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Autoethnography: The An-Archic Style of Dust Tracks on a Road

One is an artist at the cost of regarding that which all nonartists call “form” as content, as “the matter itself.” To be sure, then one belongs in a topsy-turvy world: for henceforth content becomes something merely formal—our life included.

Nietzsche, 1888

The words do not count. . . . The tune is the unity of the thing.

Zora Neale Hurston, 1942

The greatness of a man is to be found not in his acts but in his style.

Frantz Fanon, 1952

One need only glance at the table of contents of Hurston’s autobiography to notice that it presents itself as a set of interactive thematic topoi superimposed on a loosely chronological framework. The seemingly linear progression from “My Birthplace” to “Looking Things Over” is more deceptive in that regard than truly indicative of a narrator’s psychological development, quest for recognition, or journey from innocence to experience as traditionally represented in confessional autobiographies. The chapter titled “Seeing the World as It Is,” with which Hurston originally meant to conclude the book,1 is a philosophical essay on power, politics, and human relations on a planetary scale. It is the radical testament of a writer who rejects ressentiment and, refusing to align herself with any “party,” explains that it is because she does “not have much of a herd instinct” (344–45). Rather than recounting the events of her life, Hurston is more interested in showing us who she is—or, to be more precise, how she has become what she is— an individual who ostensibly values her independence more than any kind of political commitment to a cause, especially the cause of “Race Solidarity,” as she puts it (327). Hers is a controversial and genealogical enterprise that has been much criticized, charged with accommodation-ism (xxxviii) and with disappointing the expectations of “frankness” and “truthfulness” which are all too often unquestioningly linked to this genre of self-writing.2 Openly critical of Dust Tracks in his Introduction to the second edition, her biographer, Robert Hemenway, puts it thus: “Style . . . becomes a kind of camouflage, an escape from articulating the paradoxes of her personality” (xxxviii and see xxxiv-xxxv, for example).

An-archy and Community

In light of the skepticism with which contemporary literary theory has taught us to view any effort of self-representation in language, I would like to propose a different approach to the issue of Hurston’s presumed insincerity and untrustworthiness.3 It may perhaps be more useful to reconsider Dust Tracks on a Road not as autobiography but rather as self-portrait, in the sense redefined by Michel Beau-jour—“des textes qui se tiennent par eux-mêmes, plutôt que la mimesis d’actions passees”4—and to try to elaborate a conceptual framework that would not conflict with Hurston’s own avowed methodology as essayist and anthropologist. Indeed, what I would like to suggest here is that Dust Tracks amounts to autoethnography, that is, the defining of one’s subjective ethnicity as mediated through language, history, and ethnographical analysis; in short, that the book amounts to a kind of “figural anthropology” of the self.5

In a recent essay, James Clifford refers to the “allegory of salvage,” which generally tended to dominate the representational practice of fieldworkers in the era of Boasian anthropology. For these field-workers, says Clifford, the preservation of disappearing cultures and vanishing lore was seen as the vital “redemption” of the “otherness” of primitive cultures from a global entropy: “The other is lost, in disintegrating time and place, but saved in the text.”6 This textualization of the object of representation incorporated a move from the oral-discursive field experience of the collector of folklore to his or her written version of that initial intersubjective moment—a transcription that is also a way of speaking for the other culture, a kind of ventriloquism. Having been trained under Boas, Hurston was supposed to be going in the field to do just that: to salvage her own “vanishing” Negro culture. Her position of fundamental liminality—being at once a participant in and an observer of her culture—would bring home to her the distorting effects of that problematic shift from orality to fixed, rigid textuality and thus would reinforce her skepticism about the anthropological project, in her assigned role as detached, objective interpreter and translator. Having shared in that rural culture during her childhood in Eatonville, she could not adopt the nostalgic pose common to those Western ethnographies that implicitly lament the loss of an Edenic, and preindustrial past. Instead, her skepticism about the writing of culture would permeate the writing of the self, the autobiography, turning it into the allegory of an ethnographic project that self-consciously moves from the general (the history of Eatonville) to the particular (Zora’s life, her family and friends) and back to the general (religion, culture, and world politics in the 1940s). Unlike black spiritual autobiographies, which exhibit a similar threefold pattern of death, conversion, and rebirth, as well as a strong sense of transcendent purpose, Dust Tracks does not seek to legitimate itself through appeal to what William L. Andrews has called a “powerful source of authorization,” such as religion or another organized system of belief.7 It is in that sense that Dust Tracks is a powerfully an-archic work, not anchored in any original and originating story of racial or sexual difference.

The tone of the work and its rhetorical strategy of exaggeration draw attention to its style and away from what it directly denotes. For example, the statement “There were no discrete nuances of life on Joe Clarke’s porch . . . all emotions were naked and nakedly arrived at” (62) describes the men’s reactions to instances of adultery (a folksy topic), but it also carries historical implications about the pioneer spirit in general, as the sentence that follows it makes clear: “This was the spirit of that whole new part of the state at the time, as it always is where men settle new lands” (62). Similarly, when Zora talks about her unhappy love affair, it is through vivid images that convey, with some irony, the universality of pain rather than deep personal anguish: “I freely admit that everywhere I set my feet down, there were tracks of blood. Blood from the very middle of my heart” (260). Regretting the “halcyon days” of childhood, she bemoans the gravity that pervades adulthood and makes us unable to “fly with the unseen things that soar” (78). And when she is discussing race, her denial—“No, instead of Race Pride being a virtue, it is a sapping vice” (325)—implicates us directly in that seemingly volatile statement instead of pointing us to the obvious historical context of the moment, that is, the rise of fascism, World War II, colonialism, the hypocrisy and self-satisfaction of “the blond brother” (343), and the preponderance of “instances of human self-bias” (281). Clearly, Dust Tracks does not gesture toward a coherent tradition of introspective self-examination with soul-baring displays of emotion.

Paradoxically, despite its rich cultural content, the work does not authorize unproblematic recourse to culturally grounded interpretations. It is an orphan text that attempts to create its own genealogy by simultaneously appealing to and debunking the cultural traditions it helps to redefine. Hurston’s chosen objects of study, for example, the folktales that come alive during the storytelling, or “lying,” sessions she observes, are indeed never “fixed.” Their content is not rigid and unchanging but varies according to the taletelling situation. It is the contextual frame of reference, the situation of the telling, that determines how a tale is reinterpreted by each new teller; hence, for the anthropologist, there is no “essential” quality to be isolated in the content of those tales, but there is a formal structure that can and must be recognized if she is to make sense of, and do justice to, the data gathered. The chapter titled “Research” puts the matter clearly and succinctly:

I enjoyed collecting folk-tales and I believed the people from whom I collected them enjoyed the telling of them, just as much as I did the hearing. Once they got started, the “lies” just rolled and story-tellers fought for a chance to talk. It was the same thing with the songs. The one thing to be guarded against, in the interest of truth, was over-enthusiasm. For instance, if the song was going good, and the material ran out, the singer was apt to interpolate pieces of other songs into it. The only way you can know when that happens, is to know your material so well that you can sense the violation. Even if you do not know the song that is being used for padding, you can tell the change in rhythm and tempo. The words do not count. The subject matter in Negro folk-songs can be anything and go from love to work, to travel, to food, to weather, to fight, to demanding the return of a wig by a woman who has turned unfaithful. The tune is the unity of the thing. And you have to know what you are doing when you begin to pass on that, because Negroes can fit in more words and leave out more and still keep the tune better than anyone I can think of. [197–98; my italics].

The whole issue of form and content, style and message is astutely condensed here. “Truth” is clearly a matter of degree and can easily be distorted by the over-enthusiasm of the performer. If over-enthusiasm can be seen as another word for hyperbole, then Hurston the writer is hereby cautioning her own reader to defer judgment about the explicit referentiality of her text. Why come to it with preconceived notions of autobiographical truth when the tendency to make hyperbolic and over-enthusiastic statements about her subject matter is part of her “style” as a writer? Couldn’t we see in this passage Hurston’s own implicit theory of reading and thus use it to derive our interpretive practice from the text itself, instead of judging the work according to Procrustean notions of autobiographical form?

