"Protection in My Mouf": Self, Voice, and Community in Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road and Mules and Men

by Lynn Domina
"Protection in My Mouf": Self, Voice, and Community in Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road and Mules and Men
Lynn Domina
African American Review
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"Protection in My Mouf": Self, Voice, and Cornrnunity in Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks

on a Road and Mules and Men

ora Neale Hurston opens her first collection of African- American folklore, Mules and Men, with a condensed ver- sion of the story of her own life:

When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism. 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(1)

Classified as folklore, or ethnography, and confined in locale to the American South. Mules and Men would seem to have as its object of investigation the stories that convey the values of this particular "folk" and the African Americans who repeat these sto- ries. Initially published in 1935, seven years before Dust Tracks on a Road-the text Hurston and her publishers advertised as autobiography-Mules and Men also presents Hurston as both observer and observed, as narrator and protagonist, in a fashion analogous to the role of the narrator in overtly autobiographical writing. Although Robert Hemenway suggests that, in Mules and Men, Hurston "worked hard to make sure that her personal saga did not become the book's focus," he describes her as a "master of ceremonies," implying that she is, if not the "focus," at least the orchestrator of events (166).

In Hurston's oeuvre, the generic distinctions between ethnog- raphy and autobiography are suspect.l In Mules and Men, her own activity provides the narratorial grid onto which various folk tales are inscribed, whereas in Dust Tracks on a Road Hurston constructs her life such that many events and characters acquire mythic significance; in her folklore, that is, she tells her own story, while in her autobiography, she includes much "lore." Since Hurston does not confine the life she writes in her autobiog- raphy to the lifetime of her corporeal self but rather contextual- izes-and extends-it temporally within the history of her com- munity, these two texts can be read as situated against or written onto each other. Hurston relies on her anthropological gaze, on the lens of her discipline, not only to examine and construct African-American Southern rural culture but also to examine and construct and to some extent conceal her own place within that culture. In both books, she relates a lore of the self as well as a lore of the folk. Although many literary autobiographies convey an individual's acquisition of subjectivity through literacy, through writing subjectivity into a text, Hurston resists this tradi- tion because her subjectivity has been previously constructed

Lynn Domina's most

recent publications include articles on N. Scott

Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Mary McCarthy's autobiographies. She completed her Ph.D. in May

1997; her dissertation considers American women's autobiography and the construction of national identity. With Peter Naccarato, she is editing a collection of essays tentatively titled Constructing Nations/Constructing Selves: Nationalism and Subjectivity in the Americas.

African American Review, Volume 31, Number 2 0 1997 Lynn Domina

through the orality of f~lklore.~

Much of what nets written down here is less an attemit to discover or create a self by textualizing personal memory than it is an attempt to reproduce the stories that Hurston identifies with herself because she has told them.

Both texts, then, can be discussed in terms of their autobiographical impulses, for each has among its objects of knowledge Hurston herself (Boxwell 606). Indeed, Joanne Braxton argues that the folklore is more effica- cious as autobiography than is Dust Tracks, since Hurston's voice in the folklore is less self-conscious: "These volumes are in some ways more suc- cessful as forms of symbolic memory than [is] Dust Tracks" (153). In neither text is Hurston exclusively the narra- tor; she is always also the narrated. In this sense, both texts adhere to a pri- mary characteristic of all autobiograph- ical writing: They construct several versions of the "I" present in the text, and these versions of "I" are neither wholly separate from nor identical to each other. For Hurston, these generic complications are compounded by her situation, which demands that she describe a community of which she both is and is not a member; her pre- sent textual persona functions within this community as if she is a member, whereas her biographical persona real- izes the degree to which she is not.


Hurston is able to "go native" success- fully precisely beca;se she already is native, by which I mean more than thai L she is simply a local. She is not merely accustomed to hearing folk tales simi- lar to the ones she collects; in this sec- tion she becomes apprenticed to hoodoo practitioners because she accepts these practices as authentic (Hemenway 122). By the time she con- structs her ethnographic text, she has experiential knowledge of the efficacy of the hoodoo she describes. Although she continues to notice events in terms of their ethnographic value, her anthro- pological lens is ground, perhaps, at a different angle than that of other con- ventionally trained anthropologists- she makes no claims to objectivity.

In Dust Tracks Hurston is more explicit about her initial inability to be simultaneously both insider and out- sider; she cannot shed one persona for another as easily as she must if she is tc



My first six months were disap- pointing. I found out later that it was not because I had no talents for research, but because I did not have the right approach. The glamor of Barnard College was still upon me. I
dwelt in marble halls. I knew where the material was all right. But, 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 their pores looked at me and shook their heads. . . . Oh, I got a few little items. But compared with what I did later, not enough to make a flea a
waltzing jacket. Considering the mood of my going south, I went back to New York with my heart beneath my knees and my knees in some lonesome val- ley. (DustTracks 127-28)

Clearly, the narratorial self is construct- ed similarly in both texts as an individ- ual able to critiaue her situation analvt-


ically and simultaneously at ease expressing that critique in colloquially figurative speech. This flea-sized waltzing jacket not only indicates the minuscule number of stories Hurston has collected but further suggests the performative character of the material itself, undermining any desire to per- ceive these stories as discrete, inert objects. Further, this image recalls Hurston's "tight chemise" cited earlier, the garment that constrains her from recognizing her culture as folk; both figures metaphorize clothing in order to demonstrate Hurston's inability to proceed with her anthropology while she is situated either entirely within or entirely beyond the boundary which distinguishes folk from academic cul- ture (Mulesl).

