Hurston and African American Folklore

Victims of Peonage in Alabama around the time of Hurston's birth
This essay was written a few years back in connection with my Zora Neale Hurston Course, which I have taught a few times, but which I am herein recommending to students in African American Literature: 1930s through 1960s as a supplement to their reading of Mules and Men. Also, in regard to the picture above, although it probably dates from around the turn-of-the-century, such chain gang labor crews in the South were among the last reliable sources of African American folk culture up through the 1960s--work songs, in particular as written about by Lawrence Levine and recorded by Bruce Jackson and Alan Lomax.  I believe Leadbelly was first discovered in such a setting:  

"Like many writers, Hurston had been an avid collector of songs and stories since she was a child. Born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, her parents soon moved the family to the black town of Eatonville, Florida where the African American oral tradition was alive and well in churches and at home, as well as on the porch of Joe Stark’s store.

After her mother’s untimely death, Hurston was forced to claim to be anywhere from ten to twenty years younger than she was in order to get the higher education she was determined to receive.  While taking anthropology in the mid 1920s as an undergraduate at Barnard under the famous anthropologist Franz Boas, she discovered that collecting the stories of unlettered folk was also what anthropologists did. Quite naturally enthralled, she would continue to function as an anthropologist, an ethnographer of the African Diaspora throughout the Caribbean and the U.S., and a folklorist for the rest of her life.

What she loved to do, which was to mingle among the ordinary poor folk, particularly in rural areas, particularly far from home, she now referred to as fieldwork, and she would prefer to be in the field rather than anywhere else.  In fact, she died there in an old folks home penniless and sick.

But before the end came, it was Hurston’s habit to collect not only their stories but their peculiar non-verbal mannerisms, their tendencies to repeat and to inflect their speech with a variety of rhythms, their songs, their prayers, their spells and incantations, their sermons, their rhetorical devices in all manner of social situations.  She referred to much of this under the generic label of “lies.”  She interwove what she heard and saw seamlessly into her field notes, her autobiographical writings, her fiction and plays.  It should come as no surprise therefore that much of what she told us about her own life turned out to be a work of ethnographic fiction. 

Each of the books she wrote—and there were quite a few—bore traces of her lives, the one she made up and the one she actually had lived, as well as all the people and things she had seen. But the point of this class isn’t to catch Hurston in a lie, or pin her down to a single autobiographical account, although that might be one of the things we will spend our time doing.  The point of the course, I hope, will be to achieve an ear for comparative approaches to the storytelling traditions she documented and which have participated fully in the formation of African American identity, African Diasporic identity and American identity. 

You will learn to recognize some of the various genres of tales--- John and Massa tales, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear tales, witch tales, hoodoo tales, myriad retellings and recyling of narratives from the Old Testament, Devil tales, Witch Tales, prayers, spells, sermons, songs of various types—secular and sacred, work songs, blues. More than you will learn to define them, you will, I hope, learn to distinguish one type from the other, to acquire a certain fluency of comprehension making it possible for you to see the philosophical under-girdings of these practices; or, in other words, the substance of what these people who told these stories were really trying to get told: the incommensurable, the ineffable and the unknown of their own adult lives.  

The class will proceed in circular routes, doubling back and forth from beginning to end and back again because comprehending Hurston’s massive opus is kind of like jumping doubledutch.  It can only be grappled with in the doing.  It has much to do with  rhythm and very little to do with conventional notions of progress, change and individual genius.

Hurston was afraid that these people who told these stories and lived this life would die out without a trace, as she surely knew many civilizations and cultures had done before.  She went to great pains to distinguish rural from urban blacks, Floridians from Carribeans, so on and so forth.  At least in this country, she was quite right about these people dying out and not being replaced.  If such people are still with us, they are awfully quiet about it. 

I think perhaps the closest we can get is with some of the verbal repertoire coming out of hiphop and world music throughout the African Diaspora. Apparently, what seems to chase the oral tradition away is the all-consuming passion we have these days for electronic media.  On the other hand, that we live in such a time is not all bad since it is thanks to the innovations of electronics that we are able finally to recreate in the academy much of what Hurston and others were able to record of the cultural lives of our forebears.

We find it necessary to study what another generation might have regarded as the simple ways of simple folk. Now these folk and their simple ways have all but vanished from our midst. Therefore, it is important that we gather up the rhythms, the humor and knowledge they left to us before it becomes impossible for us to locate and comprehend it. The culture of the folk is not endlessly comprehensible, nor is it timeless. In its own time, it may function as a brand of popular culture for its practitioners but as the years go by and conditions change, the logic of such cultures become obscure, to our endless misfortune I believe since this is the way of transmitting painlessly from generation to generation some of the basic lessons of human co-existence and personality. Once the current cohort has lost verbal access to the vernacular of the people who produced that folk culture, it may become impossible to translate it into written texts, which have fundamentally different roots and ways of being.

As important as Hurston was as a novelist and an anthropologist, her most important contributions were to the collecting and preservation of African
American folklore and to a wide range of attempts to bring the performance of Afro-American folklore--music, songs, sermons and dance--to the American stage.  Although many commentators have insisted that the key to Afro-American culture is the dichotomization of sacred and secular music,
and that the blues was dismissed by most blacks as the devil's music, there was no such dichotomy in Hurston's work. Moreover, I suspect that the rigor of this dichotomy had much to do with class stratification and elitism.  Hurston, for all her political shortcomings, was no elitist. Nonetheless, throughout her writing, the African American preoccupation with the Bible and with the values and procedures of Christianity is everywhere.

Hurston's other religious preoccupation besides black Christianity is with Voodoo of the African American variety and the Caribbean variety as practiced in Jamaica, Haiti and the Virgin Islands.  The first application she made for a Guggenheim was for a project she wanted to do in Nigeria showing the links between the Yoruba religion and African Diasporic forms of voodoo.  Her application was rejected thanks in part to unfriendly recommendations by Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas, both of whom she adored. As far as we know, it never would have occured to her that either of them were actually blocking her progress toward a Ph.D. and research in West Africa. 

Also, Hurston's work on stage with folklore, as well as the recordings and films she made with Alan Lomax and others have not yet become commercially available as are all her books (which were all out of print when she died) but she knew and worked with many of the prominent folklorists of her time and was widely respected and well known, I would imagine, in the music field in the black South.  Of course, racial segregation and Jim Crow played a large role in religious practice and the collecting of folklore and folk music, given the period during which Hurston operated and the period of the great popularity of folkloric societies throughout the U.S."

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