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Separating the Dancer and the Dance: Hurston as Performer

"My favorite place was atop the gate post. Procenium box for a born first nighter...During this period, white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there. They liked to hear me "speak pieces" and sing and wanted to see me dance the parse-me-la, and gave me generously of thier small silver for doing these things, which seemed strange to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to stop. The colored people gave no dimes. They deplored any joyful tendencies in me, but I was their Zora nevertheless."

"How It Feels to be Colored Me"

Just as she created fictional characters for her books, plays and stories, Hurston created many fictional personas for herself.  Perhaps more than any other element of her character Zora's reputation as a performer explains the shadow of obscurity in which her work dwelt until recently.

Interestingly, it is her peers who provided the most damning charactrizations of Hurston as a performer.In his fictional interpretation of the Harlem Renaissance, Infants of the Spring, Wallace Thurman depicts Hurston as a writer only interested in reaping rewards from white patrons. In the her monologue Hurston's personification, Sweetie Mae Carr, explains that her art functions merely to provide her with income:"It's like this... I have to eat. I also wish to finish my education. Being a negro writer these days is a racket and I'm going to make the most of it while it lasts....My ultimate ambition...is to become an gynecologist[anthropologist]. And the only way I can have the requisite trainign is to pose as a writer of potential ability." Thurman's depiction not only characterized Hurston as a performer but also as a minstral, who  "cut[s] the fool" in order to please wealthy   whites(Thurman p.).


Zora Neale Hurston Directing The Great Day

In his autobiography,The Big Sea, Langston Hughes solidified Hurston's reputation as a performer by describing her  as a "most amusing" woman who only needed to write books in order to reach a wider audience "because she is a perfect book in and of herself." Like Thurman,  Hughes characterized Hurston as a minstral who pandered to   "wealthy whites, some of whom simply paid her just to sit around and represent the negro race for them (Hughes 239).

Hurston's work was also obscured by her reputation as a performer. When she published her epic text Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 the  atmosphere of African American letters was dominated by the aesthetics of the overtly political Richard Wright. In Wright's review of the novel  Hurston was critically assaulted and once again labeled as a performer.Failing to see the inherent gender and racial politics of the text, Wright viewed Hurston's text, "a mere love story," as a minstrel show:

"Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in the traditon which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is the minstrel technique that makes the "white folks" laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears."

For decades Thurman and Hughes' depiction of Hurston as a performer who pandered to white patrons proved definitive.Of the two short pages that Nathan Huggins devotes to Hurston in his classic work Harlem Renaissance Thurman's depiction occupies at least half. Only in the past two decades have scholars begun to view Hurston not as a performer but as a woman who lived of many lives.

Acting Out: In her own Words

Because of her reputation as a performer until Hemenway and Alice Walker's re-discovery of Hurston, many of her ironic comments were mostly taken at face value by those who misunderstood, and wrongly simplified her technique. To read such statements as Hurston makes in her essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," that "slavery is the price I paid for civilization," "straight up" is to fail to take into account Hurston's ironic tendencies, as well as her interest in anthropology, which is essentially the study of culture.

Read as cultural commentary Hurston's essay "How it Feels to be Colored Me," emerges as a catalogue of the stereotypes and the misguided ideas of white artists and intellectuals. Hurston represents these stereotypes as different forms of herself. Understanding that she was at "the center of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or weep," Hurston undertakes these many different roles in order to report on the culture out of which New Negro modernism emerged. Hurston's statement about slavery being the price for civilization mirrors the ideas of white artists and intellectuals, who looked to blacks for originality.

 Further miscuing readers, in this essay is the story Hurston tells of her own childhood, a story strikingly similar to the tale of "Isis, the joyful" in "Drenched in the Light." When she was young, Hurston tells readers, white people would ride through her town and stop "to hear me 'speak pieces' and sing and wanted to see me dance the parse-me-la," for which they would, to her astonishment, pay her. These white patrons were in effect seeking her sunshine much like the characters in "Drenched in the Light." Her depiction of Zora "the joyful" instead of "Isis" signifies the "happy darkie" stereotype that, according to Langston Hughes, many of Hurston's white friends expected. In addition to declaring her allegiance to the southern roots from which she worked her folk magic, Hurston concludes the essay by expressing the theme of black primitivism through a visceral response to jazz. Zora attends a jazz bar where a white man is in attendance:

"This orchestra grows rambunctious, rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury, rending it, clawing it until it breaks through the jungle beyond. I follow those heathen--follow them exultingly. I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeooww! I am in the jungle living in the jungle way& I creep back slowly to the veneer we call civilization with the last tone and find the white friend sitting motionless in his seat, smoking calmly.