Hurston's material is still more complicated, however, since the "life" that she is writing is neither clearly individualized nor comprehensively revealed. Although in urging her to write an autobiography her publisher asserted that Hurston's success in itself warranted one in the conventional sense, that of the unique individual ris- ing above circumstances, and although Hurston does frequently present her- self as different from many of her peers, the story she tells is not of the rugged American individualist
(Hemenway 279). She consistently
attempts, that is, to portray herself as a
member of a community--even when
her ability to communicate with her
neighbors is compromised by her
"BarnardeseU-rather than as in oppo- sition to that community. And the
emphasis in both books shifts between
the life and the self, the "bio" and the
"auto"; the "graph then is unable to
stabilize any of the fluid boundaries of
the self or the life, particularly that slip-
pery border between them. Hurston's
investment in the "graph" is itself
Idebatable, since she identifies her own Ipast as part of her folklore while iden- itifying that lore as an event which shifts according to the telling. These itexts are not specifically literary autobi- I~graphies;Hurston mentions her 1books only briefly, although she does 1frequently refer to the evolution of her :onsciousness, in childhood, as a read- I?r and storyteller. More significant, Iperhaps, is the disjuncture between IHurston's understanding of herself as a Imember of particular communities and


the memberships her readers would ascribe to her. For in identifying herself as a member of the African-American rural community while collecting her ethnographic material, Hurston insures her success not only among the mem- bers of that community-she is eventu- ally able to gather the material-but American would have sounded discon- certing at best, for "American" is inclu- sive only to the extent that individuals are not perceived as retaining an-other citi~enshi~.~

Individuals could not be simultaneously marked as Other and unmarked as American. If, as Gates suggests, dark skin constitutes an indi-

also among her potential readers, who to a great extent will read her pre- cisely because of Lnd entirely in terms of that membership. Hurston's conflict occurs initially when she must turn her "objective" anthropologi- cal gaze upon her subjects, and eventually also her- self, while acknowledging the emotional resonance this culture retains for her (Hemenway 62). For her initial readers, however, tension arises when she constructs herself as also a member of national and international communities by commenting on nation- a1 and international events,

Hursfon is situated as both insider and outsider, not only among the African-American rural communities she studies, but also among the educated Northerners

vidual as a "cipheru-that is, both a code and a nonen- tity, a code for zero-then an African American would be deciphered by whites only according to skin, and any experience beyond that clearly related to skin color would be invisible to whites and declared non- existent (291). So Hurston, to be read, to be legible, must remain marked by the stylus of race, which erases some identities as it inscribes others.

Yet Hurston describes herself less as a mem- ber of a race than as a mem- ber of a particular commu-

a declaration her editors were unwill-

ing to accepL4

Here, perhaps, the historical shift in terminology is important, for in identifying herself as "Negro," Hurston would be identifying herself as by definition "not white"; to the extent that "Americann has been his- torically (culturally if not always legal- ly) collapsed into "white," Hurston would have been unable to identify herself as both "Negro" and "American." Because the power of def- inition resides with the dominant cul- ture, whose members would perceive no necessity to identify themselves in terms of their own race, the dominant culture being the unmarked one, indi- viduals who did describe themselves in terms of race would be perceived by the dominant culture as holding, at best, dual citizenship, a situation that is both unusual and suspect in the United States. A term such as African nity, one of whose characteristics is

race. The life she writes begins when

this began generations before the life she lives. If she can open Mules and Men being "pitched head- foremost into the world," she does not enter her autobiography as an embod- ied individual until chapter three. According to Dust Tracks, her emo- tional life begins before her corporal existence. Although she justifies, in a direct address to the reader, her choice to open her life prior to her conception with the assertion "you will have to know something about the time and place where I came from, in order that you may interpret the incidents and directions of my life," Hurston also suggests that there is no distinct sepa- ration between the site of her past and the embodiment of her self: ". . . I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me. Time and place have had their say," and


time and place must continue to have their say (1).The "material that went to make" her, however, exists paradoxi- cally beyond as well as within the material realm: "time and place." Her self as she defines it is shaped by an inherited organic memory, a nearly bodily memory, a memory which pre- cedes her knowledge of her communi- ty's history though it proceeds from that history.

