These notes continue remarks written a few years back to accompany the reading of Hurston's Mules and Men. Thinking about Gee's Bend, Alabama, Son House and Big Mama Thornton.
It is very important that we try to understand how it is that a population is able to survive and even prosper in limited ways under a fascist regime or even conditions of terrorism. The situation in the South for African Americans from the turn-of-the-century, at least in some locations, meets the criteria for terrorism or fascism in my own mind.
In looking at the work that Hurston and other “folklorists” tried to do in setting down and preserving various evidence of African American folk cultures at the turn of the century through the 40s and 50s, I am assuming that culture is the appropriate word to use in describing almost everything that these people tried to do to make themselves comfortable or happy, other than that which was directly compelled by the forces that controlled their economic lives.
I am also assuming that culture, to the degree that it was controlled by the dominant group of plantation owners, Klansmen, police or vigilantes, etc., would be hegemonic, that is a complex and not easily detectible hybrid incorporating social, political and economic control into a repertoire which may include some ultimately contradictory and ambivalent emotional responses to that population officially either held in contempt or ostracized.
There is no way in the world that Hurston could have traveled alone down the back roads of the South as much as she did without understanding exactly what she was dealing with in this regard. Indeed, she left us amble documentary evidence of her various strategies for dealing with and manipulating the dominant Jim Crow culture when it attempted to stand in her way.
So successful was she and other cultural workers, folklorists, performers etc. at maintaining a subversive kind of control over the dominant culture that it becomes fascinating to consider the degree to which the dominant classes (plantation owners, work supervisors, even prison guards and wardens on occasion) actually made no attempt whatsoever to alter or suppress subterranean cultural expression among peasants and/or the urban working class, and may have even encouraged such cultural expression, claimed it as their own, seen it as reassuring or in some cases, imitated it. This is what was happening with a great many white musicians by the time Elvis Presley came along in Tupelo, Mississippi, one of the centers of musical culture in the 50s.
Again, the process of imitation isn’t a simple one in that white musicians brought cultural remnants to the table as well. It is just that the folk cultures of blacks and whites in certain regions of the South were so thoroughly mixed over an extended period of time and over the course of several generations of activity that it would be difficult if not impossible to say for sure about the root derivation of each feature, whether it was more reminiscent of African or European precursors. Not that these cultures were racially integrated but only that the performers in each culture may have had slightly more mobility than the rest of the population.
Hurston was interested in substantiating irrefutable evidence of humanity, to counter racial superiority claims of whites. To her, it seems clear upon reading Valerie Boyd’s biography, Wrapped in a Rainbow, human meant African or African Diasporic. It is also clear that she thought of manifestations of African Diasporic influences as signs of cultural genius, although I haven’t found any place where she explains why she considers this to be the case. It appears as though she simply assumed that it was axiomatic that if African American culture derived substantially from African cultural retentions despite the onslaught of the Middle Passage, slavery and Jim Crow, it was because that culture was artistically and aesthetically of superlative quality. Come to think of it, once you put it like that, maybe such an assumption can be seen as self-evident, that a culture that could survive such an onslaught would have to be in some sense “superior.” Certainly, superior I think, to whatever it was that Europeans and Africans had left behind in the old country.
I’ll say this: I think that African American culture had a resilience and capacity for preserving self-regard, community, vitality, health and self-love despite oppression that few cultures have been shown to exhibit.
Hurston thought these elements of genius were most evident in live performance. If she had had access to more film, she might have chosen that medium more. There are a number of films of her research. I have thus far found only one that I can show (one of which I showed in class this week) although they are probably all at the Library of Congress, and perhaps even accessible online by now (need to check that). Indeed, Hurston again and again insisted that performance was the preferable way in which to experience these folkloric materials. She repeatedly formed performance groups and mounted performances wherever she went. Right up until the end, she was still hoping to take Broadway by storm. And indeed, it appears wherever her dancers and singers and musicians got a chance to perform their repertoire, there was universal admiration and approval. But somehow nobody ever loved it enough to put any substantial money into it, or the people who did love it, didn’t have the money.
But it is important that the kind of thing that Hurston wanted to share with the world wasn’t so far from the overall cultural context of African Americans doing musical and dance performance on the theatrical stage on Broadway, off Broadway, in their own theatres regionally, in Europe, in the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands, internationally, and on the so-called chitlin circuit. I wouldn’t be surprised if their tours included some locations on the continent of Africa as well, although I haven’t found any confirmation of that yet because black performers were some seriously nomadic, roaming folk.