'Good music they have here,'he remarks, drumming the table with his fingertips. Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him. He had only heard what I felt."

The "primitive" Zora, who seeks the jungle when hearing jazz is ultimately a rendering of one of the most prevalent stereotypes of her day, but it is important to read beneath the surface of the passage.

By considering Hurston's adherence to folk forms, forms which "were a code of communication-- interracial propaganda-that would protect the race from the psychological encroachments of racism," the statements made in "How it Feels to be Colored Me," can be considered subversive. Like the creators of folk culture, Hurston here subscribed to a "communicative tone that could simultaneously protest the effects of racism and maintain the secrecy of that very same protest." While she enacts these stereotypes, she is simultaneously decrying their presence. It is only with a white man for company that she becomes the "primitive" Zora. It is white patrons who commodify her activities as a child because of their desire for the "sunshine" she provided through her childish play. The last paragraph of the essay points to Hurston's innate belief that people are all the same, they are different colored paper bags "that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the contents of any greatly." The contrast between this appraisal of humanity and the stereotypes that Hurston allows her persona to take on, illustrates the incongruity between stereotypical personifications of black experience and reality.

Hurston did write stories and articles that could be read by unenlightened audiences as pandering to the white pursuit of primitivism. Yet, understanding her role as an anthropologist, essentially as a reporter of culture, as well as her adherence to folk forms, is key to understanding her work. Although Hurston understood the commercial value of being a black artist during the vogue of the Negro, she also understood how to use that commercial value to explore, report on, and render the culture in which she lived.

Mules and Men:The Rewards of Hurston's Performances

Although critically and financially her reputation as a performer damaged her career immeasurably it was her ability to assume many roles that allowed Hurston to become a first-rate collector of folk material and a imaginative and innovative writer. In reality Hurston's life was made up of a variety of performances. She might have been, as she characterizes herself in "How it Feels to Be Colored Me," "everybody's Zora," but she was a different Zora to everyone(How 153). Even her physical appearance was perceived differently by her friends as Mary Washington points out descriptions of Zora range from Fannie Hurst's impression "a big-boned, good-boned young woman handsome and light yellow," to Theodore Pratt's observation of her being, "short, squat, and black as coal"(Washington 7).

Although nothing quite explains the disparity between the different physical descriptions of Hurston the fact that she was simultaneously engaged in many different projects,ideas, and worlds perhaps helps to reveal why she seemed so different to so many people. During the time she wrote Mules and Men she was both an artist who lived and worked in Harlem, hung out with notable New Negroes like Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Richard Nugent and did graduate work at Barnard and an ambitious folklorist who assumed many different roles, including that of a fugitive gun-toting bootlegger, in order to gather the tales of the "Negro farthest down."

As Hurston explains in the introduction to Mules and Men "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-priveleged, are the shyest.They are most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by"(Mules and Men 2). In order to collect folklore Hurston had to assume many different roles in order to gain acceptance as an insider and avoid the "feather-bed resistance" by which the African American allows "the probe to enter, but it never comes out"(Mules and Men 2). Racism explains the theory behind the "feather-bed" 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"(Mules and Men 2). The narrative of Mules and Men provides testimony to Hurston's ability as a performer to break down the "feather-bed" of resistance.The text charts Hurston's development as a folk performer as she attempts to attain the status of an "insider" among her many informants.

In 1927, when she first traveled back to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida to collect folklore at the bequest of Franz Boas, Hurston met with little success.  According to her autobiography Hurston's first experiences as a folklorist "were disappointing. I found out later that it was not because I had no talents for research, but because I did not have the right approach." Hurston's experiences at Barnard College and Howard University had distanced her from the small-town girl she once was and at first denied her the ability to assimilate with her former neighbors and friends. As she explained it ,

"The glamour of Barnard College was still upon me. I dwelt in marble halls.....I went about asking in carefully accented Barnardese, 'Pardon me, but do you know any folk tales or folk songs?' The men and women who had whole treasuries of material just seeping through thier pores, looked at me and shook thier heads. No, they had never heard of anything like that around there"(Dust Tracks on  A Road 144).

 In order to "penetrate that affected demeanor by which the Negro excludes" observers Hurston vieled herself in many guises. (Boas Mules and Men). Hurston's adoption of black dialect throughout the text also serves to illustrate her submersion into black folk culture. As explained in the section about Mules and Men as autobiography Hurston switches back and forth between the language of the written word and the black folk speech inherent to her informants.   Through changing her own dialect she characterizes herself as one of the gang, an insider among the creators of the black folk culture documented inside the text. Like a character in a play Hurston adopts the patterns of speech indigenous to her surroundings. When she narrates her story she uses gramatically correct english, when she tells of her interactions with her informants she speaks in dialect.

