Happy Black History Month and all that.
Thought I’d use this February as an opportunity to reflect on some of the figures that have been instrumental to my thought. Really, it’s just an excuse to write more. Given the territory I inhabit, many of the people I cover will be writers, scholars, and musicians. But not all them are.
This isn’t about biographical information—that’s what Wikipedia is for. The work and lives of these folks continues to inform and teach me about my own Blackness.
Those familiar with Zora Neal Hurston know her via Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which people tend to read in high school (for some reason, feels early imo). The novel is generally cited as a key text of the Harlem Renaissance but people didn’t quite enjoy it at the time of its publication. Richard Wright wrote a particularly scathing review of the novel, that it kept Negroes where white America wants them to live existentially: “between laughter and tears.”1Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears,” In New Masses, vol. 25, no. 2, 1937. 2Spoiler: he’s on the list too I think Wright is on to something about Hurston but, in the process, reveals one of his own blind spots regarding the elements fueling Black spirit. 3Here I mean spirit much in the way Hegel defines geist, which is generally translated as mind or spirit. In this instance, geist more specifically, refers to the patterns of social interaction and recognition we share as Black folks. Because Zora Neal Hurston comprehended spirit like no other.
Aside from her novel, Hurston was an amazing anthropologist and folklorist. One of her earlier works, Mules and Men (1935) documents her travels throughout the South, collecting folktales from the people living their lives there. It is great creative-nonfiction that uses her experiences as a frame for the folktales within the book. This is the sort of narrative frame that only a Black anthropologist could employ here—as opposed to Joel Chandler Harris’ fictional Uncle Remus figure (a white man who created a Black character to tell folk stories). The key difference here is the inclusion of individuals themselves, which grounds the narratives in Hurston’s interactions with these folks.
The interactions within are Black as hell. There is something ineffably unchanging about Black spirit. However, Hurston also identifies the sense of entrapment she feels in her interactions. This is especially the case when it comes to the difficulties of collecting folklore, even as a member of the broader racial identity from which these stories come:
And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming quiescence, is particularly evasive. You see we are a polite people and we do not say to our questioner, “Get out of here!” We smile and tell him or her something that satisfies the white person because, knowing so little about us, he doesn’t know what he is missing. The Indian resists curiosity by a stony silence. The Negro offers a feather-bed resistance. That is, we let the probe enter, but it never comes out. It gets smothered under a lot of laughter and pleasantries.
The theory behind our 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.4Hurston, Mules and Men, 2-3.
Casual indigenous racism aside, Hurston alights on Black folks wonderful, and adaptive, tendency to laugh through pain. The same laughter Richard Wright identifies in Their Eyes Were Watching God. The same laughter that sustains even now. The same laughter that shows up in Mules and Men. I simply disagree that this is a weakness within the broader political struggle in which fiction is bound. It’s given us art forms and is a personal skill that I don’t think I’d be alive without.
What Hurston doesn’t say here, is how—as speaker of a certain anthropological discourse—she functions as a proxy for the white man. By that I mean that she is the outsider who the Black folks in her community see as a representation of a certain way of thinking about the relationship between stories and the world we inhabit. Her perspective involves not just telling stories for the sake of passing time or imparting lessons to children, but also studying them, cataloging them, and analyzing them. These stories are a window into our past and something to hold onto, for stability, in the future.
Part of what makes folklore folklore is its tendency to accrete over time. Unlike other narrative forms, folktales arise from what I like to think of as a careless process, one that functions similarly to the distinction between ordinary (often called “natural”) and constructed (often called “artificial”) languages. Ordinary languages develop through use, over time, while constructed languages, such as computer programming languages, are created with specific goals in mind.
In any case, Hurston is cognizant of the skepticism she receives as a scholar, which is something I can identify with. It can be isolating to straddle so many identities, especially when they feel opposed to one another.
I remember feeling so out of place when I went to grad school. I was literally the only Black student in my incoming cohort and perhaps 1 of maaaaybe 5 in the majority-white English department. But my literary and philosophical grounding helped me fit in.
People may not have understood the life experiences that I brought with me, but we all understood literary studies. Even if we came at it from different places and arrived with different points of interest. 5Because the history of the field, hell of the language itself, is stacked against us. As a result, Black scholars of literature are more likely to be familiar with the white authors who compose the “canon,” while our white counterparts are less likely to understand those Black writers on the fringes.
Early on, whenever I went home during a break, I found it difficult to relate to others in my community. In grad school I was ingesting so many new ideas. I didn’t quite know what to do with them all. So I did my best to apply them to the world around me.
Everyone thought I was full of myself. Understandable. But if you immerse yourself anywhere long enough, the things there become a part of you.
I found Mules and Men somewhere in my second or third year of grad school and dove into some of her other works. Her recounting of a journey through the South is a love letter to Black culture. One that helped me understand the ways my Blackness informs my training as literary theorist and writer. Because Hurston offers a sort of map for navigating one’s interactions as a Black woman, scholar, and artist.
Reading her work, picking apart the thought behind it, gave me a sense of how to figure a way through some of the struggles I was experiencing at the time. Things I continue to struggle with. I return to Mules and Men because it reminds me of the ways I learned to make sense of difficult experiences. The ways I got through one in particular. Above all else, I learned the value of the space between laughter and crying.