zora neale hurston and folklore -- 2/12/21

Today's selection -- from Zora and Langston by Yuval Taylor. Zora Neale Hurston started out her career as an anthropologist recording black folklore with the encouragement of Franz Boas, but her real passion was hybrid -- a genre that fused fiction and folk, which symbolized "every aspect of daily life":

"Zora had begun studying anthropology under Franz Boas at Columbia in the fall of 1925, which involved a momentous shift of perspective. All her life Zora had been immersed in black folkways and had never even thought of separating her identity from those of the folk. She used to tell this story: when a policeman stopped her from crossing on a red light, she told him that since she saw all the white people crossing on green, she thought the red light was for colored folks. Here, as she often did, she was taking a common black folktale and applying it to herself. Zora defined folklore as 'the arts of the people before they find out that there is any such thing as art, and they make it out of whatever they find at hand'; as a corollary, the folklore that Zora had always drawn on was suddenly art to her: it had changed its nature.

"Therefore, now that she was embarking on a course of studying the folk, she could no longer be one of them. As she would write at the beginning of Mules and Men, 'From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn't see it 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.' Suddenly African American culture was a thing to research rather than to roll around in and play with.

"In this new endeavor she could not have asked for a better guide than Franz Boas, whom she idolized, calling him 'the greatest anthropologist alive' and 'the king of kings.' She even convinced Bruce Nugent, who hated schools, to attend Boas's classes. Boas was sixty-seven at the time and had been at Columbia since 1899. He was without a doubt America's preeminent anthropologist, almost singlehandedly responsible for debunking scientific racism, defining cultural relativism, and establishing folklore as a subject worthy of scientific study. He unflaggingly encouraged Zora's work, and urged her to become a professional anthropologist herself; undoubtedly he recognized that Zora could well become America's foremost authority on black folkways.

"But that would never do for Zora -- her creative urges were too strong for her to deny them in favor of the pursuit of scientific objectivity. She was simply too ambitious and imaginative, and she recognized it. In a letter to Annie Nathan Meyer written in January 1926, she exclaimed,

Oh, if you knew my dreams! my vaulting ambition! How I constantly live in fancy in seven league boots, taking mighty strides across the world, but conscious all the time of being a mouse on a treadmill . ... The eagerness, the burning within, I wonder the actual sparks do not fly so that they be seen by all men. Prometheus on his rock with his liver being continually consumed as fast as he grows another, is nothing to my dreams. I dream such wonderfully complete ones, so radiant in astral beauty. I have not the power yet to make them come true. They always die. But even as they fade, I have others. 

"Zora's unstated goal was not the study of folklore but its conversion into a creative form that could appeal to the general public without losing its essential character. One of her first attempts to do this was the publication of 'The Eatonville Anthology' in three parts in the September, October, and November 1926 issues of The Messenger. The miscellany of fourteen short sketches of Eatonville life and 'lies' introduced many of the characters and tales that would appear in Zora's later works, including Mule Bone, Mules and Men, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. And they were all strongly based on Zora's observations of her hometown and on its folklore. In these sketches Eatonville becomes not just an all-black Southern town but a repository of legends and traditions, as rich in its own way as the Arthurian Camelot.

"Zora realized what so many people forget: that folkways are not simply tales and songs and sayings that can be easily jotted down and reproduced. Instead they inform every aspect of daily life -- they make up the warp and woof of deed and doer."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Yuval Taylor


Zora and Langston


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2019 by Yuval Taylor


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