Hurston charts her various transformations from outsider to insider throughout her narrative. Although Hurston casts herself in many roles throughout the text from the prodigal daughter returned home to Hoodoo priestess and initiate, by far the most telling of her roles occurs during her visit to Polk County.

Only after she has donned on the guise of a bootlegger is Hurston invited into the inner circle, she enters Polk County as an outsider.  When she arrives in Polk County, a lumber mill frequented by outlaws and convicts, she "tried to be friendly" but "there was a noticable disposition to fend me off." As a folklorist she felt herself "figuratively starving to death in the midst of plenty." Because of her "shiny gray chevrolet" and her expensive dress her prospective informants "thought I must be a revenue officer or a detective of some kind ......The car made me look to prosperous . So they set me aside as different"(Mules and Men 61).Meeting with the "ole feather-bed tactics"  in Polk County Hurston  turns herself into "a fugitive from justice, 'bootlegging.'"  She tells her compatriots that "They were hot behind me in Jacksonville and they wanted me in Miami. So I was hiding out. That sounded reasonable. Bootleggers always have cars. I was taken in"( Mules and Men 61) .

 

In certain instances throughout the text Hurston plays the role of the outsider. In part this role is a narrative device that allows Hurston to ask questions such as "A toe-party! What on earth is that?" or "What is Coon dick?" in order to help her presumably white reader by explaining these uncommon terms.The Hoodoo section of the text suggests a further reading of Hurston as the outsider. The various initiations scenes in the section on Hoodoo work as a metaphor for the various initiations recounted by Hurston throughout the text. Just as the pair of eyes painted on Hurston's cheeks following her initiation by Hoodoo Priest Luke Turner signified "that [she] could see in more ways than one" the narrative of the text testifies to Hurston's abilities to see from the various perspectives of her informants (Mules and Men 199).

Only after Hurston has learned to see in new ways can she wear "the crown of power." As she explains the "crown without the preparation means no more than a college diploma without the four years work" (Mules and Men 199). Hurston explains and emphasizes that "It must be earned." Throughout the text, Hurston's status as an insider is like the crown, it too must be earned.   In Polk County Hurston  earns her invitation by ridding herself of her "$12.74 dress from Macy's" and cloaking herself in the vestiges of a bootlegger, a known commodity in the area. Only then is she invited, literally, into the circle as she is asked to dance.

Because of Charlotte Osgood Mason's ownership of Hurston's material, one other frame of reference regards the text as Hurston's own folk performance. Although Hurston does not place herself as a tale teller throughout the text, she adopts a strategy common to the folktales  in the last lines of the text. The last tale she tells is of "Sis cat" :

"Once Sis Cat got hongry and caught herself a rat and set herself down to eat 'im. Rat tried and tried to git loose but Sis Cat was too fast and strong. So jus' as de cat started to eat 'im he says, "Hol' on dere, Sis Cat! Ain't you got no manners atall? You going set up to de table and eat 'thout washing yo' face and hands?"

Sis Cat was mighty hongry but she hate for de rat to think she ain't got no manners, so she went to de water and washed her face and hands and when she got back de rat was gone.

So de cat caught herself a rat again and set down to cat. So de Rat said, "Where's yo' manners at, Sis Cat? You going to eat 'thout washing yo' face and hands?"

"Oh, Ah got plenty manners," de cat told 'im. "But Ah cats mah dinner and washes mah face and uses mah manners afterwards." So she et right on 'im and washed her face and hands. And cat's been washin' after eatin' ever since.

I'm sitting here like Sis Cat, washing my face and usin' my manners.I

In her essay "Thresholds of Difference: Structures of Address in Zora Neale Hurston", Barbara Johnson explains the ambibuity of the last lines of the text.

"So ends the book. But what manners is she using. Upon reading this strange, unglossed final story, one cannot help wondering who, in the final analysis has swallowed what. The reader? Mrs. Mason? Franz Boas? Hurston herself? As Nathan Huggins writes after an attempt to determine the sincerity of Hurston's poses and self-representations, "It is impossible to tell ....who was being fooled."

 

It is almost impossible to definitively answer Johnson's question accept to suggest that the last lines of the text, suggest a lesson that Hurston learned herself along the journey that became Mules and Men, that the crown, whether it be that of a high priestess, or that of folklore must be earned. The last lines of the text may be seen as the crown of Hurston's text and only by earning the crown i.e. carefully reading the text may the audience understand and reap the rewards of black folklore.