aux écrivains Noirs à venir.

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1As the example of such contemporary writers as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Paule Marshall testifies, today’s burgeoning “tradition” of African-American women’s writing in many ways began with the work of novelist, essayist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). This article will examine the interplay between Hurston’s literary legacy and the anthropological research she undertook into the Black folk culture with which her fiction is so strikingly imbued.

  • 1  “Of the various signs that the study of literature in America has been transformed, none is more s (...)
  • 2  Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Their Eyes Were Watching God: Hurston and the Speakerly text”, Zora Neale (...)
  • 3  Henry Louis Gates Jr., “A Negro Way of Saying”, New York Times Book Review, 21 April 1985, 17.
  • 4  Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, Philadelphia: J.D. Lippincott, 1942, 95.

2Since the timely rediscovery of Hurston in the 1970s after years of obscurity and critical neglect, the author’s complex narrative and rhetorical strategies have come to be seen as paradigmatic of Afro-American women’s writing in that they employ Black vernacular speech, rituals and experience to chart the emergence of a specifically female consciousness. Critics have celebrated the skill with which Hurston carved a literary mode of discourse out of an oral folk or “speakerly” tradition. The literary theorist and critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. for example has convincingly shown how her now-canonised1 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) uses the African-American practice of “signifying” to revise passages of Frederick Douglass’s slave narrative from a specifically female and metaphorical perspective2. But if Hurston’s fiction in a sense marks the birth of a new literary genre, it also embodies an essential role of the Black American woman, a role whose roots lie in an African tradition that nurtures and privileges the voices and words of women: “their role is to be heard, to distribute knowledge, mother-wit, to vocalise souls for their children”3. In the autobiographical Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), for instance, Hurston attests to her dying mother’s call to ensure just such a lineage: “she looked at me, or so I felt, to speak for her. She depended on me for a voice”4. Interpreting this dictate as more a metaphysical than a biological imperative, Hurston’s novelistic voice itself then constituted the beginnings of a maternal literary ancestry to which later writers would turn—a trend of which Alice Walker’s significant essay “Looking for Zora” (1975) is a prime example. Hurston never proved an unquestioning purveyor of tradition however. Rather, hers was an innovatory modernist voice and one that would nourish and enrich the cultural legacy with whose survival she deemed herself to have been symbolically entrusted.

3Hurston the anthropologist adopted a similarly critical stance. In the introduction to her ethnographical volume on African-American lore and voodoo practice, Mules and Men (1935), she writes of her early immersion in Southern folk tradition in terms of a confining second skin (“a tight chemise”) from whose restrictive bonds she had first to be freed if she were to attain any meaningful sense of either it or indeed of herself: “I couldn’t see for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that” (1). It is from this position of constant vacillation from subject to object, of someone at once defined by and yet beyond the confines of the folklore tradition that Hurston typically speaks. My conviction is that Mules and Men (1935) and the more obviously analytical studies “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934) and “High John de Conquer” (1943), illustrate the writer’s sophisticated understanding of what is at stake in inscribing without appropriating or betraying (through the penetrating eye of the anthropological “spy-glass”) her cultural patrimony, in testifying to without ossifying this vital and vibrant expression of Black cultural identity. Indeed, as will be argued below, for Hurston, folklore is less the trace of an immutable essence than an ever-changing enactment—a “garment” to be donned, not a truth to be revealed—whose very forms re-embody collective past oppressions and a minority’s creative strategy for cultural survival in the “midst of a white civilisation” (“Characteristics”, 42). Moreover, as with Hurston’s fiction, which not only took inspiration from Black American modes of discourse but actually incorporated them as poetic practice, so the writer’s lesser-known anthropological studies, upon which this article focuses, draw on the rich trickster tradition and related strategies of masking and signifying in their very means of address.

