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  • Dust Tracks on the PageZora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon and Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Hildegard Hoeller (bio)

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Excusee me I cry. I can’t help it when I hear de name call. Oh, Lor’. I no see Afficky soil no mo’! . . . Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say “Yeah, I know Kossula.” I want you everwhere you go to tell everybody whut Cudjo say, and how come I in Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’.

Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon

In the opening lines of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston contrasts the situation and subjectivity of men, whose “dreams [are] mocked to death by Time,” with that of women, whose “dream is truth.”1 Beginning her novel in this way, Hurston [End Page 191] clearly highlights gendered differences between men and women and their stories and thus encourages the feminist readings of her novel that have ensued. What has gone unnoticed, however, is that in this opening passage Hurston also leaves traces of her text Barracoon, clues indicating that her later novel can be read as a fictional response to her earlier nonfictional work about one man’s loss of hope. In 1931, Hurston completed a manuscript entitled “Barracoon”—published in 2018 for the first time—that tells the story of Cudjo Lewis or Kazoola, known as the last survivor of the last slave ship, the famous Clotilda, which brought a final cargo of enslaved people to Mobile, Alabama, in 1859.2 Lewis “never lost sight” of Africa and always hoped to return to his homeland; however, in the end, he never saw Africa again and lived a life of pain and loss and unfulfilled dreams until his death in 1935. When Hurston met him in 1927 and again in 1928 (Barracoon, 6) to listen to his story, she found a man whose “dreams” had given way to the passage of time and events that made a mockery of those dreams (Their Eyes, 9). His words were full of despair at never having been able to return to Africa, and he saw in Hurston one last chance to narrate the story of his separation from his home soil. Examining the opening lines of her novel in light of Barracoon suggests that Hurston wrote Their Eyes as a counterpoint to the earlier text about Cudjo Lewis, “now” turning from men and their “resignation” and toward women and their “dreams.” Indeed, Hurston left so many “dust tracks” or intertextual links between the two texts that Barracoon emerges as a kind of originary text for Their Eyes. Hurston, enacting the literal meaning of the word “intertexos,” intertwines the two texts by rewriting and reinscribing Barracoon in her novel Their Eyes, signaling that the intertextual link between the two texts is constitutive of the later novel’s meaning.3

This essay follows these “dust tracks” of Barracoon in Their Eyes and details how rereading Their Eyes through its intertextual connections to Barracoon changes and enriches our understanding of Hurston’s famous novel and contributes new insights to some of the most central and perplexing critical issues that have been raised about it. The first section, “The Composition of Dreams,” argues that Hurston’s arduous and protracted effort to compose Barracoon offers a new context for our understanding of the famously rapid composition of Their Eyes. Hurston’s novel reworks and uses key elements of the earlier text, and, by virtue of being...


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pp. 191-217
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