Hurston is fully aware of the gaps and discrepancies that can exist between intention and execution, reality and representation, reason and imagination, in short, between the words (or subject matter) and the tune, which is the source of unity for the singers on the porch. For her, too, the flow of creative energy is an imaginative transfiguration of literal truth/content through rhetorical procedures. The resulting text/performance thus transcends pedestrian notions of referentiality, for the staging of the event is part of the process of “passing on,” of elaborating cultural forms, which are not static and inviolable but dynamically involved in the creation of culture itself. It is thus not surprising that Hurston should view the self, and especially the “racial self,” as a fluid and changing concept, an arbitrary signifier with which she had better dispense if it is meant to inhibit (as any kind of reductive labeling might) the inherent plasticity of individuals.8 Viewed from such an angle, Dust Tracks, far from being a “camouflage” and an “escape,” does indeed exemplify the “paradoxes of her personality” by revealing a fluid and multidimensional self that refuses to allow itself to be framed and packaged for the benefit of those human, all-too-human mortals, “both black and white who [claim] special blessings on the basis of race” (235).

Indeed, in the case of the folkloric forms she studies, the plasticity of the “subject matter” of songs and tales is corroborated by her research experience in the field; if we can be justified in seeing the “subject” of the autobiography and the “subject matter” of folklore as homologous structures or topoi that reflect and mirror each other, then the dialogue between these homologies shapes the autobiographical text while revealing the paradoxes of the genre. This dialogue serves to illuminate Hurston’s combined identities as anthropologist and writer as these simultaneously begin to emerge and to converge in Dust Tracks. In the process of articulating their differences, she actually establishes their inescapable similarities, prefiguring the practice of such theorists as Clifford Geertz or Victor Turner. As Hemenway rightly points out, “Zora never became a professional academic folklorist because such a vocation was alien to her exuberant sense of self, to her admittedly artistic, sometimes erratic temperament, and to her awareness of the esthetic content of black folklore.”9 But this psychologizing approach does not suffice to clarify the work and to explain Hurston’s liminal position, her confident straddling of “high” (academic) and “low” (folk) cultures, the ease with which she brings to the theoretical enterprise of the academic collector of lore the insights and perceptivity of the teller of tales. What makes the autobiography interesting is that it unfolds the structures of meaning—the cultural “topics” that are discussed chapter by chapter (history, geography, mythology, kinship, education, work, travel, friendship, love, religion, politics, philosophy, etc.)—through which the creative artist gives shape to her personal experiences as seen through the “spy-glass” of anthropology.10

Moving away from what might be the sterile analyses of a field-worker to the inspirational language of an artist, Hurston involves herself and her reader in a transformative process. She does not just record, describe, and represent; she transforms and is transformed by her autobiographical performance. To look at life from an aesthetic point of view and to celebrate her ethnic heritage are thus two complementary projects for her. Life is an aesthetic experience, a staged performance, reflected in the autobiography as well as the fictional writings, and literature is a means of recording with what Hemenway identifies as “a studied antiscientific approach” the lives and subjective realities of a particular people in a specific time and place.11 It is this apparently antagonistic movement between life and literature, reality and its representation, orality and literacy, which informs the structural coherence of Dust Tracks, rather than the simply linear progression through the lived life. What the text puts in motion is a strategy of displacement regarding the expectations governing two modes of discourse: the “objective” exteriority is that of the autobiographer whose “inside search” does not bear out its promise of introspection, and the “intimate” tone is that of the anthropologist who implicates herself in her “research” by delving into Hoodoo, by performing initiation rites, and in an ironic and clever reversal of the ventriloquism of ethnography, by letting her informants inform us about Zora’s persona in the field. As Big Sweet puts it, “You ain’t like me. You don’t even sleep with no mens. . . . I think it’s nice for you to be like that. You just keep on writing down them lies” (189).

So, if Hurston sometimes seems to be aspiring toward some kind of “raceless ideal,” it is not because she is interested in the “universality” of human experiences. Quite the contrary, she wants to expose, as Hemenway explains, “the inadequacy of sterile reason to deal with the phenomena of living.”12 And “race” in that context is but a reasonable, pseudoscientific category for dealing with a basically fluid, diverse, and multifarious reality: “The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost” (279). Her philosophical position in Dust Tracks is in fact echoed more than twenty years later by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth: “This historical necessity in which the men of African culture find themselves, that is, the necessity to racialize their claims and to speak more of African culture, than of national culture, will lead them up a blind alley.” Warning that the undefined and vague entity “African culture” was a creation of European colonialism, Fanon chose to emphasize local historically and geographically specific contingencies, rather than “race” as a general and abstract concept: “And it is also true that those who are most responsible for this racialization of thought—or at least of our patterns of thought—are and remain those Europeans who have never ceased to set up white culture over and against all other so-called non-cultures [d’opposer la culture blanche aux autres incultures].”13 Similarly, Hurston’s interest in the folk communities of Eatonville, Polk County, Mobile, New Orleans, Nassau, Jamaica, and Haiti stemmed from the belief that the universal can only be known through the specific and that knowledge grounded in first-hand experience can yield more insights into the human condition and into the processes of acculturation, differentiation, and historicization to which human beings are subjected. I would thus argue that her unstated aim is identical to Fanon’s later formulation: to destroy the white stereotype of black inculture not by privileging “blackness” as an oppositional category to “whiteness” in culture but by unequivocally showing the vitality and diversity of nonwhite cultures around the Caribbean and the coastal areas of the South, thereby dispensing completely with “white” as a concept and a point of reference. Unlike the proponents of the negritude movement, whose initial thrust was against white racism and prejudice, Hurston assumes the supremely confident posture of the anthropologist who need not justify the validity of her enterprise but can simply affirm by her study the existence of richly varied black cultures, thus delineating the semiotics of spaces where, in Houston Baker’s words, “white culture’s representations are squeezed to zero volume, producing a new expressive order.”14

What must not be overlooked, therefore, in the passage I quoted from “Research” is the emphasis Hurston puts on contextual considerations and the implicit distinctions she then draws between her own position as anthropologist observing the event and the role of the singers directly involved in the performance. For example, it is important for the anthropologist—and for the literary critic attempting to model her approach on Hurston’s—to know the “material,” that is, to be steeped in the historical, geographical, and vernacular contexts of the “songs” in order to be able to determine where “pieces of other songs” are “interpolated” and used as “padding” when the original material “ran out.” Does Hurston imply that there is a certain autonomy of the original text which is violated by the interpolation of fragments of other songs? It would seem, rather, that as an anthropologist she feels that it is important to make those kinds of distinctions; yet she recognizes that for the singers the question is unimportant. The song goes on; the participants collectively “keep the tune” and do not worry about the singularity or inviolability of a given text or song. In other words, the question of intertextuality or of hybridization of content is not significant for the artists (they do not see it as a transgression of rules of identity), however important it may be for the observer who wants to be able to determine where one particular song ends and the next one starts. The question of boundaries is thus raised and examined by the anthropologist while the artist in her recognizes both the futility of such conceptual distinctions and how severely limiting it is to try to establish the “true” identity and originality of the subject matter— or of authorial subjectivity, permeated as it is by the polyphonic voices of the community, which resonate throughout the text and thereby reflect different narrative stances, different points of view on life and on Zora herself.15 Indeed, since “no two moments are any more alike than two snowflakes” (264), there is no inconsistency in presenting a multitude of personae and being nonetheless sincere. As a folk aphorism puts it, “Li’l flakes make de deepest snow,” or what appears to be homogeneous is in fact a complicated layering of vastly disparate elements.