4The case of Zora Neale Hurston is in many ways exceptional. Born and raised in the all-Black town of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston was an accomplished scholar who went on not only to become a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s, but also, from 1927 onwards, to study anthropology under the highly eminent Franz Boas at Barnard College in New York. Her literary talents quickly drew attention: in May 1925, “Spunk”, a short story, won second prize in the Opportunity Magazine awards and was subsequently published in Alain Locke’s landmark Renaissance anthology, The New Negro, from which was born the movement of the same name. Hurston’s academic career also blossomed. A first degree in anthropology at Barnard alongside Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead was followed by a Ph.D. in anthropology and folklore, both under the direction of “Papa Franz”, as she was to call Boas.

5As an African-American ethnographer and writer, Hurston trod a highly individual path. Taught the objective skills of cultural anthropology, Hurston went on to designate her own people and herself as a subject for the application of those skills: Mules and Men stands as the first collection of Afro-American folklore published by an Afro-American. Nor was Hurston blind to the vagaries of her position within the academic establishment, a position whose parameters continued to recall the legacy of slavery and where, in scholar Karla F.C. Holloway’s perceptive words, “it is not unfair to see ‘papa Franz’ as the paternal white overseer to this black woman student who called herself Barnard’s ‘sacred black cow’ in a forthright and unambiguous acknowledgement of her status”(2).

  • 5  A slave who openly criticised his master could expect the severest of punishments. In his famous n (...)

6It was a position that provided Hurston with a uniquely double vision. Whilst the dominant Boasian school of anthropology typically saw its role as one of preserving vanishing cultures and lore which it salvaged from the clutches of advancing modernity, Hurston crucially posited the folk tale as the site of a ceaselessly evolving rhetorical dynamic whose elusive essence lay less in the eternal truths of hard-and-fast content, or in the revelation of an underlying generic pattern, than in the enunciative strategies it habitually employed, and the relations of domination and subordination to which it both testified and constituted an effective mode of resistance: “Negro folklore is not a thing of the past. It is still in the making. Its great variety shows the adaptability of the black man: nothing is too old or too new, domestic or foreign, high or low, for his use”. For instance, according to Hurston the “urge to adorn”, characteristic of Black American expression, harks back to residual African roots (“the stark, trimmed phrases of the Occident seem too bare for the voluptuous child of the sun, hence the adornment” [“Characteristics”, 178]). But the “urge to adorn” was also an impulse that proved invaluable during slavery and beyond. Linguistic embellishment and dissimulation have indeed proved qualities of paramount importance for an ethnic group who throughout its history could frequently not to afford to openly voice the truth of its situation5. The merit of such discursive dexterity feature as a predominant theme in the folk tales recounted in Mules and Men. In the “lie ‘bout big talk” for example, one slave tricks another into insulting the latter’s owner, an act which results in the near-fatal punishment of whipping:

“Thought you tole me, you cussed Ole Massa out and he never opened his mouf”
“Ah did”
“Well, how come he never did nothin’ tuh yuh? Ah did it an’ he come nigh uh killin’ me.
“Man, you din’t go cuss ‘im tuh his face, didja?”
“Sho Ah did. Ain’t dat wut you tole me you done?”
“Naw […] When Ah cussed Ole Massa he wuz settin on de front porch an’ Ah wuz down at de big gate” (77-78).

7Likewise, it should hardly come as a surprise that in African-American parlance, the term “lying” (the inventing, extemporising and telling of tales) is synonymous with practically all forms of creative linguistic expression.

8The product of “scientific” field research, Mules and Men is also a volume layered with various levels of lies—not only Hurston’s shifting personae, the recreating of her informants’ personalities and the compressing of storytelling sessions, but also the informants’ running commentaries on the depth and nature of their “lying” prowess—“’Ah’m gointer lie up a nation’” a certain George Thomas promises Hurston (19); “’Ah wouldn’t a b’lieved de lyin was in you if Ah didn’t hear you myself’” observes one incredulous informant of another. Complaints from earlier readers of the volume desirous of a “straight” and “honest” account notwithstanding, Hurston’s duplicitous narrative strategies remain, in their apparently idiosyncratic way, resolutely faithful to the underlying values and practice of folklore.

