Reconstructing Past Presents
Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks, I have memories
within that came out of the material that went to make
me. Time and place have had their say.
—Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road1
FOR ZORA NEALE HURSTON the presence of the past manifests itself even in the most ordinary things and the most ordinary lives. Layers of experience reside under their deceptively mute surfaces. For Hurston, everyday actions and interactions, while seemingly inconsequential, are actually set in motion by the complex interplay between the force of history and the creative efforts of those to whom Toni Morrison refers as “discredited” people. What may appear stone cold and devoid of vitality pulses with remembering. While “time and place have had their say” in the shaping of Hurston's memories, neither has the last word in her self-fashioning. Hurston recognizes the constraints imposed by Jim Crow conditions and their northern counterparts on her life and work, but she is never deadened by them. Instead she presents herself as an active agent, an “I” irreducible to any of her many components. How, then, can we recapture the lives that Hurston and her folk informants wrenched from the teeth of Jim Crow?
This book is about a “past present” in which Zora Neale Hurston's grandmother, Sarah Potts, said “nossuh!” to her daughter Lucy's intended marriage to John Hurston. Not “dat yaller bastard” from “over de creek.”2 That she regarded the match as