The chapter “Seeing the World as It Is” emphasizes Hurston’s intentions and method: “I do not wish to close the frontiers of life upon my own self. I do not wish to deny myself the expansion of seeking into individual capabilities and depths by living in a space whose boundaries are race and nation” (330). Clearly, race and nation are singled out here as colonizing signs produced by an es-sentializing and controlling power (“Race Pride” 324–28) external to the inner self and bent on denying her access to “spaces” other than the ones to which she ostensibly belongs by virtue of her concrete situation. Her free-spirited call for “less race consciousness” (326) is to be understood in the context of her unabashed denunciation of “democracy” as just another name for selfish profiteering by the West at the expense of those “others” who live far away from the so-called democratic nations of Europe and America (338). These subversive and politically anarchic statements—which provoked the Procrustean editing of the autobiography—are the logical consequence of the ethnographer’s skepticism. Because she remains radically critical without proposing positive and totalizing alternatives, she exemplifies a truly philosophical sensibility.16 Her urge to ask questions rather than to propose solutions invites and provokes her readers to think beyond the commonplaces and received ideas of our cultures, beyond those proverbial voices of the community, the vox populi, ouï-dire, Heideggerian Gerede, or Barthesian bêtise—always rendered in free indirect speech—which enunciate the webs of beliefs that structure local consciousness of self.17 Reporting those quotidian voices, she establishes cultural context, but by her skeptical detachment, she undermines the gregarious values of the group, whether it is the folk community (involved in “specifying” [186, 304], in “adult double talk” [62], and whose verbal creativity is nonetheless celebrated) or the social consensus that articulates interdictions and contradictions of all sorts (“This book-reading business was a hold-back and an unrelieved evil” [117]; “Not only is the scholastic rating at Howard high, but tea is poured in the manner!” [156]; “If it was so honorable and glorious to be black, why was it the yellow-skinned people among us had so much prestige?” [226]). These “common” values are now made available for parody. She thus opens up a space of resistance between the individual (auto-) and the collective (-ethno-) where the writing (-graphy) of singularity cannot be foreclosed.

Yet, a nagging question remains: how can Hurston’s historical, embodied self, subject to the determinants of time and place—an Afro-American woman confronting racism and a world war—represent the site of a privileged resistance to those webs of belief which might encourage resentment and fixation on an unjust and painful past? As she puts it:“To me, bitterness is the under-arm odor of wishful weakness. It is the graceless acknowledgment of defeat” (280). Since both the perpetrators and the immediate victims of slavery are long dead and since she has “no personal memory of those times, and no responsibility for them” (282), she affirms that she would rather “turn all [her] thoughts and energies on the present” (284). This affirmation of life against “the clutching hand of Time” (284) is a creative release from the imposition of origin and the prison of history. Zora becomes a joyful Zarathustra, whose world is no longer limited and bound by the reality principle and who advocates deliverance from the spirit of revenge. But can this visionary posture of the self-portraitist allow for a positive involvement in the shaping of reality, present and future? How can it be reconciled with the anthropological claim to locally specific knowledge and with the historical novelist’s success in drawing the suggestive allegorical fresco of a mythic Afro-Mediterranean past in Moses, Man of the Mountain?

Since Fanon, too, denounced revenge and fixation on the past as “a crystallization of guilt” (BSWM 228), perhaps he can provide some answer to the questions we ask of Hurston. If resentment is the essence of negative potentiality for the self, it is clear why Hurston rejects it outright. She wants the utmost freedom in “seeking into individual capabilities.” Her refusal to adopt the “herd” mentality for the sake of solidarity actually places her in a long tradition of thinkers—Heraclitus, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, Frantz Fanon, and Roland Barthes—all essayists or masters of hyperbolic aphorisms. Fanon, in particular, was well aware of the peculiarly racial dilemma facing the children of the colonialist diaspora: their marginality could not simply be articulated in terms of binary categories of black versus white. Fanon’s plea against racialist attitudes thus echoes Hurston’s reformulation of freedom and responsibility on a planetary scale:

I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the past of my race. [228].

I find myself—I, a man—in a world where words wrap themselves in silence; in a world where the other endlessly hardens himself. . . .

I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny.

I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. [229]

It is through the effort to recapture the self and to scrutinize the self, it is through the lasting tension of their freedom that men will be able to create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world. [231; my italics]

The wish to “create . . . ideal conditions of existence” is synonymous here with the fight against all petit bourgeois mental habits that tend to favor manifestations of closure. Fanon wants to demythologize history and to prevent it from being used as the source of “reactional” behavior because, as “Nietzsche had already pointed out” and as he himself elaborates, “there is always resentment in a reaction(BSWM 222). While severely criticizing his fellow colonized intellectuals for simply reproducing the values of the colonizer in adopting racialist thinking, Fanon did not hesitate to state that the quest for disalienation must be mediated by the refusal to accept the “Tower of the Past” (BSWM 226) and the problems of the present as definitive, in other words, by the belief that only the poetry of the future can move and inspire human beings to action and to revolution. Unlike Fanon, Hurston did not develop the visionary perspective into a revolutionary one, but her mystical desire to be one with the universe stems from a similar utopian need for a “waking dream”18 of the possible which might inspire us to see beyond the constraints of the here and now to the idealized vision of a perfect future, albeit, in Dust Tracks, a life after death in which the substance of her being is again “part and parcel of the world” and “one with the infinite” (279). Both Fanon and Hurston suggest that we urgently need to retrieve those past traditions that can become the source of reconciliation and wholeness, for it is more important to learn from those traditions than to dwell on pain and injustice.

For Hurston, “the effort to recapture . . . and to scrutinize the self” is a project grounded in the quicksand of linguistic performance and thus inseparable from what Beaujour has called “a type of memory, both very archaic and very modern, by which the events of an individual life are eclipsed by the recollection of an entire culture.” As Michael M. J. Fischer has stressed, ethnic memory is not only past- but future-oriented, and the dynamics of interpersonal knowledge within the intercultural strands of memory are inseparable from Hurston’s project of self-portraiture, since to recapture the past is literally to create a new field of knowledge within her academic discipline : “If science ever gets to the bottom of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than the gestures of ceremony” (205).19 By suggesting historically valid mythological connections between ancient deities and prophets such as Isis and Persephone, on the one hand, and Damballah, Thoth, and Moses, on the other, and between those figures and the “two-headed” magicians of Hoodoo (191), who know the creative power of words, Hurston leaves the door open for a historical revision both of Hoodoo religion and of antiquity, implying “two-headed” Egyptian and Greek origins for both Euro- and Afro-Americans. Because such a thesis would have been rejected by contemporary scholars, who then followed the “Aryan model” of antiquity, Hurston can only allude to it through literature.20

A comparison of the thematic similarities in Hurston’s work does show that she was quite consciously using those ancient “personae” as multiple facets of her own self and of her own Afro-Mediterranean genealogy. One of her first published stories, “Drenched in Light,” tells the story of Isis Watts, a protagonist who is clearly autobiographical, as is Isis Potts of Jonah’s Gourd Vine.21 This same persona is reintroduced in Dust Tracks under the name Persephone. The similarity of the protagonists suggests that the three narratives form a triptych: it is only by taking into consideration the mythological background of the protagonists’ names that we can accurately understand the process of self-discovery through self-invention which characterizes Hurston’s method. Tellingly, this process is a search for familial and maternal connections, for “mirrors” that can reflect positive aspects of the past instead of alienating images of subaltern faces.