9Significantly, at a time when anthropological science was bent on demonstrating the lack of difference between cultures, Hurston underlined the power-relations specific to the African-American situation, against which Black folk culture was constantly engaged. Indeed in one of the few explanatory endnotes included in Mules and Men, Hurston is at pains to outline (to her White readers?) the extent to which the cultural binaries—of good and evil no less!—underpinning the dominant value system and systems of dominance are frequently reversed or subverted:

The devil is not the terror that he is in European folk-lore. He is a powerful trickster who often competes successfully with God. There is a strong suspicion that the devil is an extension of the story-makers while God is the supposedly impregnable white masters, who are nevertheless defeated by the Negroes (248).

10It is this vitally levelling impulse which characterises folklore for Hurston as she defines it in “Characteristics”, a guiding principle from which endless variation may be constructed, endless oppositions and hierarchies gloriously toppled:

God and the Devil are paired, and are treated no more reverently than Rockefeller and Ford. Both of these men are prominent in folklore. Ford being particularly strong, and they talk and act like good-natured stevedores or mill-hands. Ole Massa is sometimes a smart man and often a fool. The automobile is ranged alongside of the oxcart (180).

  • 6  Cheryl Wall, "Zora Neale Hurston". in Bonnie Kime Scott ed., The Gender of Modernism. Indianapolis (...)

11Not surprisingly then, as her comments on the spiritual suggest, Hurston proves profoundly suspicious of recovery, origin, community and indissoluble identity—concepts that seem at odds with the very ethos of folklore. Standing not as some hallowed but rigid vestige of Afro-American history to be treated with reverential sentimentalism, but a spontaneous, vitally ephemeral expression of feeling, spirituals are a “process” rather than a “product”6: “their creation is not confined to the slavery period. Like the folk-tales, the spirituals are being made and forgotten every day” (“Characteristics”, 180, 188).

  • 7  The term coined by the African-American writer and activist W. E. B. DuBois in 1903 to designate t (...)
  • 8  “There has never been a presentation of genuine Negro spirituals to any audience anywhere”. Zora N (...)

12Arguably as the exception that proved the rule in White-dominated anthropological circles, Hurston cut a similarly atypical figure in Afro-American literary milieux. Writing and researching during the period of the Great Black Migration to the industrial, “civilised” and progressive North, Hurston emerged at a time when it was deemed, as W. E. B. DuBois put it, that “until the art of the black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human” (Lewis, xiv). In order to dispel the racist assumption that African-Americans were morally and intellectually inferior, many of the so-called “Talented Tenth”7 considered it vital that Black culture be presented in the most flattering and favourable light possible. Spirituals were gaining new highbrow respectability sung like Lieder by soloistsin Metropolitan concert halls (a practice which Hurston disparagingly dismisses in “Characteristics”8), whilst “funky” artists like blues singer Bessie Smith and the jazz of “King” Oliver were to be dismissed by the Renaissance apostles of high art as inappropriate cultural exemplars for the American mainstream. In Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God however, Hurston made the reverse journey, going back—both mentally and physically—to her native rural South to garner as inspiration and focus for both her art and scientific research its rich and vibrant folk culture, a journey to be pursued even further, to Jamaica and Haiti, in a later volume tracing the roots of voodoo practice, Tell My Horse (1938). In choosing to embrace rather than transcend folk tradition, Hurston anticipated future Black women writers who would similarly “attempt to define themselves as persons within a specific culture rather than primarily through their relationships with Whites” (Christian, 60).

  • 9  Quoted in Gates andAppiah eds., op.cit., 17.

