Multimedia Hurston: Zora Neale Hurston’s auto-ethnographic projects of sound, image, movement, and text

Mark Marino

Zora Neale Hurston produced and recorded many images of her beloved Eatonville and the folktales and songs from Florida, yet she recreated nothing more frequently or more varied than images of herself. Mary Helen Washington notes that Hurston’s genius, what Robert Hemenway calls her “autonomous imagination,” led Hurston to insist “on a medium, however unorthodox, that would satisfy her need to be both folklorist and creative artist” (23). I would argue that she insisted that all media be open to her and used them to diverging effects. In pictures and letters Hurston presents various poses of a confident, strident African American woman but also a less celebrated, quieter, removed self. In her play “Polk County” and in her collection Mules and Men, she arrives as the ethnographer, returning home to record the stories she treasured as a child. In her autobiography, she rewrites earlier fictions as her life story, sending us back into her tales for more of Hurston. In her audio recordings, she presents Hurston the anthropologist, but also an artist sensitive to nuances of representation. In this versioning of herself, Hurston, like many women artists engaged in autobiography, creates “multiple, widely divergent stories from one experience history” (Smith and Watson 11). Her images change with each form,1 as the many Zoras comment on and complement each other. When we combine and examine her multimedia self-portraits, works of autoethnography, we discover and co-create interfaces of print, visuality, and orality that reveal and imagine a Hurston whose “I” is interwoven with the “we.”

Françoise Lionnet offers “auto-ethnographic” as one way of examining the autobiographical work of the post-colonial subject. She describes writers whose interest and focus are not so much the “retrieval of a repressed dimension of the private self but the rewriting of their ethnic history, the recreation of a collective identity through the performance of language” (“Of Mangoes” 39). Lionnet further explains that these subjects “necessarily define him or herself with regard to a community, or an ethnic group, and their autobiographical mythologies of empowerment are usually mediated by a desire to revise and rewrite official, recorded history” (22). Hurston’s community was the all-Black community of Eatonville, Florida, but also Harlem, Columbia, and New Orleans. Yet wasn’t she writing the official history, in a sense, through her ethnographic project? Nonetheless, her autoethnographic project revised cultural stereotypes, not only those of the dominant culture but also, as Leigh Anne Duck demonstrates, those constructed by northward migrating Black intellectuals who disavowed all things Southern as past (Duck 266). Hurston revises official documents of her life, such as the census, and writes over and overrides stereotypical images of Black womanhood with versions of herself in a variety of media. Lionnet describes this strategy as “the culturally diverse form of self-consciousness or the necessary devious and circuitous modes of self-expression that colonized people have always had to adopt in order to come to terms with their own subject positions” (Autobiographical 230). This “culturally diverse form of self-conscious” leads to creatively diverse forms of self-portraiture across media.

In their introduction to Interfaces, Julia Watson and Sidonie Smith further describe the textual and visual practices of artists involved in this autoethnographic project. In their book, they note “how frequently women’s artistic production of the autobiographical occurs at the interface of the domains of visuality (image) and textuality (the aural and written word, the extended narrative, the dramatic script)” (7). Hurston’s works can be read collectively in the context of such an interface. As they explain, these artists by alluding “to other cultural texts in a range of verbal and visual media, renovate iconic stereotype to create a composite subject of difference and resistance” (35). Though Smith and Watson refer specifically to the ironic, allusive works of such artists as Cindy Sherman and Renée Cox, which reference specific feminine icons, surely Hurston’s representations confronted always the overdetermined image of Black womanhood at large and the Southern Black artist in particular. In fact, it is through the works of Cox, Sherman, and others that we are able to “remake” or reappreciate Hurston as a cultural agent of the “autobiographical interface” (Smith and Watson 37). Through the artists whose “self-referential displays…in hybrid or pastiche modes materialize self-inquiry and self-knowledge,” engage “with the history of seeing women’s bodies” (7), we can develop an understanding of Hurston by realizing the hybrid collage of her multimodal, multimedia works.

