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  • A Tale of Three Zoras:Barbara Johnson and Black Women Writers
  • Hortense J. Spillers (bio)

Talking about Zora Neale Hurston is like approaching the Sphinx—so much riddle, so many faces, and all of it occurring on fairly high holy ground since Alice Walker's remarkable discovery a couple of decades ago.1 But Barbara Johnson's criticism cracks the code on Her Majesty and brings the sign vehicle—"Zora Neale Hurston"—to the table of juxtapositions and comparisons. There is the iconic Hurston, whose positioning between the Harlem Renaissance2 and the post-World War II writers gives her a priority of status that marks the woman artist's entry into literary modernism. The latter, in its variety of contexts and alignments, opened the way to certain experimental forms for these writers and might not have been completed as a systematic gesture before the late sixties and early seventies, when this generation of practitioners was free to create antiheroic figures and to probe the limits of representability. In short, with Zora Neale Hurston a window is pried open, a breeze blows through, and by the time of Toni Morrison's Beloved, an opening has become a prospect, a landscape of vistas of possibility. We can think of Hurston, then, as an enabler, who was not particularly encouraged by the literary politics of her age, from first to last; whether by the "maledom" of Harlem Renaissance avenues to reward and achievement, or by the paradigm shift of race politics in the 1950s,3 Hurston seems to have been equipped with the uncanny ability to create a kind of chaos, to behave outside the parameters of fashion, and to create dimensions of the mythical about her as she modeled versions of self.

In her role as classically trained anthropologist and folklorist, Hurston is considered today one of the major theoreticians of black culture.4 Her collections of lore, a [End Page 94] motherlode of a southern-centered orality,5 of the countryside, are fruitfully poised against the displaced metaphysical traditions of discourse that we especially associate with figures like Alain Locke and W. E. B. DuBois.6 As it now appears, the oppositional currents that run between the Hurstonian and the DuBoisian figurations have yet to be reconciled: the latter is text-based, and the former exceeds the abiding centrality of the word. Barbara Johnson argues in A World of Difference that Hurston "tried to explain the difference between a reified 'art' and a living culture in which distinctions between spectator and spectacle, rehearsal and performance, experience and representation are not fixed" [159]. For Hurston, folklore was "'the arts of the people before they find out that there is such a thing as art.'" For Hurston, unlike DuBois, for example, black culture was not a project in the modality of Bildung, or the Hegelian notion, but, rather, a repertoire of gestures that might be said to belong to a second skin—the kinetic thing that is done or said.

From our current perspective, what Hurston called "folklore" and what offered the occasion for the ethnographic foray might be given other names, though renaming these acts and gestures of the everyday does not make it any easier to reconcile the conceptual split in black culture theory between textuality and orality, or between "urban" and "countryside." But all of these locutions have been essentially eviscerated by radical changes in the availability and transmission of consumer goods that have rendered US local and indigenous cultures virtually indistinguishable from Jackson, Mississippi to Boston, Massachusetts. Take any interstate network across the land, east to west, or north to south: between McDonald's and the food/gas mart, scattered along ten- to twenty-mile sequences of roadway, one is quite astonished at the sameness and homogeneity of motifs that have translated particularity into an item of commerce and exchange. At one time, the critics were calling this outcome the postmodern flow, but my own hunch is that this apparent repetition and replication of the same are riddled with a variety of timbres and accents, still, that the Hurston ear was so sharp to articulate and define six decades ago. And in that intricate choreography between the life...