13It was an approach that many of her literary peers—Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Alain Locke among them—by aligning it within the then-popular parodic distortions of minstrelsy, would spurn as retrograde and ultimately demeaning of the “New Negro” cause. Because the Black vernacular was at that time generally subsumed within a comic vein, even those who used it otherwise were indicted for perpetuating “the minstrel technique that makes ‘white folks’ laugh”, as Wright’s cursory October 1937 New Masses review of Their Eyes were Watching God would have it. Indeed, for the naturalist Wright, Hurston’s feminised and apparently unsophisticated language only served to buttress that travesty of the Black American commonly represented in White literature: “her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley”9. Alain Locke, writing in Opportunity in June of the following year similarly condemns Hurston’s novel to the literary backwaters of reactionary whimsy: “progressive Southern fiction has already banished the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public loves to laugh with, weep over and envy” (17, 18).

  • 10  Sheila Hibben’s review of Hurston’s “lovely”novel is a case in point. Damning with very faint prai (...)

14That Hurston’s work did invite condescending sentimentalism on the part of her White readership10, or that certain forms of racial prejudice found solace in what was perceived to be an unsophisticated and unthreatening vision of the Black American—“those of us who have known the Southern Negro from our youth find him here speaking the language of his tribe” commented H.I. Brock of Mules and Men in a New York Times Book Review of 1935 (13)—is undoubtedly true; that such misreadings and misrepresentations were the cause of consternation to Hurston is decidedly less certain.

  • 11  Over a period of five years which included the writing of Mules and Men, Hurston’s research into A (...)
  • 12  See “What White Publishers Won’t Print”, Negro Digest, April 1950, 168-72.

15At a time when much of African-American culture had been pillaged and exploited by Whites to such an extent that it had become synonymous with racist stereotyping, Hurston, who depended on White patrons and publishers11, was faced with the dilemma of how to please a double audience. It is clear from her essay “What White Publishers Won’t Print” (1950) that Hurston had no illusions about the economic and racial constraints White patronage necessarily implied. While noting that the publishers would “sponsor anything they believe they [would] sell”12, she condemned the limited range of African-American life accepted by them. But her subtly subversive response to such constraints, akin to the strategies beloved of folk tales, was far less of a self-mocking surrender than many of her vociferous critics may initially have believed.

  • 13  Susannah Pavloska, Modern Primitives: Race and Language in Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Zo (...)

16Moreover, in contrast to many of her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries for whom it imported to recover an ‘ancestral’ past lost during slavery and to resist the lure of mindless replication—“drowning our originality in imitation of mediocre white folks” was DuBois’ trenchant phrase13—Hurston not only traced Black dialect and folklore back to multiple sources, but celebrated African-American mimicry as “an art form in itself”. Thus if Hurston could quite firmly declare that in the folk tale characters of Rabbit and Jack “the trickster-hero of West Africa [has been] transplanted to America”, then the tendency in some parts of the South “to add ‘h’ to ‘it’ and pronounce it ‘hit’” was put down to being “probably a vestige of Old English”. Likewise, and in a pre-emptively post-modern stance, Hurston questions the existence of original sources, positing in their place the virtuosity of variation. “what we really mean by originality is the modification of ideas. The most ardent admirer of Shakespeare cannot claim first source even for him. It is his treatment of the borrowed material”. The process is less that of reverential aping than a conscious (re)creation; mimicry nearly always invites embellishment: “the contention that the Negro imitates from a feeling of inferiority is incorrect. He mimics for the love of it. The group Negroes who slavishly imitate is small” (“Characteristics”, 180, 187, 181, 182, my emphasis).

