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.
Whenever I think I might be being too thin in my thinking about aesthetic practice, someone says something in agreement with my thoughts, though more bookishly and then I see that I’m right, even in my simplicity. Like when I was procrastinating this weekend on writing on my promised account of Hurston’s Mules and Men I went on twitter where Anne Boyer tweeted this quote from Pierre Macherey: “To deprive the bourgeoisie not of its art but of its concept of art, this is the precondition of a revolutionary argument.” I like this sentence because of the “its” and the “its concept of.”
This past weekend I was attacked by yellow jackets after I hit their nest unknowingly with my lawnmower. The episode included me running through the yard screaming, stripping outdoors to my underwear, throwing buckets of water over my body, and jumping into the shower in my socks and undies, where I poured shampoo on my head in great gobs to suffocate the bees stuck in my hair. If the whole scene hadn’t been so traumatic (have you ever looked down and seen your whole leg covered in yellow jackets?), it would have been comical. Given that the incident took place in the swampy southern heat, I thought it was perhaps Zora Neale Hurston’s ghost playing tricks on me.
There are, indeed, but very few who know how to be idle and innocent, or have a Relish of any Pleasures that are not Criminal; every Diversion they take is at the Expence of some one Virtue or another, and their very first Step out of Business is into Vice or Folly. A Man should endeavour, therefore, to make the Sphere of his innocent Pleasures as wide as possible, that he may retire into them with Safety, and find in them such a Satisfaction as a wise Man would not blush to take.
As I noted at the start of my stint here in “Commentary,” when I was assigned to teach 18th century and Romantic aesthetics this past spring, I found the task daunting. Why teach the ideas of these dead white men at a time when the news every night talked about the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police? As my class and I rehearsed the ideas of Edmund Burke, though, I began to see that one argument for reading aesthetics is to understand the long history of white supremacy’s rhetoric and how it has infiltrated our everyday thought and speech.