This history, however, is, if not exactly apocryphal, certainly influ- enced by its communal construction and oral transmission. In her determi- nation to contextualize her life for her reader, Hurston appears to begin at a beginning well before her individual beginning, but she leaves this begin- ning undifferentiated in time. "It all started," she asserts without providing a clear grammatical antecedent to "It." One could assume that "It" refers to Eatonville, but such an assumption would not be entirely accurate, since "it all started with three white men on a ship off the coast of Brazil." Since Hurston has already declared that Eatonville is "a pure Negro town," white men on a ship would seem to be irrelevant (Dust Tracks 1)."It" is not even the idea of Eatonville, since Hurston will subsequently reveal the genesis of the idea of Eatonville, but perhaps "It" is the chance, or possibili- ty, of Eatonville. So the sentence could read "possibility all started . . . ,"and already we are engaged with legend as much as history.

When Hurston moves toward her more direct personal history, she main- tains the tone of legend: "Into this burly, boiling, hard-hitting, rugged- individualistic setting walked one day a tall, heavy-muscled mulatto who resolved to put down roots" (Dust Tracks 7). This mulatto is John Hurston, Zora's father, and his past is subsequently revealed; but when he enters the text, he seems bigger than life and without known antecedent. John Hurston courts Lucy Ann Potts; against her parents' wishes, they marry and begin the generation which will

include Zora. Hurston's own birth is also narrated within the generic condi- tions of legend: She is born in dire cir- cumstances, saved through outside intervention, prophesied over, named somewhat mysteriously, threatened with natural disaster in the form of a hungry sow, and perhaps subjected to hoodoo. Of course, for Hurston, her birth is legend; despite her claim that she has "memories within that came out of the material that went to make me," she knows the details of her birth because they have been repeated to her-they comprise part of her oral culture. Because of peculiar details of her birth, one can imagine the story having been told and re-told until (and perhaps after) it attains the fixity of print in her autobiography. Through her syntax, she stresses the oral tradi- tion into which she is born: "This is all hear-say." The sentences describing her birth are constructed not as facts but as bits of speculation: "The saying goes like this . .. .It seems . .. .I have never been told . . . . I did hear. . . . It seems . . . . " (Dust Tracks 19). As an ethnog- rapher gazing at herself, she is careful to distinguish between the episodes she observes and those she hears about. Syntactically, however, she doesn't become herself, a potential object of investigation, until she is named: "So I became Zora Neale Hurston" (21). If this autobiography were to follow conventional generic practices, the remainder of the text should reveal precisely how she becomes the individual classified according to that public name.

The text will approach this task, for Hurston moves from her birth to intro- spection, yet the vast majority of the ~ntrospectionshe reveals occurs in zhildhood, and the questions she con- tinues to ask throughout the text remain the questions of a child. Hurston, in other words, describes TOW she becomes herself in terms of ler private self rather than approach- .ng her private self through her public ;elf, or through the persona her readers iscribe to her; she does not construct


her autobiographical self as one author-ized by her previous authorial activity. So despite the fact that she is writing an autobiography specifically because she has produced previous texts and hence readers, she does not approach her written self, the "I" in he autobiography, as a reader examining a writer, as a private individual investi gating a public presence, but rather as an individual whose primary life is pri vate. She reveals, in other words, enough of the life of her imagination tc clarify how she has become the indi- vidual called Zora Neale Hurston but not the author classified as Zora Neale Hurston. For the most part, she writes as if unaware that readers will read he1 autobiography through their familiari- ty with the rest of her oeuvre.

After she receives her name, the child Hurston creates an additional opportunity for legend to develop around her by refusing to walk until what seems to her family to be an unusually late age. From the moment she takes her first steps, however, she acquires the urge to reach the horizon, the place where time and space meet. Her wanderlust unites interiority with distance, for she describes it as an "inside urge to go places" (22). Since in her childhood she can't go places phys- ically, she burrows inward in order to travel imaginatively. Hurston frequent- ly describes her life as a pilgrimage, that term which inflects "journey" with an awareness of its significance, with an assumption that travel has both pur- pose and destination. Indeed that pur- pose is destination. Simultaneously, Hurston presents the structures of her childhood beliefs as whimsically na'ive and reveals that her journey through- out childhood is ever toward disillu- sion (Raynaud, "Rubbing" 34).

Hurston's initial portraits of herself present her as a girl who assumes a rightful existence in the world and who believes in the power of desire to achieve its own fulfillment. When the child Zora's beliefs are contradicted by empirical fact, Hurston's tone is ironic, though she generally retains sympathy for the longing that activates the child's imagination and thereby creates her fanciful mistakes. She opens her first example with an anecdote that omi- nously foreshadows her mother's death:

Naturally, I felt like other chil- dren in that Death, destruction and other agonies were never meant to touch me. Things like that happened to other people, and no wonder. They were not like me and mine. Naturally, the world and the firmaments careened to one side a little so as not to inconvenience me. In fact, the universe went further than that-it was happy to break a few rules just to show me preferences.