17The perils of ‘slavish’ imitation were brought home to Hurston herself on the occasion of her first foray into field research when her—albeit highly successful—absorption of (White) academic savoir faire proved a bathetic failure in the rural South, an experience she describes with droll frankness in the autobiographical Dust Tracks: “I went on asking in carefully accented Bernadese, ‘Pardon me, but do you know any folk-tales or folk-songs?’ The men and women who had whole treasures of material just seeping through their pores looked at me and shook their heads” (175). Manifestly, another, less power-inflected approach would prove necessary, a realisation Hurston’s introduction to Mules and Men clearly reiterates: “folklore is not as easy to collect as it sounds. The best source is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest” (2). Yet if Hurston’s White education and high-brow ‘niggerati’ ways potentially alienated her from the very community from which she had sprung and with whom she wished to engage, she continued to be the butt of criticism from fellow Black artists who deplored what they perceived to be her servile adoption of a “happy darkie” persona for the benefit of a White audience in search of precisely such an unthreateningly ludic stereotype—as the following oft-quoted cameo from the writer Langston Hughes’ autobiographical The Big Sea amply demonstrates:

Of this ‘niggerati’ Zora Neale Hurston was certainly the most amusing. Only to reach a wider audience, need she ever write books —because she is a perfect book of entertainment in herself. In her youth she was always getting scholarships and things from white people, some of whom simply paid her just to sit around and represent the Negro race for them, she did it in such a racy fashion. She was full of side-splitting anecdotes, humorous tales, and tragicomic stories, remembered out of her life in the south […] She could make you laugh one minute and cry the next. To many of her white friends, no doubt she was a perfect “darkie”, in the nice meaning they gave that term—that is a naive, childlike, sweetly humorous and highly colored Negro (238-39).

18Hurston found herself in a quandary. How could she communicate most faithfully the great cultural wealth of the folk tradition? If on the one hand, by assuming a “Barnardian” stance she risked not only silencing her informants but repressing the vitally embellished structure of Black aesthetic practice by treating it as if it were transparent, on the other, a “racy” or “colored” account might simply satisfy White demands for quaintly primitive exotica. In fact, if the complex issues surrounding Hurston’s various self-dramatisations (budding anthropologist or pet performing Negro) constitute a key subtext to Mules and Men, her rhetorical strategies call upon trickster “lying” tactics not dissimilar to those employed in the folktales she collected.

  • 14  Susan Edwards Meisenhelder, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Race and Gender in the W (...)

19Thus, while it is perhaps not surprising then that the novelistic frame of Mules and Men should owe just as much to folk tradition as to the parameters of scientific scholarship more immediately proper to Hurston’s university education—as Karla Holloway points out, Hurston “never publish[ed] a commentary that indicated her academic understanding of language and culture without presenting her data and evidence in the guise of an amusing story” (49)—the story told was never merely amusing, never simply a relic of slavery, but a living strategy for negotiating racial and social inequity. In this way, Hurston’s own financial dependence on her rich White patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, paralleled the economic precarity of the informants she interviewed; both of these relations testify to a continuing history of imposed and inescapable subservience—indeed, Hurston’s patron, who “literally owned Hurston’s material and consistently pushed Hurston to express only the ‘primitivism’ she saw in black culture”14 symbolically performs the role of a latter-day “Ole Missus”. And although in her introduction to Mules and Men Hurstonin part dons the mask of a grateful and “loveable personality” (Franz Boas’ term in the original preface) to acknowledge the magnanimity of a benefactress who “financed the whole expedition in the manner of the Great Soul that she is” (xiii, 4), it is here too that Hurston suggests the hermeneutic complexity of folktales and tellers by explaining an African-American strategy for diverting White cultural appropriation:

The Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive. You see we are a polite people and we do not say to our questioner, ‘Get out of here’. We smile and tell him or her something that satisfies the white person, because, knowing so little about us, he doesn’t know what he is missing. The Indian resists curiosity by a stony silence. The Negro offers a feather-bed resistance. That is, we let the probe enter, but it never comes out. It gets smothered under a lot of laughter and pleasantries.
The theory behind our tactics: “The white man is always trying to know into somebody else’s business. All right, I’ll set something outside the door of my mind for him to play with and handle. He can read my writing but he sho’ can’t read my mind. I’ll put this play toy in his hand, and he will seize it and go away”.
Then I’ll say my say and sing my song (2-3).

