- Lying Up a NationZora Neale Hurston and the Local Uses of Diaspora
When Zora Neale Hurston set out to construct a journey of self-discovery for her most famous heroine, Janie, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, she chose mud. “My next book is to be a novel about a woman who was from childhood hungry for life and the earth, but because she had beautiful hair, was always being skotched upon a flag-pole by the men who loved her and forced her to sit there,” Hurston wrote to William Stanley Hoole in 1936. “At forty she got her chance at mud. Mud, lush and fecund with a buck Negro called Teacake. He took her down into the Everglades where people worked and sweated and loved and died violently, where no such thing as flag-poles for women existed” (Hurston, Letters 366–67). In the novel Janie’s struggle to find personal fulfillment follows a trajectory of increasing social embeddedness; her liberation is won not outside, but within, the black social mores of rural southern Florida. Janie’s brief, joyful life in the muck of the Everglades gives the lie to Nanny’s observation, near the beginning of the novel, that “colored folks is branches without roots” (187). In Their Eyes Were Watching God, roots are everything: they offer a foundation for participation, a measure of freedom, a template upon which to negotiate the terms of the living.
In this essay I argue that Hurston’s celebration of roots throughout her literary canon offers a provocative and instructive template for thinking about the African diaspora as a conceptual building block for local political action. “Diaspora” has been invoked in a variety of contexts, in a number of disciplines, and for a variety of purposes over the last twenty years, most usefully as a dynamic vehicle for individual and group identity formation (Clifford, Routes 250). In pursuit of this goal, scholars of the African diaspora have gravitated towards black intellectuals—several of them Hurston’s contemporaries—who embraced transnational movement and the transcendence of physical and conceptual borders, striving for alternative modes of contact and affinity beyond the confines of the racially-coded nation-state. Yet if these Transatlantic alliances have illuminated modern definitions of blackness and belonging in an abstract sense, they have proven problematic in a broadly political one; never has the African diaspora seemed more “imagined” than in those moments in which historical actors have sought to translate evocations of unity into concrete transnational political solidarities.1 If the concept of diaspora relies rhetorically on the imaginative transcendence of space and borders, it has proven useful—like all forms of identity—within space and borders, to the extent that it can be negotiated by embedded communities, legible in the context of deep-rooted social and cultural traditions, and forged into raw material for political participation.
As her literary peers chafed at the artificial and restrictive bonds of their racially-defined [End Page 130] communities, and sought to enrich their artistic and political perspectives abroad, Hurston traveled deep into the South to observe the local dynamics of black identity formation. Hurston’s life-long effort to gain privileged access to black folk communities implied neither a valorization of those communities nor an insensitivity to their limitations; rather, it reflected Hurston’s conviction that there was more to be gained not by stepping outside and around social and cultural relations, but by understanding, and engaging in, the negotiations that shaped them. While others explored forms of diasporic consciousness built on the pursuit of transnational affinities, Hurston suggested that such connections were meaningless unless rooted in particular places, useful for specific communities and at specific moments. If identification with an African diaspora requires an imagination that stretches far beyond one’s own porch, for Hurston it was enacted from the inside-out. It was built out of the mud.
Approaching the concept of the African diaspora from this angle has the important benefit of restoring communities—and especially women—to the center of the analysis. In recent years, there has been a concerted push to celebrate the efforts of women in the study of diaspora. Far...