For instance, for a long time I gloated over the happy secret that when I played outdoors in the moon- light, the moon followed me, whichev- er way I ran. The moon was so happy when I came out to play, that it ran shining and shouting after me like a pretty puppy dog. The other children didn't count. (Dust Tracks26)

n terms of themes that will emerge as he text progresses, this passage is )aradoxical. Here, Hurston presents ler belief that she is special in order to lemonstrate that she is in fact typical, 'like other children," and her attitude oward this deluded child is more cruel han endearing; she seems to conflate child-like" with "childish," nearlv )laming her younger self fir clin&ng

o beliefs that would have been hap- ropriate and perhaps embarrassing if ~eldby an older person, but that are ntirely reasonable in a child (26). Yet, s ~urston presents herself growing oward adulthood, one of her goals rill be precisely to illustrate her own haracter as unique, and she relies on hese stories of her childhood for evi- lence (MacKethan 56).

At times Hurston does seem to .ave been a peculiarly introverted and jolated child, living in a world inhab- :ed only by characters of her own cre- tion: Miss Corn-Shuck, Mr. Sweet mell, Miss Corn-Cob, Reverend Door- hob, and the Spool People. These ~nd-toys,these personalities become ?mi-permanent tenants of her imagi-


and they fail to satisfy:

They all stayed around the house for years, holding funerals and almost weddings and taking trips with me to where the sky met the ground. I do not know exactly when they left me. . . . one day they were gone. . . . But there is an age when children are fit company for spirits. Before they have absorbed too much of earthy things to be able to fly with the unseen things that soar. There came a time when I could look back on the fields where we had picked flowers together but they, my friends, were nowhere to be seen. The sunlight where I had lost them was still of Midas['s] gold, but that which touched me where I stood had somehow turned to gilt. Nor could I return to the shining meadow where they had vanished. I could not ask of others if they had seen which way my company went. My friends had been too shy to show themselves to others. Now and then when the sky is the right shade of blue, the air soft, and the clouds are sculptured into heroic shapes, I glimpse them for a moment, and believe again that the halcyon days have been. (Dust Tracks56-57)

Again, the life of the imagination leads to disillusion. And Hurston's allusion to Midas is puzzling, since she appar- ently constructs Midas's gold as posi-

tive; clearly Midas's gold is "real," is substantial as opposed to gilt, but the point of the myth is that Midas's gold is undesirable (or that Midas's desire is undesirable). Perhaps the gold of mem- ory is inevitably Midas's gold; perhaps in longing for her "halcyon days," Hurston is acknowledging that those days are desirable only while they remain unattainable. If Midas is among the "heroic shapes" constructed of clouds, then the "halcyon days" that "have been" occurred long before Hurston's birth, and the "age when children are fit company for spirits" is a mythic age. Hurston's longing for these idealized days of childhood together with her discomfort at the child she remembers being suggests that one of her interests in this text is resolvine that ambivalence.


Significantly, Hurston spends not merely an extraordinary chunk of her but she also devotes five pages of her autobiography to them. This tendency is consistent throughout Dust Tracks, and one must eventually question Hurston's motive in so privileging the interests of her childhood. Clearly, she considers the part of her childhood prior to her mother's death-that is, Drior to her own adolescence-as the


most pleasant phase of her life, and she may also consider it the most interest- ing. She may also be using these episodes to explore the life of her imag- ination, and the relationships among her childhood fantasies, her adult life, and her task of creating an autobiogra- phy, for she concludes a subsequent incident, one which also foregrounds her vivid childhood imagination as she persuades her peers that a neighbor has a secret life as an alligator, with the statement that "my phantasies were still fighting against the facts," a state- ment which the reader might be sorely tempted to revise into the present tense

(60).Not all of Hurston's disillusion xcurs as a direct, and perhaps expect- zd. effect of her maturation however. H& emphasis on community through- 3ut her autobiography may be an 3ttempt to overcome her exclusion from it, to guarantee her inclusion by reconciling herself to her difference :ram it (Lenz 105). She loses her sense 3f her inherent right to a place in the rvorld, her place as one for whom the miverse is"happy to break a few :ules," when she is enrolled at a board- ng school subsequent to the death of ler mother, when she becomes, in :ffect, a charity case, because her father 'ails to pay her fees (Dust Tracks 26). lurston is confronted by this fact as if ;he herself is responsible, though the ;oal of the reprimand is more likely to ;hame her than to insure payment:

Every few days . . .I was called in and asked what was I going to do. After a while she [a woman Hurston identifies only as the "Second in Command"] did not call me in, she would just yell out of the window to where I might be playing in the yard. That used to keep


me shrunk up inside. I got SO I would- n't play too hard. The call might come at any time. My spirits would not have quite so far to fall. (77)

Hurston's growth is here expressed in terms of diminishment; as her age increases, the strength of her spirit decreases. Here, one suspects, any sun- light which surrounds her achieves only gilt. This profound disillusion occurs outside of her own community, but it also occurs by virtue of her exclu- sion from her natal community, as fol- lowing her mother's death she has been sent away from Eatonville to school in Jacksonville. Although Hurston works off some of her fees by scrubbing stairs, the end of the school year finds her entirely without posi- tion:

I kept looking out of the window so that I could see Papa when he came up the walk to the office. But nobody came for me. Weeks passed, and then a letter came. Papa said that the school could adopt me. (79)

The school, however, declines, sending her literally up the river on a paddle boat with the price of a ticket in her pocket.