History and Memory

It is thus significant that the only events of her “private” life on which Hurston dwells in Dust Tracks are those that have deep symbolic and cultural value: the death of the mother and subsequent dispersion of the siblings echo the collective memory of her people’s separation from Africa-as-mother and their ineluctable diaspora. That is why Kossola/Cudjo Lewis’s story emblematizes her own sense of bereavement and deprivation: “After seventy-five years, he still had that tragic sense of loss. That yearning for blood and cultural ties. That sense of mutilation. It gave me something to think about” (204). Coming at the end of the “Research” chapter, the embedded narrative of Kossola’s life serves as a powerful counterpoint to Zora’s own story of strife and reconciliation with her brothers (172–73). It is thanks to her research and professional travels that she becomes, like the legendary Isis of Egyptian mythology, the link that reunites, reconnects the dispersed siblings, who can now “touch each other in the spirit if not in the flesh.” The imagery that describes the disintegration of the family unit is a clear reminder of the historical conditions of the Middle Passage:

I felt the warm embrace of kin and kind for the first time since the night after my mother’s funeral, when we had huddled about the organ all sodden and bewildered, with the walls of our home suddenly blown down. On September 18th, that house had been a hovering home. September 19th, it had turned into a bleak place of desolation with unknown dangers creeping upon us from unseen quarters that made of us a whimpering huddle, though then we could not see why. But now that was all over. [173]

As private experiences echo collective ones and punctuate the deployment of the self-portrait, a picture of the fieldworker as keeper of important knowledge, as go-between whose role is to facilitate the articulation of collective memory, emerges. By foregrounding the field research as the causal link to an empowering reunion with her scattered siblings, Hurston deploys much broader implications for the social lives of Afro-Americans. She implies that connections to the past must not be severed if we are to regain a sense of what it is like to “touch each other in the spirit” and also that a sense of history must not be allowed to degenerate into the remembrance of paralyzing images. That is why she also remarks that “any religion that satisfies the individual urge is valid for that person” (205). Since ancient traditions such as Hoodoo contain, as Hemenway says, “the old, old mysticism of the world in African terms,” they are useful to a “thick description” of cultural nuances, and they help demarcate the historical context relevant to the study of folklore.22

Hurston’s aim is to maintain the integrity of black culture without diluting it and to celebrate its values while remaining critical of those pressures from within the “family” which can mutilate individual aspirations—as her eldest brother Bob had been guilty of doing to her when she went to live with him, hoping that he would help put her through school, only to find herself playing the role of maid to his wife. It is this de facto lack of solidarity among “brothers” which Hurston observes and which forms the basis for her critique of a blanket endorsement of simpleminded, universal “Race Solidarity” (327) or of the pan-Africanism that in the thirties and forties must have sounded disturbingly like pan-Germanism, whose evil historical consequences were well understood. The text of Dust Tracks thus shuttles between appreciation and opprobrium, finding its impetus in the joyful affirmation of its contradictions. To recall the past in order to transcend it, Fanon will also point out, is the only emancipatory stance we can confidently adopt without risk of falling prey to reactionary forces.

Thus, the chapter titled “Religion” reveals Hurston’s total indifference to the “consolation” traditional religion affords: “I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance” (279). Her style subverts the need for “organized creeds,” which are but “collections of words around a wish” (278) and which Fanon will denounce as the motor of a “closed society . . . in which ideas and people are in a state of decay” (BSWM 224).23 Comfortable in the knowledge that the whole world exists in a Heraclitean flux of becoming, Hurston affirms a principle of eternal change based in her observation of the radical fluidity of inorganic, organic, social, and cultural forces:

Poetic speech has now replaced the folk idiom, the artist, the anthropologist. The distinction between form and content (“mysteries”) is made again but then put under erasure: “things merely change forms,” and content is never lost; yet knowledge of content is determined by the “great rigid forms” that structure the universe while veiling the motley appearance of “matter.” These allegories of death and rebirth, change and permanence, temporality and eternity, retroactively map the territory of the autobiographical text and the life it attempts to represent. By retracing those ephemeral “dust tracks” whose trajectory the table of contents surveys, Hurston seems to spiral out into infinity and the cosmos: “The cosmic Zora emerges,” as she writes in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (ILM 155). Her journey, like that of the storytellers who never leave the porch, is an itinerary through language, “a journeying by way of narrating,” as Alexander Gelley puts it. That is why it is impossible to make, on a theoretical level, “any clear-cut division between theme and form, between journey as geography and journey as narrative.”25 The “curve in the road” at which Hurston sees her first “vision” (93) is a mythical point of departure for the global adventure during which she will learn to take distance from the “tight chemise” and the “crib of negroism” (MM 3) that have shaped her. Distance alone can enable her to recognize and assemble the fragments of her changing folk culture in the New World, and because she is dealing with familiar territory, she does not run the risk of subjugating the “other” to her self, of making her subjects into marionettes for the benefit of those patrons who are only interested in the static, “primitive” aspects of her research. Engaged in a truly dialogical enterprise and not in the delusions of Boasian “pure objectivity” to which she alludes ironically (174), she can negotiate the terms of her insertion within and without the ethnographic field and can even parody popular beliefs with impunity: the jokes come naturally with the territory of storytelling.

Similarly, the discursive enterprise of self-portraiture is a process of collecting and gathering, of assembling images and metaphors to portray a figural self, always already caught in entropy and in permanent danger of returning to “dust,” of becoming again “part and parcel” of the universe. In what follows, then, I would like to examine briefly the textual mechanism that generates the journey of ethnic self-scrutiny, the slippage between particular and universal, individual and collective, daughter and mother(s), the self and its mythologies. In describing these displacements, I want to show how the collective functions as a silverless mirror, capable of absorbing the self into a duplicitous game in which one code, singularity, is set aslant by another, syncretic unity with the universe, thus preventing narrative closure.26 The tensions at work in Dust Tracks between these two sets of expectations (local versus universal knowledge) are not simply resolvable through (ethnographic) narrative. They constitute what Stephen Tyler has called the proper domain of “post-modern ethnography,” neither “the upward spiral into the Platonic . . . realm of conscious thought and faceless abstraction” nor the “descent ‘beneath the surface’ into the Plutonic ‘other of separation.’” Hurston’s approach to the study of culture indeed prefigures the future trend of the discipline as outlined by Tyler: “The ethnographic text will thus achieve its purposes not by revealing them, but by making purposes possible. It will be a text of the physical, the spoken, and the performed, an evocation of quotidian experience, a palpable reality that uses everyday speech to suggest what is ineffable, not through abstraction, but by means of the concrete. It will be a text to read not with the eyes alone, but with the ears in order to hear ‘the voices of the pages.’”27

Hurston, too, captures the voices of the people and relays them through the “lips of books,” which do not “announce” their purpose but braid “palpable reality” with the incommensurable, the quotidian with the ineffable. She makes it possible to envisage purposive, enabling, and empowering structures of meaning which do not coerce the subject into historically and Eurocentrically determined racial metaphors of the self. She succeeds in tracing a map of her territory—a symbolic geography—by using the same accomodating principles that governed the expedient building of roads over the winding footpath between Orlando and Maitland: the metaphor of the road that curves effortlessly around “the numerous big pine trees and oaks” (7) reinforces a principle of flexibility, a respect for nature rather than the need to dominate it, a pliability connoting the plasticity of human forms, the capacity to undergo mutations, to endure and survive hardships in that middle passage from birth to death, from mud to dust.

The allegory of the voyage that is only a return to one’s point of departure is already present in the first chapter, “My Birthplace.” The “three frontier-seekers” who embark for Brazil only to return to the United States prefigure Hurston, who journeys through black folklore in order to rediscover the “geography . . . within” (115), the lost community of her childhood in “A pure Negro town!” (9). Her search for an originary plenitude is the universal biblical “return to dust” at the end of the road of life—not the romantic nostalgia for a prelapsarian time of innocence. In that respect, the death of her mother represents the first moment in a chain of destabilizing experiences that forever undermine her sense of belonging to a specific place: “That hour began my wanderings. Not so much in geography, but in time. Then not so much in time as in spirit. Mama died at sundown and changed a world. That is, the world which had been built out of her body and her heart. Even the physical aspects fell apart with a suddenness that was startling” (89). The death scene of the speechless mother becomes the motivation for writing, for the effort of self-fashioning, which is also an effort to stave off death. Hurston’s wandering phase will be the result of this experience of absence and loss, which is repeated on different levels throughout the next chapters. The narrator attempts to fill the void of death by journeying and by narrating.