  • 15  Meisenhelder, op. cit., 16.

20Through a subtle utilisation of pronoun shifts Hurston both allies herself with and distances herself from the Southern Black world she is about to describe. On one level, the image of Hurston’s own divided identity, the grammatical slippage of the passage also hints at the writer’s divided interests, cultivating affinities with a White intellectual readership (“You”) who see the African-American as other (“the Negro”) and simultaneously promising them privileged initiation into that same ethnic group of which she is proudly part (“We”, “us”). Yet while these comments stand as a warranty to White readers that they are privy to the “unvarnished truth”15 in Mules and Men, they also suggest that the tales will lie forever beyond the formers’ grasp (“he can read my writing but he sure can’t read my mind”). In and of itself then, the passage enacts the rhetorical tricks that make “feather-bed resistance” a particularly effective form of subversion, its latent aggression displaced into the “laughter and pleasantries” of Hurston’s “loveable personality”, offering inoffensive “play toy” stories to a White audience in what will follow. Moreover, the clearly sexual imagery—the penetrating “probe” “smothered” by all-encompassing, castrating femininity (“it never comes out”)—suggests a gendered role-reversal that recalls Janie’s road to self-empowerment as charted in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

  • 16  Hurston provides the following definition of John in the glossary of Mules and Men: “Jack or John (...)

21It is significant that Hurston identifies the self-same discursive tactics at work in the African-American John tales16 which enabled slaves to speak quite freely in the presence of Whites; like Old Massa and Old Miss, White readers could take delight in Hurston’s stories, quite oblivious to the fact that they themselves often constituted the butt of her jokes:

It is no accident that High John de Conquer has evaded the ears of white people. They were not supposed to know […] 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 to laugh over. Old John would have been out of place for them […] when Old Massa met him, he was not going by his right name. He was travelling and touristing around the plantations as the laugh-provoking Brer Rabbit. So Old Massa and Old Miss and their young ones laughed with and at Brer Rabbit and wished him well. And all the time, there was High John de Conquer playing his tricks […] (“High John de Conquer”, 923).

22Just as the tales recounted the power of the John figure, so their very telling provided play resistance to racial domination “it was an inside thing to live by. It was sure to be heard where the work was hardest and the lot most cruel. It helped the slaves endure” (922). As the example of Mules and Men demonstrates however, John stories did not die with the end of slavery; significantly, such tales abound in chapters IV and V of the volume in a section set in the Polk Country sawmill, where Hurston’s informant-workers are most clearly exploited by the White boss: shuttled from one work location to another, ignorant of their employer’s intentions, the workers use traditional tales to defy contemporary White domination:

“Must be something terrible when white folks get slow about putting us to work.
“Yeah,” says Good Black. “You know back in slavery Ole Massa was out in de field sort of lookin’ things over, when a shower of rain come up. The field hands was glad it rained so they could knock off for a while. So one slave named John says:

“More rain, more rest”
“Ole Massa says, ‘What’s dat you say?’
“ohn says, ‘more rain, more grass’”
“There goes de big whistle. We ought to be out in the woods almost”

[… ]
“No loggin today boys”[…] the Foreman said. “Y’all had better g’wan over to the mill and see if they need you over there” (68).

  • 17  “by not analyzing […] how these tales work […] by giving tales innocuous titles that mask their th (...)

23Here too, Hurston’s “feather-bed” tactics work to great effect. As the critic Susan Edwards Meisenhelder perceptively notes, the apparently artless presentation of the John stories reduces them to the level of linguistic “play toys” for the White audience who, like the slave owners of the past, remain deaf to their  radical subtext17.

  • 18  Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. New (...)
  • 19  Wall, op. cit., 8.
  • 20  Ibid, 8, 15.