As all journeys will become for her, the trip itself is exciting, despite the impetus for it. But because her father has remarried, home will no longer resemble home for her; although she may keep her eyes on the horizon, although she may retain a destination, she's lost her point of departure. Hurston describes this emotional sepa- ration from her father as a beginning to a much longer pilgrimage, one charac- terized by poverty and alienation, as the way of her own cross:

My vagrancy had begun in reali- ty. . . . There was an end to my journey and it had happiness in it for me. It was certain and sure. But the way! Its agony was equally certain. It was before me, and no one could spare me my pilgrimage. The rod of compel- ment was laid to my back. I must go the way. (83-84)

Hurston knows both the way and the end because she has been receiving visions for several years. Although they do not serve to structure the book, and although several of them are never described, the vision which portrays her emotional homelessness is signifi- cant to this chapter.6 She again links landscape to her interior life, as if she is somehow simultaneously mendicant and eremite:

So my second vision picture came to be. I had seen myself homeless and uncared for. There was a chill about that picture which used to wake me up shivering. I had always thought I would be in some lone, arctic waste- land with no one under the sound of my voice. I found the cold, the desolate solitude, and earless silences, but I dis- covered that all that geography was within me. It only needed time to reveal it. (83)

In terms of the self and life Hurston is constructing, these visions have more symbolic than narrative value. Although they demonstrate that she has access to supernatural knowledge, the visions themselves neither drive the plot nor reveal Hurston's character nearly to the extent that, for example, her childhood fantasies do. Her experience of the visions is elaborated only when they are introduced, when Hurston per- zeives them for the first time. Then, she describes the experience of having the visions, though she does not describe the visions themselves:

Certainly I was not more than seven years old, but I remember the first coming very distinctly. . . . I saw a big raisin lying on the porch and stopped to eat it. There was some cool shade on the porch, so I sat down, and soon I was asleep in a strange way. Like clearcut stereopticon slides, I saw twelve scenes flash before me, each one held until I had seen it well in every detail, and then be replaced by another. There was no continuity as in an average dream. Just disconnected scene after scene with blank spaces in between. I knew that they were all true, a preview of things to come, and my soul writhed in agony and shrunk away. But I knew that there was no shrinking. These things had to be. I did not wake up when the last one flick- ered and vanished, I merely sat up and saw the Methodist Church, the line of


moss-draped oaks, and our strawberry patch stretching off to the left. (41-42)

As her experience at school will keep

her "shrunk up inside" (77), here, too,

her soul is said to have "shrunk away"

(41); yet here she accepts the incident

as justified through its mystery. She

perceives these forthcoming events as

inevitable and hence necessary, while

the abuse of power she experiences at

school is not only unnecessary but


Since she elsewhere seems deter-

mined to present herself as unique, her

extended attention to her fantasies-a

"normal" childhood event-rather

than to these visions would seem to

subvert her intent; her tendency to pre-

sent herself both as typical and singu-

lar can be read as contradictory

impulses. Simultaneously, her insis-

tence on her fantasv life as unusual can

be interpreted in t&ms of degree rather

than kind; if many children engage in

fantasy, theirs are not, perhaps, nearly

so elaborate or extended as Hurston's.

In her life more than in herself per- haps, Hurston must negotiate the dis- tinction between being perceived as unique and being exoticized. Occasionally, she describes herself as simply different from others, regard- less of the race of those others, though her interpretation is implicitly that her trait is the superior one: "I was miser- able, and no doubt made others miser- able around me, because thev could not see what was the matter with me, and I had no part in what interested them" (85); "I wanted what they could not conceive of" (86); "I have read many books where the heroine was in love for a long time without knowing it. . . . That is not the way it is with me at all. I have been out of love with peo- ple for a long time . . . . But when I fall in, I can feel the bump" (181).

When she describes how others, especially white acquaintances, per- ceive her as unusual, however, she is much less comfortable. When this occurs during her teenage years, she argues that this reaction is independent of race, though as years pass she will acknowledge the significance of such a reaction. Working as a lady's maid to a singer when she is a teenager, Hurston is singled out for teasing by many members of the company. Although she attributes this attention to her speech rather than to her skin, her description of these interactions raises questibns about her interpretation:

I was the only Negro around. But that
did not worry me in the least. I had no
chance to be lonesome, because the
company welcomed me like, or as, a
new play-pretty. It did not strike me as
curious then. I never even thought
about it. Now, I can see the reason for

In the first place, I was a
Southerner, and had the map of Dixie
on my tongue. They were all
Northerners except the orchestra
leader, who came from Pensacola. It
was not that my grammar was bad, it
was the idioms. They did not know of
the way an average Southern child,
white or black, is raised on simile and
invective. (98)

rhough Hurston can argue that this .eaction is based on her speech, a .egional rather than racial characteris- ic, her presentation of this experience ndicates that the other members of the :ompany interpreted her speech as a -acial characteristic-they don't realize hat white children also speak figura- ively. Their attribution of her speech

o her race is much more significant han her assertion that such a belief vould be mistaken.