That is why it is interesting to note that the description of the mother’s death in Dust Tracks closely parallels the fictional rendering of that scene in Jonah’s Gourd Vine. Telling details are repeated almost word for word: “I could see the huge drop of sweat collected in the hollow at Mama’s elbow and it hurt me so” (DT 88) and “Isis saw a pool of sweat standing in a hollow at the elbow” (ILM 195); “I thought that she looked to me (DT 86). . . . I think she was trying to say something, and I think she was trying to speak to me” (DT 88) and “Isis thought her mother’s eyes followed her and she strained her ears to catch her words” (ILM 195). Isis is indeed the fictional alter ego Hurston chooses for herself, the name of an ancient Egyptian goddess who wandered the world in search of her dismembered brother, a mythical representation of interiority as experience of death. In Egyptian mythology, her brother, Osiris, is both the god of fertility (like Demeter/Ceres in the Greco-Roman myth) and the king and judge of the dead. He is also the companion of Thoth, god of death and of writing, who presides with him in the underworld. Hurston thus makes an implicit connection between the Osirian mysteries, which were tied to the cult of the dead and of which Isis was the high priestess, and the occult practices of Hoodoo, of which Hurston herself became an initiate. Having flippantly named herself the “queen of the niggerati” in one of her histrionic moments among her New York friends,28 Hurston then proceeded to develop (in the autobiographical triptych) in a mythically accurate and artistically sensible manner the theme of a life lived in the shadow of Isis/Per-sephone, queens of the underworld, of the “dark realm” of otherness. The persona Isis—both the goddess and the fictional daughter of Lucy Potts—is like the mirror that figures prominently in the mother’s death scene. She is an image of memory and interiority, an “other” who focuses, crystallizes, and gives sharp contours to the project of self-invention. She is an important thread in the process of re-membering one’s past and one’s own mortality as one pays homage to the dead and departed. Here, the folk custom of veiling the mirror (so that the dead may rest in peace and not trouble the living) is implicitly criticized: the dying mother suggests that the mirror should not be veiled if the past and the faces of our mothers in it are to leave their imprint on the memory of the living so that we may live in peace with history and be thus able to “think back through our mothers,” as Virginia Woolf believed it was important for women to be able to do.29

What the death scene allegorizes, then, is Hurston’s subtle and complex view of the relationship of individuals to culture and history: some elements of culture, because they are unexamined traditions, “village custom” (86), “mores” (89) upheld by the voices of patriarchy (the “village dames,” or phallic women, and the father, who together prevent her from fulfilling her mother’s wishes), are destructive and stultifying. The child’s (Isis’ and Zora’s) experience of anxiety and guilt is the result of those unexamined cultural myths that thwart the mother’s desire to remain imprinted on the daughter’s memory. As Adrienne Rich has put it, “The loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy.”30 The loss brought about by the patriarchal customs of the “village” is a painful enactment of separation and fragmentation, of lost connections to the mother as symbol of a veiled and occulted historical past. Albert Memmi and Frantz Fanon will both point out that our problem as colonized people (or gender) is that we all suffer from collective amnesia. The self-portrait Hurston draws in Dust Tracks is an anamnesis: not self-contemplation but a painstaking effort to be the voice of that occluded past, to fill the void of collective memory.

Indeed, Zora feels that her mother “depended on [her] for a voice” (87), and in Dust Tracks she chooses the mythical Persephone as alter ego. The Greek word for voice is phone and the scene of the mother’s death is symbolic of the daughter’s responsibility to articulate her story, to exhume it from the rubble of patriarchal obfuscation. Martin Bernal has pointed out that the Eleusinian story of Demeter searching for Persephone has its roots in the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris.31 By identifying with Persephone in Dust Tracks, Hurston makes a brilliant and sophisticated rapprochement between the two myths—a connection, says Bernal, that classicists who follow the “Aryan model” of antiquity have studiously avoided. Hurston approaches Afro-Mediterranean antiquity with the intuitions of the anthropologist who sees connections where traditional classical scholarship had not.

The displacement from Isis to Persephone as objective persona is significant in helping us understand Hurston’s feeling of being an orphan, of being cut off from her origins, or arche. “Isis” is the wanderer who conducts her research, establishes spatiotemporal connections among the children of the diaspora, and re-members the scattered body of folk material so that siblings can again “touch each other.” “Persephone,” on the other hand, is not a rescuer but rather a lost daughter whose mother searches for her with passion. She is an ambiguous figure “with her loving and hellish aspects.”32 Ironically, it is Zora’s reading of the Greco-Roman myth (“one of [her] favorites” [48]) during the visit of two white women at her school that attracts attention to her brilliance and configures her later “rescue” by other white mentors, friends who become surrogate mothers (like Helen in “Drenched in Light”). If, as Ronnie Scharfman has noted, “mirroring” and “mothering” are twin terms for defining the reciprocal nurturing bonds a female subject needs in order to feel anchored in the tradition linking her to her mother(s), then Zora’s vain efforts to prevent the veiling of the mirror in the mother’s room must be understood as an allegorical attempt to look into the mirror of her mother’s soul, to retain severed connections, to recapture and to “read” the dark face of the mother in the silverless mirror of the past, and to become the voice that bridges generations.33 Those efforts also prefigure her professional predicament as an adult. Persephone was the queen of Pluto’s dark realm of the dead, but she also traveled back and forth between the underworld and “the sunlit earth” (49), like Hurston, who retrieves the voices of her black culture in order to call her readers, in Karla Holloway’s words, “back to primal ground.” Caught between the upper and the lower realms, the black and the white world, life and death, she bridges the tragic gap of separation by writing. As Beaujour has explained, “the self-portrait tries to reunite two separate worlds, that of the living and that of the dead.”34

Her description of a ceremony in New Orleans in which she participates draws the obvious parallels: “I had to sit at the crossroads at midnight in complete darkness and meet the devil, and make a compact. There was a long, long hour as I sat flat on the ground there alone and invited the King of Hell” (192). Since we also know that fasting was an essential part of her initiation, the parallel with Persephone is even more convincing, for Persephone’s fate was to be Pluto’s queen for three months of each year because “she had bitten the pomegranate” (49). Cleansing by fasting is, of course, a common part of initiatory practices in many religions and underscores Hurston’s philosophy of the universal oneness of religious symbols.

When the child’s experience of absence in Dust Tracks becomes specifically racial, a new and negative dimension is added to the metaphor of the mirror. As Hurston puts it, “Jacksonville made me know that I was a little colored girl” (94). This discovery of the ethnic self as mirrored by the other, the white culture of Jacksonville, functions in the text as another moment of an-archic self-discovery. The image reflected in the mirror of white culture is like the photograph in which Janie, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, cannot recognize herself because she does not yet know that she is colored, that for the white family who calls her “Alphabet,” she is different because she symbolizes namelessness, darkness, absence, and lack.35 This is Janie’s first experience of difference, seeing her face as a bad photograph, as a “negative” and a flaw in the developed picture she holds in her hand. This scene of nonrecognition, like the deathbed scene, is the primal motivation for the journey of self-discovery through language. Isis, Persephone, Thoth, and Osiris are thus the four poles that mark the perimeter of Hurston’s cultural mythology of the self. Thoth’s gift links writing to death and to immortality; here the threads of memory and narrative allow Janie to “[pull] in her horizon like a great fish-net” (TE 286) in which the fragments of a faceless past are reassembled and given new names, new origins.

When we look at the allegory of the veiling of the mirror in Dust Tracks in the context of those similar scenes in the novels, a strong statement about the self and its enabling and distorting mirrors emerges. The idea that a mirror can be the vehicle of a negative self-image (depersonalization and loss) seems to be tied to two cultural myths perceived as destructive and debilitating by the child: the patriarchal folk belief about mirrors and death and the white culture’s myths about blackness as radical otherness and absence. In both cases, reflections are void, absent, or distorted because they emanate from a reductionist context: the realities of a culture’s myths about death and otherness become a burden and a distortion of the historical metaphors by which women must learn to live if we are to recapture the faces of our mothers in the mirrors of the past. It is by uncovering those mirrors that we can begin to articulate connections to ancient and empowering symbols of femaleness. Hence the anguish of the child at not being able to fend off the voices of white and black patriarchy, which rob her forever of the peace that comes from seeing the face(s)—and knowing the mythical name(s)— that connect her to a cultural tradition not grounded only in darkness and silence. Again Beaujour’s formulation is valid: “The self-portrait is constructed around an empty center: vanished places and disrupted harmonies.”36 The experience of death generates the writing of a self-portrait through which appears, pentimento, the mother’s lost face.

