The Minstrel Show Goes to the Great War: Zora Neale Hurston's Mass Cultural Other

By Trombold, John | MELUS, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Minstrel Show Goes to the Great War: Zora Neale Hurston's Mass Cultural Other


Trombold, John, MELUS


Zora Neale Hurston's known historical antagonism for commercialized folk music has implications for current understanding of Hurston's idea of the folk and their tall tales, signified in her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by "mule talk." Hurston writes: "Everybody indulged in mule talk. He [the mule] was next to the Mayor in prominence, and made better talking" (50). The character Janie, who "loved the conversation and sometimes thought up good stories on the mule" in an independent spirit that leads her into conflict with her husband the mayor, Joe Starks (50-51), allegorizes Hurston's own need to oppose the apparently monological discourse of commercialized forms of popular culture. In this manner Hurston's art reminds us of the oppositional relation between some modernisms and their sometime Other, the cultural commodity (Huyssen 21). Her known differences with the left revolutionary politics of the era in which her major novel was published diminish somewhat when one takes stock of the common cultural enemy for African American intellectuals as divergent as W.E.B. Du Bois and Hurston, who shared a desire to articulate a sense of African American dignity in the midst of a dominant social order offering through the imposition of the color line numerous oppressive indignities, including a variety of ways of caricaturing African Americans and their culture through the new technology of the media.

As Hazel Carby notes, Hurston's 1934 essay "Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals" posits the idea of the inauthenticity of commercial culture's representation of African American culture in "race records" (31). One implication of Hurston's situating the rural folk against mass culture is that the literary and historical meaning of the "mule talk"--both the tall tales told on the porch of Joe Starks's store in the Eatonville of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the Florida porch talk she mentions in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks in the Road (46-47)--should then be understood in relation to its mass cultural other, the revived blackface minstrelsy and the popular music gaining prominence in the form of sheet music and the new medium of radio. If the "mule talk" in Eatonville of Their Eyes Were Watching God makes the town's `talkers "the center of the world" (60), one might well ask what assumed the place of imagined cultural center until the talking began. Hurston

   was concerned to establish authenticity in the representation of popular
   forms of folk culture and to expose the disregard for aesthetics of that
   culture through inappropriate forms of representation ... the people she
   wanted to represent she defined as a rural folk, and she measured them and
   their cultural forms against an urban, mass culture. (Carby 31)

Yet this urban, mass culture was itself often devoted to a certain nostalgia for the rural culture of the folk. Like Jean Toomer, a figure prominent in the early stages of the Harlem Renaissance who greatly admired the folk music of the south and lamented how the black folk were taking to commercial music rather than to their own musical traditions, Hurston, emergent toward the end of the Renaissance, was a partisan in the culture wars dividing the respective identities of city and country.

As Carby says, "The creation of a discourse of the `folk' as a rural people in Hurston's work in the twenties and thirties displaces the migration of black people to cities" (31). Thus Hurston herself was drawn into some of the dehistoricizing practices of the culture industry that she attempted to exorcise. Carby's critique, one reminiscent of Alain Locke's historic criticisms of Hurston's dependence on stock formulas for her characters (Lott 236), foregrounds the author's "creation of a folk who are outside of history" (Carby 32). Yet according to Robert Hemenway's characterization of her literary strategy, Hurston's purportedly extra-historical creation was a narrative fiction defined more specifically as adversarial to "the racist stereotype of folk experience in the American minstrel tradition and the historical neglect of the folk arts by black people themselves" (ZNH 52).

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