Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Horses Chomping at the Global Bit: Ideology, Systemic Injustice, and Resistance in Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Horses Chomping at the Global Bit: Ideology, Systemic Injustice, and Resistance in Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse

Article excerpt

Zora Neale Hurstons Tell My Horse (1938), an ethnographic portrayal of Jamaica and Haiti, emphasizes the ideological constraints of identity and the material consequences that such constraints produce. Through such consequences, Hurston depicts the relationships between the United States South and the Caribbean, focusing on the plantation economies of those regions; however, when she reveals the differences between them, she expresses ambivalence about the United States's privilege and power, endorsing its imperialism with nationalist rhetoric. Demonstrating her privileged identity as "American," Hurston employs nationalist ideology to construct the United States as democratic, progressive, and innocent, and she accomplishes this construction with her portrayals of the Caribbean as an uncivilized, regressive Other. Such constructions reify national boundaries and lend support to the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915 to 1934). However, Hurston's text also de-naturalizes racial identity and emphasizes diasporic connections among Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean, particularly those connections that demonstrate cultural resistance. Thus, Hurston ultimately portrays Haiti as resilient and resistant to exploitative ideology by focusing a large portion of Tell My Horse on the African-derived practice of voodoo, emphasizing how its adherents subvert social hierarchies with their performances of ritualized spirit possession.

Several scholars point out the contradiction of Hurston endorsing United States imperialism while celebrating resistance to it, but they fail to draw any conclusions about that contradiction. John Rowe recognizes that Tell My Horse offers sentiments opposed to those of Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) and that Hurston's endorsement of imperialism contradicts her advocacy of resistance through voodoo; however, he fails to reconcile or explain any of these contradictions (127,137-138). Similarly, Annette Trefzer highlights Hurstons conflicting impulses to support the U.S. occupation of Haiti and to celebrate Haitian resistance to exploitation, but she merely concludes that the "conflict between racial and national identifications remains essentially unresolved" in Hurston's work (308). Hurston's contradictory assertions, however, suggest that national identities can supersede other identity categories as influences upon individual behavior and belief. The disparity between her stances on U.S. imperialism in Tell My Horse and her other texts indicates that her marginalization as an African American woman allows her to view the U.S. critically from within, while her privileged position as an "American" constrains her ability to maintain a critical perspective when she is outside of the country. Ultimately, Hurston's text both de-naturalizes identity categories and demonstrates the insidiousness of them.

Interestingly, Hurston's perspective anticipated current examinations of the South's global relationships. Reading Hurston in a post-Hurricane Katrina context, Keith Cartwright sees Hurston's examinations of "circum-Caribbean migrations" and "Afro-Atlantic agency" as "pioneering and prophetic" (762); and Hurston's vision is "prophetic" not only in terms of real world events like Katrina but also in relationship to present-day scholarship. As James Peacock asserts, the United States South, if the exception within the country, is actually the norm for the rest of the world, particularly when the plantation is viewed as paradigmatic (269; see also Smith and Cohn 15). Examining plantation histories, Matthew Guterl describes the Gulf South as the northern rim of an American Mediterranean that includes the Caribbean, and he asserts that many of the negative stereotypes about the U.S. South capitalize upon the region's association with the Caribbean (98, 103). Robert Hall also describes the Deep South as part of "an interconnected cirum-Caribbean creole culture," as many of the African survivals, transported during the slave trade, can be found in Caribbean locales such as Haiti and Jamaica as well as in the United States (106). …

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