The child who leaves Eatonville after her mother’s death experiences alterity and dislocation, distances herself forever from the illusory possibility of an unexamined and unmediated participation in the network of relations which constitutes culture. In effect, her avocation as anthropologist starts right then and there: her exile from Eatonville is the first step on the nomadic road of lore collecting, a road on which “the individual looks for soul-mates while simultaneously affirming [her] absolute difference from all others,” Beaujour says. That is why the collective voice is so often relayed with irony and pathos: the self-portrait is the medium of subversion par excellence, which relativizes the fetishistic recourse to a foundational world beyond its discourse. It evokes the ethnic reality of which it partakes but, in so doing, puts into question the mimetic principles of description and classification which inform its writing. It thus simultaneously demystifies the writing of both the self (auto) and the culture (ethno) because it involves the self and its cultural contexts in a dialogue that transcends all possibility of reducing one to the other. Michel Beaujour expresses it thus: “Mirror of the subject and mirror of the world, mirror of the T searching for a reflection of its self through the mirror of the universe: what might first appear as a simple correspondence, or a convenient analogy, proves under close scrutiny to be a homologous relation warranted by the rhetorical tradition and the history of literature.”37 Beaujour’s formulation can be applied to Dust Tracks with an important modification: it is not the medieval rhetorical tradition that furnishes the topics of mimesis but the anthropological essay with its system of categories, which locate culture at the nexus of history and geography, religion and myth. What this formulation means for the “self-portrait,” according to Beaujour, is that writing is engendered primarily by the impossibility of self-presence, by the realization that realist narratives are functionally distorting and that myths are more appropriately evocative and suggestive of a subject’s liminal position in the world of discursive representation.

Here, a myth of ancient Afro-Mediterranean folklore establishes the parameters according to which Hurston will go on performing the role of daughter after her mother’s death and until they can both be syncretically reunited. The faceless woman encountered on a porch in Jacksonville during a school walk, “who looked at a distance like Mama” (96), prefigures the last of her twelve “visions”: the two women, one young (herself?), one old (the mother?), whose faces are averted as they are “arranging some queer-shaped flowers such as [she] had never seen” (58). This indirect allusion to the funeral flower—the white narcissus—is also the figure of the self reflected in the pool of language, the dark (“miroirs d’encre”) medium of self-knowledge, the white symbol of death’s attraction. It is an unformulated, unnamed, but richly suggestive allusion to the desire for the absent mother, which will be reenacted both in the bonds of female friendships (the visitors at the school, Big Sweet, Fannie Hurst, Ethel Waters, the Dahoman Amazons) and in those of hatred or rivalry with other women (her stepmother and knife-toting “Lucy”).38 At once Persephone and Narcissus, the autobiographical narrator attempts to recapture the (m)other in the self and the self through the (m)other:39

Once or twice I saw the old faceless woman standing outdoors beside a tall plant with that same off-shape white flower. She turned suddenly from it to welcome me. I knew what was going on in the house without going in, it was all so familiar to me.

I never told anyone around me about these strange things. It was too different. They would laugh me off as a story-teller. Besides, I had a feeling of difference from my fellow men, and I did not want it to be found out. [58–59].

Her experiences of singularity and difference are intimately connected to her visions of death. Not surprisingly, the reference to “Pluto’s dark realm” (48) and to the temporary reunification of Persephone with her mother turns the circumstances of her life upside down and transforms the past by reorienting it toward an unlived future in which the lost potentialities of love and daughterhood are given a second chance, and an elusive possibility of peace and transfiguration: “I stood in a world of vanished communion with my kind, which is worse than if it had never been. Nothing is so desolate as a place where life has been and gone. I stood on a soundless island in a tideless sea. Time was to prove the truth of my visions . . . bringing me nearer to the big house, with the kind women and the strange white flowers” (59).

If the mother is a figure for the “lost” potentialities of history and for the “dark” continent of Africa, it is not surprising that images of death and decay begin to pervade the daughter’s self-recollection during those years of loneliness and wandering in which she feels “haunted” (116). Just like “Lazarus after his resurrection,” she cannot experience her own self in a unified way, past and present, mind and body can never coincide completely: “I walked by my corpse. I smelt it and felt it. I smelt the corpses of those among whom I must live, though they did not. They were as much at home with theirs as death in a tomb” (117). Like the Zombies she will later study, she is one of the living dead whose childhood memories of that time—between ten and fourteen years of age—are the undeveloped photographic negative of the singular images of blankness which will keep recurring in later chapters. For instance, her first love affair, although it provides the closeness and warmth she had sorely missed ever since her mother’s death, turns into an oppressive relationship that imprisons her in feelings of doubt and unreality that cannot be shared with the husband: “Somebody had turned a hose on the sun. What I had taken for eternity turned out to be a moment walking in its sleep. . . . A wind full of memories blew out of the past and brought a chilling fog” (251).

Numbed by the impossibility to communicate, drained of life, she buries herself in her work. The next time she falls in love, the pattern seems to repeat itself. She is thwarted by the conflicts caused by her career, the man’s possessiveness, and his complaints that her “real self had escaped him.” She is not permitted to have a life of her own, is restrained by limiting circumstances, “caught in a fiendish trap” (259). Love is never experienced as an empowering force— unlike friendship, this “mysterious and ocean-bottom thing” (321) without which life is not worth much: “To live without friends is like milking a bear to get cream for your morning coffee. It is a whole lot of trouble, and then not worth much after you get it” (248). In contrast to the flatness of her love life, her affective landscape is peopled with many picturesque and vivid portrayals of friends. The topic of “friendship” is a much richer and more satisfying one than “love,” and the treatment it receives in Dust Tracks bears testimony to the importance self-portraitists have accorded to the interface with an other whose ambivalent companionship may be the spur that compels a writer to articulate the potentialities of his or her vision.40 “Conversation is the ceremony of companionship” (248), Ethel Waters says to Zora and Zora’s self-portrait is this conversation with the past, a ceremony for the dead mother(s), but one that simultaneously empowers the living.

The narrator also experiences singularity as separation from the realm of nature. After her departure to Jacksonville, her introduction to formal education goes together with another deprivation which adds to her grief and mourning: “the loving pine, the lakes, the wild violets in the woods and the animals [she] used to know” (95) are no longer part of her daily life. Orphaned for a second time when her father asks the school to “adopt” her and she is nonetheless sent home on the riverboat, she experiences a thrilling form of rebirth because she is again part and parcel of nature: “The water life, the smothering foliage that draped the river banks, the miles of purple hyacinths, all thrilled me anew. The wild thing was back in the jungle. The curtain of trees along the river shut out the world so that it seemed that the river and the chugging boat was all that there was, and that pleased me a lot” (109). The floating boat and the trees that “shut out the world” are like the protective layers of a womb; the boat’s chugging motor connotes a maternal heartbeat, a reassuring companion that spells the return to an earlier form of peace and harmony. These layered allusions to the archaic times of a prenatal life and to the historical moments of preslavery days in Africa again configurate the mother as the sheltering presence whose disappearance generates the nomadic search for collective meanings that will establish a system of resonance between seemingly heterogeneous entities or “topics,” such as daughterhood, friendship, nature, and antiquity—all of which can be seen as so many inaugurating moments of similarity within difference, of self-absorption in an enigmatic mirror, the Augustinian “per speculum in aenigmate,” which can be contrasted and paralleled with death itself, the “face that reflects the face of all things, but neither changes itself, nor is mirrored anywhere” (DT 87).