Later in her life and at a time pre- iumably including the "now" when ;he says she "can see the reason for it," lowever, Hurston is less nai've about ,uch behavior (98). Beginning to study tthnography, she says, "The Social {egister crowd at Barnard soon took ne up, and I became Barnard's sacred )lack cow. If you had not had lunch vith me, you had not shot from taw" 122). Clearly, on this occasion Hurston )oth realizes and acknowledges the notive of her acquaintances-she's a 'sacred black cow"; that is, she's acred in being black. Yet her tone is .mbiguous. Feeling herself exoticized, he declines to respond to that experi-


ence as hostilely as she might, perhaps because the success of this autobiogra- phy with a white audience depends on an exotic representation of herself. Simultaneously, she deflates an audi- ence's ability to continue exoticizing her by unveiling her ability to read the members of her audience in ways that they cannot, perhaps, read themselves.

Because she is situated as both insider and outsider, not only among the African-American rural communities she studies, but also among the educated Northerners who will read her autobiography through her folklore and novels, and perhaps at times as folklore, Hurston's relation- ship to her genre(s) becomes particu- larly intriguing. She demonstrates that the men (primarily) who tell the tales are Signifying on other cultural texts, and she presents herself as Signifying at the conclusion of Mules and Men. At times, she also seems to Signify in Dust Tracks, although whether she perceives a double audience on these occasions- those who will decipher the code and those who will fail to recognize it-is unclear. Signification can imply simply the comment one story makes upon anoth- er, but it can also be used strategically to camouflage meaning in terms of one audience while unveiling it for anoth- er. Ironically, this oral transmission of cultural knowledge is referred to in both of these texts as "lying." The men who spend their days on Eatonville's store porch don't tell stories; they tell "lies." Yet "lying" is not always used simply to refer to oral culture, and on several occasions Hurston admits to lying in order to achieve her goals. She claims to be a bootlegger to account for her apparent prosperity; she lies "to keep the peace" (Mules 151). These admissions then invite readers to sus- pect Hurston of lying on other unac- knowledged occasions, until one ques- tions the relationships among the vari- ous "lies" that are told throughout the texts. Because folktales are called lies, sense-may serve a similar function: She tells lies in order to confirm her membership in the community. In this sense, any potential truth or error behind the text is irrelevant. If Hurston's subjectivity has been con- structed through her membership in an oral culture, then the customs of this oral culture would presumably impinge on her adaptation of this cul- ture to printed texts, although readers unaccustomed to oral traditions might not find themselves acclimated to a genre which understands itself as inherently unstable. To the extent that Dust Tracks is informed by the generic expectations of folklore, in which each telling of the tale revises as well as repeats, in which each version com- petes with every other version, in which one of the goals might consis- tently be to hit "a straight lick with a crooked stick" (Dust Tracks I), then the autobiography would itself be an adap- tation of the language of a self or life, rather than a representation of that self or 1ife:Even Dust Tracks has been sig- nified on in this way, and ironically the text itself is performing the significa- tion despite assumptions about the sta- bility of print. The current edition of Dust Tracks includes an appendix of three chapters Hurston had originally planned to include in the book. Although her original editor had insist- ed on substantial revisions and exci- sions, Henry Louis Gates, the current editor, has restored them while also retaining the chapters as they were originally published (Raynaud 36-37).

When Hurston claims that "any- body whose mouth is cut cross-ways is given to lying" (Dust Tracks 192), she does not clarify whether that lying is with an intent to entertain through exaggeration or to deceive through misrepresentation. She does generalize that African Americans characteristi- cally provide satisfying if uninforma- tive answers to intrusive questions, and she includes herself among those who cultivate this practice:


We smile and tell him or her some- thing that satisfies the white person because, knowing so little about us, he doesn't know what he is missing. . . . 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. (Mules2-3)

What seems to be revelation is camou- flage. Language need not create vul- nerability for the speaker. According to another folktale, language can actively protect the speaker. In this tale, Mr. Jim Allen, an employee of a mill Hurston visits in Polk County, reveals why a snake can be poisonous, and this snake could easily signify any marginalized group. In giving the snake poison, God instructs him, " 'When they tromps on you, protect yo' self' " (Mules97). When the snake appears to be overzealous in his self-defense, he claims, " 'Ah can't tell who my enemy is and who is my friend. You gimrne dis protection in my mouf and Ah uses it' " (Mules97). To the extent that this snake can represent human beings, the protection would be language rather than literal poison, since language is the individualizing characteristic humans hold in their mouths.

