Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Truths, Lies, Mules and Men: Through the "Spyglass of Anthropology" and What Zora Saw There

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Truths, Lies, Mules and Men: Through the "Spyglass of Anthropology" and What Zora Saw There

Article excerpt

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. (Hurston, 1990/1935, p. 1)

While conducting research for Mules and Men from December 1927 until February 1930 Zora Neale Hurston reported on her progress, goals, and methodologies via letters written to three very distinct audiences: "Papa" Franz Boas, her mentor at Columbia, who was ardently seeking to establish anthropology as a science; "Godmother" Charlotte Osgood Mason, the wealthy patron of the primitive, the source of Hurston's financial support and the legal owner of all the material Hurston collected; and her "pal," Langston Hughes, who introduced Hurston to Mason and with whom Hurston corresponded the most frequently and familiarly. Hurston obliged each audience with what it wanted: Mason, the "little mother of the primitive world," received fawning letters "Humbly and sincerely" wishing her good health and encouraging her to feel assured that "her" material was for her eyes only (in Kaplan, 2002, p. 123). At the same time, though, Hurston surreptitiously sent copies of her material to both Boas and Hughes--as well as to others, including Alain Locke and Dorothy West--along with reminders to keep the material as well as their correspondence secret. She closes a letter to West with the admonition "PLEASE DON'T LET ANYONE KNOW THAT YOU HAVE HEARD FROM ME OR SEE [sic] MY PAPERS" (in Kaplan, 2002, p. 130). More consequentially, Hurston conveyed contradictory descriptions of her methodology to her different audiences. Six months before assuring Boas that she was trying "to be exact as possible. Keeping to the exact dialect as closely as I could ... so that I shall not let myself creep in unconsciously" (1929), Hurston had confided to Hughes that she had to "rewrite a lot ... not only ... to present the material with all the life and color of my people, [but] to leave no loop-holes for the scientific crowd to rend and tear us" (in Kaplan, 2002, p. 139). "Really," she declared in pointed defiance of Mason's property rights, "I think our material is going to be grand, Langston" (in Kaplan, 2002, p. 139).

Since then, Hurston's critics have grappled with her now notorious inconsistencies, contradictions, and outright lies, particularly those, such as many in her autobiography, refuted by verifiable facts, including the year of her birth. While her descriptions of her materials, methods, and goals differed considerably with each correspondent, Hurston was, in fact, being true to each audience's idea of "truth," whether to Boas' idea of scientific objectivity, Mason's idea of primitive authenticity, or Hughes's idea of literary truth capable of producing, as he put it in his autobiography (1986/1940), "stories about Negroes, so true that people in far-away lands would read them" (p. 34). Hurston seems to have felt that truth, like culture, is relative. In fact, the earliest, now "rare or archaic," definition the Oxford English Dictionary assigns to the word "truth" dates to the Old English word triew, from which "troth" is also derived, and refers to "[t]he character of being, or disposition to be, true to a person, principle, cause, etc.; faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty" ("Truth"). Hurston, perhaps, simply had multiple loyalties; as she observed in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, (1984/1942), "Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person. That is natural. There is no single face in nature, because every eye that looks upon it, sees it from its own angle" (p. 61). In contrast, today's prevailing definition of "truth"--"[c]onformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity (of statement or thought)"--which arose during the mid-sixteenth century as product of Enlightenment positivism posits a single, "real," "accurate," and correct" angle of view. …

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