Later on, working as a maid for the soprano of the traveling opera company, Zora becomes a kind of mascot for the whole company, and her writing career gets started: “I got a scrapbook . . . and wrote comments under each picture. . . . Then I got another idea. I would comment on daily doings and post the sheets on the call-board. . . . The results stayed strictly mine less than a week because members of the cast began to call me aside and tell me things to put in about others. . . . It was just my handwriting, mostly” (138–39). She becomes the repository of other people’s words, a kind of transparent mind or ghost writer. She experiences another form of Zombiehood, mediated by the acquisition of language, by the absorption of other voices, just like all that “early reading,” which had given her “great anguish through all [her] childhood and adolescence” because, as she puts it, “My soul was with the gods and my body in the village. People just would not act like gods” (56). Her experiences at school in Baltimore follow the same pattern: “And here I was, with my face looking like it had been chopped out of a knot of pine wood with a hatchet on somebody’s off day, sitting up in the middle of all this pretty” (150–51). Undefined features, “a woman half in shadow,” the self-portraitist draws a picture of herself which remains “a figure in bas relief,” an intaglio, “the weaving of anthropology with thanatography.”41

These echoing patterns of disfiguration and death give an im-provisational rhythm to the text, the ebb and flow of musical counterpoint, and suspend meaning between suggestive similarities the reader is free to associate or not. One subtle parallel the text thus draws is between two gruesome events: the decapitation of Cousin Jimmie, “mother’s favorite nephew” (85), unintentionally shot by a white man, who covered up the accident by making it look as though a train had killed him, and the similar fate that had befallen the son of Kossola/Cudjo, David, who was actually beheaded in a train accident. In both cases, it is the grief of the parental figures which resonates in the text, rather than a hypothetical repetition of real-life events. Indeed, framing as they do Hurston’s vision of the two faceless women and Kossola’s stories of famed Dahoman Amazons who sack cities and carry “clusters of human heads at their belts,” the stories underscore a singularly repetitive pattern that would seem to point not to referents beyond the text but to the allegorical disfiguring of generation upon generation of black individuals whose plight is ignored or covered up, except in the memory of those who grieve for them as Cudjo’s Takkoi King, beheaded by the Amazons, is mourned by his people (cf. 201).

The ephemeral quality of collective memory itself is reflected in the transient nature of Hurston’s “first publication”: “On the blackboard . . . I decided to write an allegory using the faculty members as characters” (153). The “allegory” is the source of much entertainment and laughter for her schoolmates, a successful rehearsal for her future tale telling and an important metaphoric hyphen between the immediacy of oral performance and the permanence of the written words. Like these allegorical portraits, which will be erased once they have served their purpose, her twelve visions, which were initially meant to structure the deployment of the autobiography, are soon forgotten because they do not need to be used. The tale teller dynamically reshapes her material as she goes along, the content of the visions becoming irrelevant since the essayistic form of the latter chapters (“My People! My People!” “Looking Things Over,” “The Inside Light,”) spontaneously generates a framework through which to communicate her philosophy.

As she ironically suggests about the experiences told by the religious congregation: “These visions are traditional. I knew them by heart as did the rest of the congregation, but still it was exciting to see how the converts would handle them. Some of them made up new details. Some of them would forget a part and improvise clumsily or fill up the gap with shouting. The audience knew, but everybody acted as if every word of it was new” (272; my italics). Inconsistencies are inherent to the performance of traditional cultural forms: it is precisely in the way they individually diverge from the set norms that the converts excite interest in the audience. The “origin” of the tradition must be acknowledged, but acknowledgment does not sanction simple repetition: each new performer “signifies” upon that origin by transforming it, and by allowing for infinite of permutations.42 To approach a form genealogically, then, is to attempt to retrace its transformations back to an origin—arche—that will always prove elusive since every discrete manifestation is the interpellation of a previous one, which sets the stage for the next one, and so on ad infinitum. A particular form acquires value not from its timeless origin or essential qualities but because it is related to practices that inform a mode of life while dynamically shaping reality. Whether Hurston’s twelve visions signify upon a particular religious tradition or the vernacular ritual of the “dozens” (cf. 187, 217) or both is of no importance since, in any case, she can make vicarious use of the cliches, parody some of them, ignore the rest, and “tell a story the way [she] wanted, or rather the way the story told itself to [her]” (206). Since “playing the dozens” or” specifying” is a form of invective and name calling that points genealogically to a fictitious origin—“they proceed to ‘specify’ until the tip-top branch of your family tree has been given a reading” (217)—we can readily infer that this “self-affirming form of discourse”43 does not require foundational support in reality. It is by virtue of its perlocutionary function that it affirms the underlying gutsiness and creativity of the agent of discourse, drawing a portrait of the self as capable of enduring, diverging, and surviving because it adheres to the formal aspects of a dynamic and improvisational cultural tradition that allows the storyteller to “keep the tune” for the benefit of the collectivity, to lift the veil on the mirror of a different history, to be a “keeper of our memories” (Moses 350). Hurston’s “exuberant sense of self”44 allows her to adopt a thoroughly Nietzschean perspective on this “topsyturvy world” of hers, and to value memory as a viable alternative to oppressive history.

In Dust Tracks, we have a powerful example of the braiding, or métissage, of cultural forms, since Persephone figures both as the voice of the dead mother and as the boundary crosser who links up two different worlds. Turning the mythical relation between Ceres and her daughter upside down, Hurston invents her own reading of the tradition, “signifying” upon that tradition in a specifically “black” way, diverging from the Greco-Roman text in the only way possible for the Afro-American self-portraitist. To rejoin her mother, Zora/Persephone must travel back to the underworld, to the “dark realm” of her own people, to the friendship with Big Sweet, in order to learn to say what her dying mother could not, in order to name the chain of legendary female figures who can teach her to re-member and to speak the past.


1See Robert Hemenway’s comments in Appendix to Dust Tracks on a Road, ed. Hemenway, 2d ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), p. 288. All references will be included in the text and flagged DT when necessary.

2By genealogical I mean the reconstruction of the self through interpretations that integrate as many aspects of the past as are deemed significant by the agent of the narrative discourse. It is clear that Hurston considers cultural forms more significant than specific events. Thus, the self she fashions through language is not a fixed essence, partaking of an immutable and originary racial substance. Rather, it is a process of active self-discovery through self-invention by means of the folk narratives of ethnic interest. For a recent thorough and definitive analysis of these Nietzschean questions, see Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986). David Hoy has done an excellent and useful review of this book: see “Different Stories” in London Review of Books, Jan. 8, 1987, pp. 15–17. In the Afro-American context, genealogical revisionism is of course a common theme of literature. See Kimberly W. Benston, “‘I Yam What I Yam’: Naming and Unnaming in Afro-American Literature,” Black American Literature Forum 16 (Spring 1982); as well as Jahnheinz Jahn, Muntu: An Outline of the New African Culture (New York: Grove Press, 1961), p. 125.

3For an overview of contemporary theories of autobiography, see Paul John Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), chap. 4 in particular.

4Michel Beaujour, Miroirs d’encre (Paris: Seuil, 1980), p. 348: “texts which are self-contained rather than being the representation of past actions.” All translations are mine.

5This phrase is used by Michel Serres in The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), p. 6. The French phrase is “une anthropologie figurée.” See Le Parasite (Paris: Grasset, 1980), p. 13. See also Alexander Gelley, Narrative Crossings: Theory and Pragmatics of Prose Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), pp. 79–100, for a useful discussion of “parasitic talk” and narrative agency, cultural norms, and quotidian talk applied to Melville’s Confidence-Man.

6James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Allegory,” Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. Clifford and George E. Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 98–121 (112).

7See William L. Andrews, ed. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies in the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), p. 13. To say that Hurston is not interested in organized resistance to patterns of social injustice is not to imply that she is not strongly critical of injustice. See pp. 336–45.