Yet on other occasions, lying in its negative sense is linked to race, or to racial epithet, though Hurston again attempts to discount the specifically racialized nature of the comment with a footnote: "The word Nigger used in this sense does not mean race. It means a weak, contemptible person of any race" (Dust Tracks 30). Yet, the word Nigger, however it is specifically defined, cannot fail to connote dark skin. It can be transferred across races, as Hurston claims it is here, only through racist synecdoche; if character- istics of a "Nigger" include weakness and contemptibility, then another "weak, contemptible person" could be metaphorized as a "Nigger," but the word itself does not lose its racial valence. During this incident, Hurston is receiving advice from the "white man who had helped me get into the world," a white man who subsequent to his performance midwife demoktrated a particular interest in Hurston (Dust Tracks 30):

". . . don't be a nigger," he would say to me over and over. "Niggers lie and lie! Any time you catch folks lying, they are skeered of something. Lying is dodging. People with guts don't lie. They tell the truth and then if they have to, they fight it out. You lay your- self open by lying. . . . Truth is a letter from courage. I want you to grow guts as you go along. So don't you let me hear of you lying." (30-31)

At this point, Hurston declines to com- ment, either to the man or to the read- ,er, on this advice. We have already seen, however, that one doesn't neces- sarily "lay [one's] self open by lying" (Dust Tracks 31); the "feather-bed

resistance" Hurston describes is itself instruction in how to "fight it out" (Mules2, Dust Tracks 31).

Hurston concludes Mules and Men with a story that indicates that she her- self may be offering "feather-bed resis- tance," that the joke is on the reader. Hurston tells the story of Sis Cat, who was once reprimanded by a rat for fail- ing to wash before she ate. When the cat does stop to wash, to practice her manners, the rat escapes. Subsequently, the cat claims, " 'Oh, Ah got plenty manners, . . . .But Ah eats mah dinner and washes mah face and uses mah manners afterwards' " (245-46).Fooled Ionce, the cat is twice wise. She's per- fectly comfortable with the possibility that she will be perceived as ill-man- nered, as uncivilized, perhaps even in the right circumstances as exotic, 1because her poor manners are strategic. ISis Cat understands the self-interest of the rat who purports to instruct her for her own good. Sis Cat recognizes the fact that conformity to the rules of her prey will guarantee her defeat and teventual demise.

So when Hurston concludes Mules and Men by Signifying on this tale, she seems to declare herself the one who laughs last: "I'm sitting here like Sis ICat, washing my face and usin' my manners" (246).The intriguing ques- tion for readers, of course, is who plays


rat to her cat. One could assume that hands and read on his very own porch the rat revresents the folktales that


Hutston Las caught, but a more proba- If Ole Massa has become her audience, ble, if uncomfortable, interpretation is Hurston's closure is highly ironic. She's that Hurston is positioning the reader writing, then, to an audience which is as her rat. Susan Willis suggests that paradoxically excluded from her audi- ence, for Ole Massa is not among the

we might say that Hurston's project is analogous to cussing out the master. community who participates in But because her medium is the narra- Hurston's lying sessions. Clearly dis- tive, rather than oral language, she

tinguished from her community, her

can't take refuge down at the gate and

audience recognizes itself in the rat,

do her cussing in private. Instead, she must do her "specifying" in the form unable to escape from the protection of a book Ole Massa can hold in his Hurston keeps in her mouth.

Notes 1. Critics disagree about the extent to which the generic distinctions between these two texts--or others of Hurston's works-can be deconstructed, but several do suggest that Mules and Men specif- ically is constructed in a similar fashion to an autobiography or a novel. Arnold Rampersad argues that "the key to Mules and Men is precisely Hurston's finding of herself In the black folk world she described, and finding that black folk world, approached first by her as a student of anthropology, finally to be an unmistakable, ineradicable part of herself. . . " (xxiii). Sandra Dolby-Stahl argues that "Mules and Men is literature rather than ethnography" because Hurston "manipulated the grouping of material not toward the scholarly goal of generic classification but rather toward the literary goal of mimesis" (54, 56). Gunter H. Lenz makes a similar argument, suggesting that Hurston relies on both anthropological and fictional strategies to present rather than represent her material (180). D. A. Boxwell understands Hurston's presence as necessary in her ethnography because "anthropology requires the kinds of imaginative acts necessary to create fictional literature" (610). John F. Callahan argues that Mules and Men is Hurston's initiation story within her presentation of the material she had collected (1 17).

  1. By "literary autobiographies" I am thinking of such texts as Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and How IGrew or Ellen Glasgow's The Woman Within, texts that understand the literary career of the author to be significant material and/or impetus for the autobiography.
  2. Fran~oise Lionnet-McCumber describes Dust Tracks as "autoethnography" since the self pre- sented in that text is perceived at times through the lens of anthropology.
  3. Much has been written regarding Hurston's comments regarding race, slavery, and nationalism, which were excised from the original published version of Dust Tracks. In making this editorial deci- sion, Lippincott declared these comments "irrelevant" to Hurston's autobiography, a declaration with significant implications regarding the relationship of the genre to any particular writer, for certainly writers perceived to have had public lives would not have been so prohibited (Hemenway 288).
  4. Similar statements were debated throughout the Harlem Renaissance. See, for example, Langston Hughes's "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain."
  5. Several critics point to these visions as intended organizational devices for this book. To the extent that they might have been intended to perform such a function, their failure is obvious. However, I believe this argument can only be made by assuming that Hurston was constructing a lin- ear, progressive narrative. As published, Dust Tracks adopts several other generic conventions, most prominently the essay, in which the insertion of these visions would perhaps be inappropriate. One of my points is that this text must be examined in terms of this generic mixture. See, for example, Hemenway (283) and Krasner (I 13).

