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Reviewed by:
Zora Neale Hurston. Dust Tracks on a Road. Ed. Robert Hemenway. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984. 348 pp. pb. $8.95.
Mari Evans, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. New York: Anchor, 1984. 543 pp. $22.95 cloth; pb. $12.95.
Sylvia Wallace Holton. Down Home and Uptown: The Representation of Black Speech in American Fiction. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1984. 216 pp. $28.50.
Trudier Harris. Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. 234 pp. $22.50.
Houston A. Baker, Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. 227 pp. $19.95.

Black literature and the criticism concerning it seem perpetually caught up in ideological battles. The pattern continues today with the emergence of black feminism, of a formalist semiotics and deconstruction in black criticism, and of the antiformalism of Houston Baker and others. At the heart of this ideological contention is the situation in which black literature comes into being. Given the history of dehumanization and oppression of blacks in the United States, including for most of that history a denial of the right to literacy and expression, the assertion of a black voice and a black perspective is inherently political in nature. In this context, it is not surprising that positions on the literature invariably have a political as well as asethetic meaning. The works discussed here follow the pattern as they examine black women writers, black language, black history, and [End Page 730] the connections among folklore, ideology, and literature; implicitly or explicitly, the analysis of literature serves as a means of commenting on black life in America.

The first work under consideration would seem to be completely apolitical. Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, first published in 1942, and now issued in a new edition with an Introduction by her biographer Robert Hemenway, has little to say about racism and in fact rather clearly asserts that race had little to do with the author's life experiences. But as Hemenway points out, such silence is itself apparently an accommodation to the intended white audience of the book. It does not mention the unpleasant racial incidents in Hurston's life and, moreover, has little to say about the Harlem Renaissance, in which she was a leading figure. In addition, a chapter that was political in that it called into question the imperialism of Europe and the United States was deleted before the book was published. It is printed for the first time in an Appendix in this new edition. What Hurston emphasizes are her early life in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, with its rich folk life, her opportunities for education at Barnard and the related expeditions to collect folklore, and her positive relationships with white friends and patrons. In his thoughtful Introduction, Hemenway attributes this design of the life story to what he calls biculturalism, Hurston's commitment to both her folk past and to her education and career in anthropology. The folk experience was the source of vitality and richness in her life, and she devoted her efforts to recording and promoting it. The training that enabled her to do this effectively also led her to value objectivity and a larger view of life. These two impulses, to preserve and to transcend, caused her to denigrate efforts at social protest and justice. The folk world tended to see the relationships between blacks and whites as unalterable, and the scientific perspective tended to see politics as a subjective intrusion on the analysis of reality. The end result for Hurston, as Hemenway points out, was that she defended the status quo, going so far as to attack the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school integration. The value of the new edition of Dust Tracks, in addition to presenting us with one version of the life of one of black literature's more intriguing and influential figures, is that it reminds us that the black response to American experience is never monolithic.

The collection of essays on black women writers edited by Mari Evans is interesting in part because...

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