24In her day an outsider in the anthropological and literary circles to which she belonged, disdained by “New Negroes” for valorising the “backward” art of the impoverished southern Black, patronised by Whites for whom she embodied a gleefully unthreatening manifestation of the primitive other, Hurston now enjoys a place of undisputed centrality and privilege in American letters, for whom she has become “a cardinal figure in the canon”18. Her desire to “render the oral culture literate”19 has bequeathed a patrimony of singular literary devices that go far beyond the doubly marginalised bounds of race and gender: proof indeed that, as she put it in an interview with the Chicago Daily News in 1934, it is the “unlettered Negro” who has “given the Negro’s best contribution to American culture”20. Hurston’s legacy of folklore is very much alive.

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Bibliographie

Works Cited

Christian, Barbara, Black Women Novelists. Westport, Virg.: Greenwood

Press. 1980.

Cunard, Nancy ed., Negro. London: Wishart. 1934.

Douglass, Frederick,. Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, an

American Slave. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1982 (1845).

Gates, Henry Louis Jr., "A Negro Way of Saying", New York Times Book

Review, 21 April 1985: 17-21.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. New York: OUP. 1988.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. and K.A. Appiah eds., Zora Neale Hurston, Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Hibben, Sheila, Review of Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, 26 September 1937: 21.

Holloway, Karla F.C., The Character of the Word: the Texts of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Greenwood Press. 1987.

Hughes, Langston, The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Hill and Wang. 1940.

Hurston, Zora Neale, "Characteristics of Negro Expression", in Bonnie Kime Scott ed., The Gender of Modernism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 1990 (1934), 175-190.

Hurston, Zora Neale, Dust Tracks on a Road. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984 (1942).

Hurston, Zora Neale, "High John de Conquer". Zora Neale Hurston, Folklore, Memoirs and other Writings. New York: Library of America. 1995 (1943), 922-931.

Hurston, Zora Neale, Mules and Men. New York: Harper & Row. 1990 (1935).

Hurston, Zora Neale, Tell My Horse . Berkeley: Turtle Island, 1981 (1938).

Hurston, Zora Neale, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Virago: London. 1986 (1937).

Hurston, Zora Neale, "What White Publishers Won’t Print". Negro Digest, April 1950: 168-72.

Lewis, David Levering, Introduction. "The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader". New York: Viking Penguin. 1994.

Locke, Alain ed., The New Negro: An Interpretation. New York: A. and C. Boni. 1925.

Meisenhelder, Susan Edwards, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Race and Gender in the Work of Zora Neale Hurston. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 1999.

Pavloska, Susannah, Modern Primitives: Race and Language in Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Garland. 2000.

Walker, Alice, "Looking for Zora". In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. London: Virago. 1984 (1975), 93-116.

Wall, Cheryl, "Zora Neale Hurston". in Bonnie Kime Scott ed., The Gender of Modernism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 1990. 170-175.

Wall, Cheryl ed., Their Eyes Were Watching God, a Casebook. Oxford: OUP. 2000.

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Notes

1  “Of the various signs that the study of literature in America has been transformed, none is more salient than the resurrection and canonization of Zora Neale Hurston. Twenty years ago, Hurston’s work was largely out of print, her literary legacy alive only to a tiny, devoted band of readers who were often forced to photocopy her works if they were to be taught […]. Last year at Yale alone, seventeen courses taught Their Eyes Were Watching God !” Henry Louis Gates Jr., preface, Zora Neale Hurston, Critical Perspectives Past and Present, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K.A. Appiah eds., New York: Amistad, 1993, xi.

2  Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Their Eyes Were Watching God: Hurston and the Speakerly text”, Zora Neale Hurston, Critical Perspectives Past and Present, 154-155. Significantly, it is the heroine Janie whose metaphoric conception of existence links her most closely both to the “hieroglyphic” tradition Hurston identifies in Afro-American language and to certain modernist modes of discourse.