Works Awkard, Michael, ed. New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Cambridge UP, Cited 1990. Boxwell, D. A. " 'Sis Cat' as Ethnographer: Self-presentation and Self-Inscription in Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men." African American Review 26 (1 992): 605-1 7. Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989.


Callahan, John F. In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. Carby, Hazel V. "The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston." Awkward 71-93. Dolby-Stahl, Sandra. "Literary Objectives: Hurston's Use of Personal Narrative in Mules and Men." Western Folklore 51 (1 992): 51 -63. Gates, Henry Louis. "Afterword." Mules and Men. By Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990. 287-97. --, and K. A. Appiah, eds. Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Glasgow, Ellen. The Woman Within. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Autobiography. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Nation 23 June 1926: 692-94.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. Mules and Men. 1935. New York: Harper, 1990. Krasner, James. "The Life of Women: Zora Neale Hurston and Female Autobiography." Black American Literature Forum 23 (1 989): 1 13-26.

Lenz, Gunter H. "Southern Exposures: The Urban Experience and the Re-construction of Black Folk Culture and Community in the Works of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston." History and Tradition in Afro-American Culture. Ed. Lenz. New York: Campus Verlag, 1984. 84-1 17.

Lionnet-McCumber, Fran~oise. "Autoethnography: The An-Archic Style of Dust Tracks on a Road. Gates and Appiah 241-66. MacKethan, Lucinda H. "Mother Wit: Humor in Afro-American Women's Autobiography." Studies in American Humor 4 (1 985): 51 -61. McCarthy, Mary. How IGrew. New York: Harcourt, 1987. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. New York: Harcourt, 1957. Rampersad, Arnold. "Foreword." Mules and Men. By Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990. xv-xxiii.

Raynaud, Claudine. "Autobiography as a 'Lying' Session: Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road." Black Feminist Criticism and Critical Theory. Ed. Joe Weixlmann and Houston A. Baker, Jr. Greenwood: Penkevill, 1988. 11 1-38.

--. " 'Rubbing a Paragraph with a Soft Cloth': Muted Voices and Editorial Constraints in Dust Tracks on a Road." De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. Ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 34-64.

Willis, Susan. "Wandering: Hurston's Search for Self and Method." Gates and Appiah 110-29.


As an ethnologist in the rural South, Hurston is both insider and out- sider; to the extent that she accepts this doubled and at times conflicted status as identity, her situation becomes uncomfortable. Because of the tenden- cy of ethnography to exoticize its object of study, an ethnographer practicing autobiography would be forced to negotiate between a disciplinary prac- tice which can sometimes seem to con- struct characters as odd or quaint and a simultaneous desire to represent her- self realistically rather than romantical- ly; in this sense, autoethnography could be argued to be an oxymoronic term (Raynaud, "Rubbing" 38; Carby 75-76.).3 A child of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston returns there on her first trip as a professional ethnographer, not, she says, "so that the home folks could make admiration over me because I had been up North to college and come back with a divloma and a Chevrolet," but "because fknew that the town was full of material and that I could get it without hurt, harm or danger" (Mules 2). While her claim that she doesn't desire adulation may be sincere, she nevertheless hopes to exploit her com- munity's hospitality, persuading its residents to speak so that she may write. Hurston's activity may be with- out "hurt, harm or danger" to herself, but the communitv's resistance to her questions indicates that they perhaps sense some danger to themselves. At the very least, the nature of oral culture shifts when stories are cast in the per- manence of print since a significant characteristic of the stories conveved,

orallv is their demand to be revised as they >re retold. Although the men in Eatonville do consent to relate "them old-time tales" (Mules 8), her trip isn't entirely successful because outside of ~atonville.where residents know her immediately as Zora,

very little was said directly to me and when I tried to be friendly there was a noticeable disposition to fend me off. This worried me because I saw at once that this group of several hundred Negroes from all over the South was a rich field for folk-lore, but here was I figuratively starving to death in the midst of plenty. (Mules60)

Although she spent her childhood among these tales, she is suspected of merely impersonating a member of the rural community: "They all thought I must be a revenue officer or a detective of some kind. . . . The car made me look too prosperous" (Mules 60-61). She responds by impersonating some- one on the other side of the law, "a fugitive from justice," specifically a bootlegger (Mules 61). As her ethno- graphic career progresses-particularly as conveyed in the second section of Mules and Men, which describes hoodoo practices in Louisiana

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