The Problem of White Patronage:
Charlotte Osgood Mason and Zora Neale Hurston
The relative obscurity that the work of Zora Neale Hurston suffered for most of her life speaks to the analytical obstructions caused by the perceived influences of white patrons on the work of black artists. One example of this scholarly misunderstanding of Hurston exists in Nathan Huggin's Harlem Renaissance. Huggins devotes four and half pages to Hurston, but not one discusses Hurston's literary contributions. The focus is, instead, on "whether or not Hurston's 'darky act' was real or a put on." Hurston's relationship with Charlotte Osgood Mason, as well as her tendencies in her own writings to seemingly describe and embody stereotypical and "primitive characters," have tended to lead critics, like Huggins, astray (Huggins p.130).
According to Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography Dust Tracks On a Road, Mrs. Mason, who insisted upon being called Godmother the group of New Negroes she patronized, was "extremely human." Mrs. Mason formerly had been involved with the black community through her donations to southern black schools (Dust Tracks on A Road p.145).
Born Charlotte van der Veer Quick, Mason had spent most of her life interested in the folklore of non-white races. In the early 1900's she spent months living amongst the Plains Indians while patronized she Natalie Curtis, the author of a collection of myths and songs entitled The Indian's Book. At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Mason became interested, both financially and personally, with the development of New Negro Artists such as Hurston, Langston Hughes and Miguel Covarrubias.
According to Langston Hughes, Mason had in the twenties " discovered the New Negro and wanted to help him," not because she wanted to see the black race excel, but because she saw African Americans as "America's great link with the primitive." In order to get her fill of the primitive she turned to Alain Locke, who furnished her with the artists capable of supplying evidence of "black primitivism" in their work (Hughes 315).
Mason's Mules and Men
In the Mules and Men Hurston characterizes Mason as a "Great Soul," and "the worlds most gallant woman," yet like every statement made by Hurston, this one needs to be taken with a grain of salt. When Charlotte Mason agreed to finance Hurston's folklore collecting expeditions, she made several demands on the young artist. Most importantly, the text itself and all the material gathered by Hurston were to belong to Mason. The contract that Hurston signed suggests the controlling nature of their relationship, for the two hundred dollar a month stipend Hurston had to agree not to publish any of the material that she gathered. The contract implied the Hurston was merely Mason's representitive, that in fact Mason herself was the true collector (Hemenway 117-134).
Eventually Hurston's involvement with Mrs. Mason proved confining. If the her tales failed to express the desired "primitive" elements in their work then she was denied support. As Hurston explained: "There she was sitting up there at the table over the capon, caviar and gleaming silver, eager to hear every word on every phase of life on a saw-mill "job." I must tell the tales, sing the songs, do the dances, and repeat the raucous sayings and doings of the Negro furthest down"(Dust Tracks on A Road 145). Langston Hughes too severed his relationship with Mason because, as he similariliy recounts, "she wanted me to be primitive and know and feel the intuitions of the primitive. But, unfortunately, I did not feel the rhythms of the primitive surging through me, and so I could not live and write as though I did. I was only an American Negro--who had loved the surface of Africa and the rhythms of Africa--but I was not Africa" (Hughes 317)
Hurston's connection with Mason was severed soon after her return to New York. Yet, Mules and Men still bears her mark. Mason shared Hurston's interest in Hoodoo and agreed to additionally finance her trip to New Orleans following her expedition to Florida. The frequent collaborations via letters between Hurston and her wealthy patron suggest that Mason made a wide variety of suggestions in terms of the construction of the text. Mason insisted that Hurston tone down the "dirty words" in order to make the text "more presentable" (Hemenway 129).
Since Mules and Men's publication critics have struggled to understand the meaning of Mason's relationship to the text. Barbara Johnson suggests that the text may in fact be read as Hurston's own folk performance for an audience comprised of Mason. This reading of the text is more closely examined in the performance section of Ways of Seeing segment of this site. Certainly, Hurston felt constrained by the demands of Mason and notably she did not publish the work until after their relationship was no longer financial. It is impossible to know exactly what Mason's contributions to the text amounted to, clearly, though as Hurston herself points out in her introduction Mason played a central role in the creation of Mules and Men.
To critics and intellectuals, as well as to many of her contemporaries, Hurston seemed to pander to the white pursuit of primitivism. Langston Hughes described her: "In her youth she was always getting scholarships and things from wealthy white people, some of whom simply paid her just to sit around and represent the Negro race for them." Hurston "represented" her race to these white patrons through telling "side-splitting anecdotes, humorous tales, and tragicomic stories," and by being to "many of her white friends" " a perfect 'darkie.' That is a na´ve, childlike, sweet, humorous, and highly colored Negro"(Hughes 239). Yet, to characterize Hurston merely as a performer one must overlook the incredible beauty and human truth captured in her work. Hurston reveals a human truth that was at once political and aesthetic, forward-looking and reverent of the past, and above all human.