3  Henry Louis Gates Jr., “A Negro Way of Saying”, New York Times Book Review, 21 April 1985, 17.

4  Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, Philadelphia: J.D. Lippincott, 1942, 95.

5  A slave who openly criticised his master could expect the severest of punishments. In his famous narrative Frederick Douglass describes thus the fate of a fellow slave who dared just that: “He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and his friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death. This is the penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions” (my emphasis). Frederick Douglass, Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982, 62.

6  Cheryl Wall, "Zora Neale Hurston". in Bonnie Kime Scott ed., The Gender of Modernism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990, 172.

7  The term coined by the African-American writer and activist W. E. B. DuBois in 1903 to designate the new mobilizing Black elite.

8  “There has never been a presentation of genuine Negro spirituals to any audience anywhere”. Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression”, in Bonnie Kime Scott ed., The Gender of Modernism, op.cit., 188.

9  Quoted in Gates andAppiah eds., op.cit., 17.

10  Sheila Hibben’s review of Hurston’s “lovely”novel is a case in point. Damning with very faint praise, Hibben congratulates the writer on having finally graduated to a civilised literary form: “If in Their Eyes Were Watching God the flowers of the sweet speech of black people are not quite so full blown and striking as in those earlier books, on the other hand, the sap flows more freely, and the roots touch deeper levels of human life. The author has definitely crossed over from the limbo of folklore into the realm of conventional narrative”. The New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, September 26, 1937, 21.

11  Over a period of five years which included the writing of Mules and Men, Hurston’s research into African-American folklore was financed by Mrs R. Osgood Mason, in return for which Hurston was obliged to sign a contract stipulating that her work belonged exclusively to her benefactress. It was another white society woman, Nancy Cunard who first published “Characteristics of Negro Expression” in her 1934 anthology Negro.

12  See “What White Publishers Won’t Print”, Negro Digest, April 1950, 168-72.

13  Susannah Pavloska, Modern Primitives: Race and Language in Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Garland. 2000, 76.

14  Susan Edwards Meisenhelder, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Race and Gender in the Work of Zora Neale Hurston. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 1999, 14.

15  Meisenhelder, op. cit., 16.

16  Hurston provides the following definition of John in the glossary of Mules and Men: “Jack or John (not John Henry) is the great human culture hero in Negro folklore. He is like Daniel in Jewish folklore, the wish fulfillment hero of the race. The one who, nevertheless, or in spite of laughter, usually defeats Ole Massa, God, and the Devil. Even when Massa seems to have him in a hopeless dilemma he wins out by a trick. Brer Rabbit, Jack (or John) and the Devil are continuations of the same thing” (247).

17  “by not analyzing […] how these tales work […] by giving tales innocuous titles that mask their thematic import, Hurston hoped to recreate the plantation dynamics of the John tales. Like Massa and Old Miss, her contemporary “masters” could hear the tales without understanding their subversive import”, Meisenhelder, op. cit., 19.

18  Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. New York: OUP. 1988, 180.

19  Wall, op. cit., 8.

20  Ibid, 8, 15.

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Margaret Gillespie, « “Not a Thing of the Past”, Zora Neale Hurston and the Living Legacy of Folklore »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, 17-30.

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Margaret Gillespie, « “Not a Thing of the Past”, Zora Neale Hurston and the Living Legacy of Folklore »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2009, consulté le 15 avril 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/2922 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.2922

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Auteur

Margaret Gillespie

Dr. (Clermont-Ferrand, France)
Margaret Gillespie teaches the English language at the University Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand. Her research centers on twentieth-century American culture and women’s writing. She has given a number of papers: “Djuna Barnes: ‘Pen Performer’ et ‘Newspaperman’”; “Temps, histoire et modernisme : l’exemple de Nikka” and “Le Voyage dans la littérature anglo-saxonne : ‘Aller et Retour’ de Djuna Barnes”.

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