8This is not the place to engage in a detailed analysis of the methods and assumptions of Hurston’s great teacher and mentor, “Papa” Franz Boas. Suffice it to say that as an anthropologist he was a firm believer in “the plasticity of human types”: his research for his book Changes in Bodily Forms of Descendants of Immigrants, published in 1911, served to convince him that physical and mental characteristics were not simply inherited but profoundly modified by time and environment. Furthermore, the views expressed in his essay “The Race Problem in Modern Society,” published in a work that was to be widely influential and of fundamental importance to the field of anthropology, The Mind of Primitive Man, could not fail to influence Zora Neale Hurston’s own attitudes about the race problem in America, to reinforce her personal tendency toward individualism, and to strengthen her belief that human beings are infinitely variable and not classifiable into distinctive national or racial categories. As Boas puts it, “Our tendency to evaluate an individual according to the picture that we form of the class to which we assign him, although he may not feel any inner connection with that class, is a survival of primitive forms of thought. The characteristics of the members of the class are highly variable and the type that we construct from the most frequent characteristics supposed to belong to the class is never more than an abstraction hardly ever realized in a single individual, often not even a result of observation, but an often heard tradition that determines our judgment” (344) (from a selection from The Mind of Primitive Man, 1911, reprinted in Ashley Montagu, Frontiers of Anthropology [New York: Putnam’s, 1974], pp. 332–44.) Boas recognizes the role played by “tradition” and ideology in our construction of the world, and his work paves the way for what I would call Hurston’s dynamic and contextual approach to culture and to private forms of behavior.

9Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), p. 213.

10See Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1978), p. 3, hereinafter MM; and Barbara Johnson, “Thresholds of Difference: Structures of Address in Zora Neale Hurston,” in “Race,” Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry L. Gates, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 317–28.

11Hemenway, p. 213.

12Ibid.

13Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 214. (I have modified the translation of both quotations.) Les Damnés de la terre (Paris: Maspéro, 1968), p. 146. The word inculture is practically untranslatable into English.

14See Houston A. Baker, Jr., Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 152.

15See Claudine Raynaud, “Dust Tracks on a Road: Autobiography as a ‘Lying’ Session,” forthcoming in Studies in Black American Literature (Penkevill Annuals). Whereas Raynaud tends to see the autobiography as founding the self in a gesture of appropriation of the perennial proverbs and sayings of the community, I prefer to see in the text a continuing tension between philosophical skepticism about communal values and visionary creation.

16It might perhaps be appropriate to add here that Hurston shows a truly “metaphysical” turn of mind on top of her properly “exegetical” talents! See a reference to the debate between Robert Penn Warren and Sterling Brown in Henry L. Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and theRacialSelf (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. xix. And indeed, Fanon takes up the same relay: the last words of Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles L. Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 1986), (hereinafter BSWM) are “O my body, make me always a man who questions!” (232). It is not likely that Fanon either knew or read Hurston, although he was familiar with the work of Langston Hughes, but their accomplishments in Dust Tracks on a Road and Black Skin, White Masks derive from a parallel need to shake off the totalizing traps of historical determinism, and to do so in a style that is its own message, narrative and aphoristic in order to subvert the cultural commonplaces they both abhor. See also Chester J. Fontenot’s study of Fanon and his useful discussion of form and content in Black Skin, White Masks, “Visionaries, Mystics and Revolutionaries: Narrative Postures in Black Fiction,” in Studies in Black American Literature, ed. Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot (Greenwood: Penkevill Annuals, 1983), 1:63–87.

17For a detailed discussion of the philosophical and linguistic implications of the “discours indirect libre,” see Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Mille plateaux (Paris: Minuit, 1980), pp. 95–109.

18The phrase is Ernst Bloch’s. See Anson Rabinbach, “Unclaimed Heritage: Ernst Bloch’s Heritage of Our Times and the Theory of Fascism,” New German Critique 11 (Spring 1977), p. 7. Hurston was familiar with the German philosophical tradition of utopian thinking. She mentions Spinoza for example, DT 285. See also my comments in note 24.

19Beaujour, p. 26; see Michael M. J. Fischer, “Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory,” Writing Culture, pp. 194–233 (201). Fischer uses “ethnic” autobiographical narrative as a means of allowing “multiple sets of voices to speak for themselves” thus effectively marginalizing his anthropological commentary on the ethnic group he studies.

20See Martin Bernal’s revision of that model in Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (London: Free Association Books, 1987). For Hurston’s use of Damballah, Moses, and Thoth as facets of the same mythological persona, see her Moses, Man of the Mountain (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984). See also Karla F. C. Holloway, The Character of the Word (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), chap. 3, for a useful discussion of those figures.

21For the passages of Jonah’s Gourd Vine which are useful here, I shall be quoting from I Love Myself When I Am Laughing: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, ed. Alice Walker (New York: Feminist Press, 1979), pp. 189–96, hereinafter ILM. “Drenched in Light” is reprinted as “Isis” in Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston (Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1985), pp. 9–18.

22Hemenway, Hurston, p. 249. I use the phrase “thick description” after Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), chap. 1.

23See Fontenot, p. 84 for a discussion of “open” and “closed” society as defined by Fanon. I have modified the translation of BSWM.

24Hurston’s Spinozist philosophy is evident here. See Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics (n.p.: Joseph Simon, 1981), pt. 1, proposition 8: “Every substance is necessarily infinite” (p. 32). As SPR Charter puts it in the introduction to this edition, “Spinoza attempted to unite the mind/body complexity and the realities of existence with the all-embracing actuality of Nature, and to do so organically—that is, without the imposition of man-made religious structures” (p. 3).

25Gelley, p. 31.

26What I call the silverless mirror here is to some extent assimilable to what Houston A. Baker, Jr., associates with the term “black (w)hole”: “a singularly black route of escape” (p. 155). By analogy, it refers also to the covered looking-glass in the room of the dying mother (DT 88), to which I will return.

27See Stephen Tyler, “Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document,” in Writing Culture, pp. 133, 136.

28Holloway, p. 24.

29See Jane Marcus, “Thinking Back through Our Mothers,” in New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981), pp. 1–30.

30Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 237. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have amply demonstrated, the lack of a female tradition in which to insert her own words is the source of a great “anxiety of authorship” for the woman writer. See The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 45–92.

31Bernal, pp. 69–73.

32The words Bernal uses to describe Persephone (p. 70).

33See Ronnie Scharfman, “Mirroring and Mothering in Simone Schwarz-Bart’s Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,” Yale French Studies 62 (1981), 88–106. Scharfman discusses psychoanalytic object-relation theorists. My purpose here is to relate those issues to the larger historical and ethnographical contexts within which I situate Dust Tracks.

34Holloway, p. 113; Beaujour, p. 161.

35Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), p. 21, hereinafter TE.

36Beaujour, p. 22.

37Ibid., pp. 15, 31 .

38For an analysis of the “thematic consistency . . . found in these echoing episodes of female strength,” see Raynaud. On this aspect of the text, I am in complete agreement with Raynaud.

39See Beaujour’s informative discussion of the associations between Demeter, Persephone, and Narcissus in Greek mythology and the connections between these divinities and death. His argument is that narcissism as commonly understood in psychoanalytic terminology is a distorted and reductive interpretation of the myth and that far from being “narcissistic” in that sense, “the self-portrait tries to reunite two separate worlds, that of the living and that of the dead. . . . Through anamnesis, Narcissus . . . performs a poetic invention of ‘childhood memories’ which recreates a timeless paradise, at once personal treasure trove and cultural topic” (p. 161). See especially pp. 156–62.

40Augustine, Montaigne (O un amy!), Gertrude Stein, Christopher Isherwood, Roland Barthes, to name but a few. See Réda Bensmaïa, The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) pp. 62–89 especially.

41The first two phrases are Fannie Hurst’s in “A Personality Sketch,” reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1986), pp. 24, 23; the third is Michel Beaujour’s, p. 13. The first one is also the title of Mary Helen Washington’s introduction to ILM.

42I am using the word signifies in the black traditional sense discussed in particular by Henry L. Gates, Jr., “The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey,” Black Literature and Literary Theory (New York: Methuen, 1984), pp. 285–321.

43See Susan Willis, Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), p. 31.

44The phrase is Hemenway’s in Hurston, p. 213.

Additional Information

ISBN
9781501723100
Related ISBN
9780801420917
MARC Record
OCLC
1057633853
Pages
97-129
Launched on MUSE
2018-04-06
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-ND
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