Academic journal article African American Review

Migrant Labor, Folklore, and Resistance in Hurston's Polk County: Reframing Mules and Men

Academic journal article African American Review

Migrant Labor, Folklore, and Resistance in Hurston's Polk County: Reframing Mules and Men

Article excerpt

In a recent article proposing a rethinking of the historiography of black working-class politics in the Jim Crow South, Robin Kelley has suggested that the historian's attention should shift from a focus on political leaders to a consideration of "everyday acts of resistance" carried out by working people (" 'We Are Not'" 76).(1) Taking a cue from such scholars as James C. Scott, Michel de Certeau, and Eugene Genovese, Kelley sets out to find the "hidden transcript" of a "dissident political culture" in the urban South during the 1930s and 1940s (77).(2) He explains his rationale for doing so:

Beneath the veil of consent lies a hidden history of unorganized, everyday conflict waged by African-American working people. Once we explore in greater detail those daily conflicts and the social and cultural spaces where ordinary people felt free to articulate their opposition, we can begin to ask the questions that will enable us to rewrite the political history of the Jim Crow South to incorporate such actions and actors. (76)

Kelley's article discusses forms of resistance as they occurred at home, at work, at play, and in the public at large so as to force a reconsideration of how action in daily life contributed to political change in the South.

My aim in this article is to use Kelley's study of working-class resistance to launch a revisionary reading of the narrative frame of Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men (1935). Indeed, Kelley's article begins with an epigraph from Hurston's book in which she debunks the "seeming acquiescence" of the smiling Negro laborer. In Hurston's collection of folklore, I will argue, the "hidden transcript" of everyday resistance is exposed through the narrative frame with which she surrounds her transcription of "folk"(3) tales. This articulation of resistance through folklore is most evident in the middle pages of her book, in which Hurston describes her visit to a lumber camp in Polk County, Florida. In this section, Hurston at first experiences the workers' efforts to resist her intrusion on the scene because they think she is a detective. As she gains their acceptance, however, she is able to record their tales. She displays the migrant laborers telling tales on the job, and in so doing she shows how the tales form a discourse of dissent relating to the conditions of labor in the company town. When Hurston is accepted in the camp, her narrative voice shifts from first-person-singular to third-person. As her authorial presence recedes, the narrative shows us how folklore could be used as a form of resistance in the Jim Crow South.

Autobiography, Ethnography, and the Narrative Frame

Hurston's narrative frame has long been a topic of study for readers of Mules and Men, and it is worth considering the critical history on this topic before pursuing a revisionary reading of it. Rather than presenting a compendium of "folk" tales collected from the field, Hurston weaves the tales into an overarching narrative featuring her travels to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, to neighboring Polk County, and to New Orleans. Since the link between these three sites is her traveling, observing self, most studies of the book's narrative frame have centered on the relation between autobiography and ethnography in the text. Her biographer, Robert Hemenway, spells out the questions that animate this line of inquiry:

Is Mules and Men about Zora Hurston or about black folklore? If the former, the self-effacement makes the reader want to know more about what was going on in her mind, more about her reaction to the communities that embraced her. If the latter, there is a need for folklore analysis. (167)

Hurston's text would seem to blend aspects of the autobiographical travelogue with aspects of the ethnographic study, and Hemenway's questions suggest that the expectations of both genres remain unmet in Mules and Men. Her narrative frame, he argues, frustrates the reader's attempt to understand her relation to the "folk" she is describing. …

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