Feel Beauty Supply, post 11

Zora the Academic

I have to remind myself regularly that Mules and Men was officially intended as an anthropological project, a collection of Black American folklore, which was constructed to appear innocuous to a white reading public interested in the aesthetic “primitivism” of Black culture, rather than the manual for aesthetic practice as political resistance that I find it to be.

Folklorist Susan Meinhelder in her essay “Conflict and Resistance in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men” describes how, upon publication, white readership received Mules and Men as “a straightforward, nonthreatening depiction of the humorous and exotic side of Black culture in the rural South.”

We saw in my last post, however, that by choosing to include the narrative frame, i.e. the social contexts in which the men and women of Eatonville rehearse these stories to one another, Hurston depicts how “lies” function tactically in a politically and economically oppressive world. She shows us “folk culture” in action as an aesthetic practice of resistance. Through the messages in its narratives, this practice provides many strategies for dealing with overseers and masters, and through the oral retelling of these narratives, the act of social performance gives the men and women of Eatonville reminders of their own humanity during an otherwise oppressive daily existence that reduces them to beasts of burden.  

If we read Hurston’s introduction to the text and some of her correspondence with her superior surrounding her research, we quickly see that before she was a student at Barnard and a mentee of the anthropologist Franz Boas, she herself was educated in this esteemed school of lies of Eatonville, FL. What I mean to say is that the political strategies she reveals to us in Mules and Men are strategies she herself used to carve a path of academic freedom in the more genteel and white-collar world of formal scholarship.

As a Black woman in the elite white academy of the 1930s, Hurston had to appear as though she were fulfilling other people’s demands upon her work as she pursued and satisfied her own intellectual interests. In her introduction to Mules and Men she describes this as a fact of Black culture itself:

The theory behind our tactics: “The white man is always trying to know into somebody elses business. All right, Ill 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. Ill put this play toy in his hand, and he will seize it and go away. Then Ill say my say and sing my song.” (4–5)

Meisenholder I think correctly reads Hurston’s decision to place the tales in narrative contexts rather than offering expert analysis as her way of “set[ting] something outside the door” for the white folk. To explicate the meaning of the tales would require Hurston either to reveal the intensity of the political messages, or to dilute the political significance of the “lies.” By saying nothing about what all this might “mean” Hurston seems to understand that only those, who need the tactics will see them. Each reader sees what she is willing or capable of seeing. No more, no less.

The correspondence surrounding the text’s publication, specifically Hurston’s negotiations with Franz Boas, her academic mentor, makes it clear that she understood she needed to play Boas like John might play Ole Massa, if she wanted to have things her way. We see Hurston playing deferential lip service to Boas when her own scholarly ideas differ from his. For instance, she presents her interpretations of her own research as questions to Boas:

Is it safe for me to say that baptism is an extension of water worship as a part of pantheism just as the sacrament is an extension of cannibalism? Isn’t the use of candles in the Catholic church a relic of fire worship? Are not all the uses of fire upon the altars the same thing? Is not the Christian ritual rather one attenuated nature-worship, in the fire, water, and blood? Might not the frequently mentioned fire of the Holy Ghost not be an unconscious fire worship. May it not be a deification of fire? [April 21, 1929]

Here Hurston, like a Jeopardy contestant or some child in a game of “Father May I,” delivers her answers in the form of a question. But in a letter on the same topic to Langston Hughes, her convictions are not tonally downplayed. There’s no self-doubt in her analysis:

I am convinced that Christianity as practiced is an attenuated form of nature worship. Let me explain. The essentials are a belief in the Trinity, baptism, sacrament. Baptism is nothing more than water worship as has been done in one form or the other down thru the ages. … I find fire worship in Christianity too. What was the original purpose of the altar in all churches? For sacred fire and sacrifices BY FIRE. … Symbols my opponents are going to say. But they cannot deny that water and fire are purely material things and that they symbolize man’s tendency to worship those things which benefit him to a great extent. [April 30, 1929]

Hurston didn’t question her own mind. She simply could not risk losing Boas’ approval if she were to bring Mules and Men into the world. An introduction from Boas would legitimate her thinking in a world otherwise predisposed to dismiss a Black woman’s thoughts. Her dance with Boas was not easy, as the correspondence shows, and although Boas does not give the most effusive praise in the introduction, his name on the cover allows Hurston’s work to gain traction in circles otherwise closed to a Black female scholar. How did she get him to do it? She praised him until he did.

The problem for Hurston was that Boas didn’t agree that the narrative of Eatonville surrounding the folklore should be included in a scholarly text, but without the narrative frame the text would lose much of its political power. Hurston knew this, as her introduction suggests. So she blames the necessity of the frame story on the publisher, saying that without it publishers found the work “too monotonous,” but with it, “three houses want to publish it.” She transforms the intellectual fight into a discussion of commercial viability: “So I hope that the unscientific matter that must be there for the sake of the average reader will not keep you from writing the introduction.” She blames it on the publisher and then PRAISES Boas: “Who knows more about folk-lore than you and Dr. Benedict? Therefore the stuff published in America should pass under your eye … This is not said merely to get you to write the introduction to my book. No.” [August 20, 1934]

Nope, not at all. And that’s how John got Ole Massa to write the introduction.

So one way to read what’s happening in Mules and Men is that the men and women of Eatonville are teaching (or long ago taught) Zora how to steal the university for herself as a place of refuge. Or that’s what she’s teaching me in 2015. When a CEO of a fast-food chain (Boston Market, née Chicken) can now become the president of the University of Iowa, the culture is such that many of us at the university are having to struggle against an Ole or New Massa to put our thinking into the world, or more importantly, into our classrooms.

Hurston was teaching us long ago what Moten and Harney are telling us now: 

But certainly, this much is true in the United States: it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. 

(“The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses”)

All real thinking has as its ultimate end the possibility of freedom. All real thinking acknowledges that freedom is still a figment of our collective imagination. This, of course, doesn’t mean that all institutions of “learning” have freedom as an end. They don’t. Hurston teaches us how to dance around that and hopefully a little closer to the only real end.