Academic journal article African American Review

"Protection in My Mouf": Self, Voice, and Community in Zora Neale Hurston's 'Dust Tracks on a Road' and 'Mules and Men.' (Autobiography and Ethnography by Zora Neale Hurston)

Academic journal article African American Review

"Protection in My Mouf": Self, Voice, and Community in Zora Neale Hurston's 'Dust Tracks on a Road' and 'Mules and Men.' (Autobiography and Ethnography by Zora Neale Hurston)

Article excerpt

Zora Neale Hurston opens her first collection of African-American folklore, Mules and Men, with a condensed version 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 stories. 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 ethnography and autobiography are suspect.(1) 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 autobiography to the lifetime of her corporeal self but rather contextualizes - and extends - it temporally within the history of her community, 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 tradition because her subjectivity has been previously constructed through the orality of folklore.(2) Much of what gets written down here is less an attempt 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 efficacious as autobiography than is Dust Tracks, since Hurston's voice in the folklore is less self-conscious: "These volumes are in some ways more successful as forms of symbolic memory than [is] Dust Tracks" (153). In neither text is Hurston exclusively the narrator; she is always also the narrated. In this sense, both texts adhere to a primary characteristic of all autobiographical 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 present textual persona functions within this community as if she is a member, whereas her biographical persona realizes the degree to which she is not. …

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