In offering a vocabulary for discussing the interface, Smith and Watson describe the “contextual” register, as one of four modes artists use to “texture the interface to mobilize visual and textual regimes” in autobiographical projects (21). As in Lionett’s notion of autoethnography, in the contextual mode, “a dynamic relay between personal and communal memory reconfigures the relationship of forms of communal memory and reworks the nation’s official memory of a group as devalued or invisible” (28). Smith and Watson offer the example of visual artist Carmen Lomas Garza, who portrays a scene of family memory in which several generations participate in making tamales. Context explains how “particulars of the room and the familial relationship autoethnographically frame the young artist as a participant in a process that is collective and ritualized” (27). Hurston’s explicit ethnographic work as well as her fiction and autobiographical writing all seem to function in this way, locating the individual artist, though not seamlessly, within the ethnic community. Further, in this process, “The ‘I’’s meaning is entwined with, read through, the ‘we’ of collective memory” (26). This entwining in Hurston becomes, at times, a tension through the difference of the ethnographer, who has returned to celebrate, record, and depict. She must reclaim and relearn her place in the “we.” Smith and Watson explain the artistic process, “particularly for postcolonial and multicultural women artists exploring the relationship of a colonized ethnic identity to a national identity that has, historically, dominated and effaced it, replacing that received history with collective histories of tradition and intimate bonds” (28). Hurston will officially (working for the government) and unofficially (working on her own, funded by various patrons), lift the veil from a collective experience, written in relation to an “I” she produces in many versions through various media.

In her chapter “Hurston among the Boasians,” Alice Gambrell traces an example of Hurston’s “versioning,” her retelling a story in different contexts. The story of the “small-town rivalry between a male hoodoo practitioner and his female competitor, whom he terrifies into silence and acquiescence” appears in five variations, “written in a range of modes including fiction, scholarly and popular folklore, and autobiographical anecdote” (Gambrell 116). In each case, Hurston makes changes, as Gambrell explains, in order to make it more “palatable to her anticipated audiences” (117). I would argue that not only does audience play a factor in the form of her stories, but medium as well, particularly when what Hurston is creating is another “version” of herself. Whether she is putting on a cowboy hat for a photograph or revising her age on an audio recording, Hurston saw herself, through the spyglass, as something to be refashioned in dialogue with and in the context of Eatonville, Columbia, and Harlem, through which she (and her image) circulated. This view of herself through a spyglass illustrates Hurston’s own “double consciousness.”

Despite a racial stance that seemed outside of the larger Du Boisian project, Zora Neale Hurston describes a version of “double consciousness” at the beginning of Mules and Men. She first describes how early in life she learned of the Brer Rabbit and Squinch Owl folk tales, a familiarity that fit her like a “tight chemise” (1). Through her education, she came to a different understanding. She explains, “It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment” (1). Through the “spy-glass of anthropology” she would come to recognize this self and its “garment.” On first glance, it would seem she develops, through education, a voyeuristic appreciation for herself. Perhaps, more exactly, her education leads her to see herself through the eyes of the anthropologist, seeing herself as other, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” as Du Bois puts it (11). Here the other is an epistemology, and yet a social scientific re-imagining of herself and how she would be read by that discipline. And yet, her double consciousness takes the form of an ironic, narrative distance from this tale-collecting eye, separate as an author is from the “speaker” of a poem, separate as the writer is from identifying solely with any one of her characters. What is born here is not so much Zora the doubly conscious subject, but Zora the figure as seen by, as told by, as posed by, as performed by Zora the artist, so gifted with the second sight of recreation.


Zora through the lens

In reading Hurston’s photographs as objects of self-representation, several problems arise. First, many historical factors are unknown, including in many cases the photographer, and in some cases the location and context. Unlike her writing, and to a lesser extent her audio recordings, these images are out of her editorial control and, as Walter Benjamin has noted, have lost the aura of the original. Furthermore, I have only seen the pictures remediated2 and reproduced on the pages of a book or on a computer screen. Needless to say, these factors complicate a more precise reading of specificity in media specificity. Nonetheless, the differences of the photographed image of Hurston from print or aural renditions are greater than the differences between the images and their “original” prints. Thus, just as I read the content of her letters from the typed pages rather than the handwriting, I will read for content of the images. I do not claim that Hurston planned each self-portrait, but the combination of photographer, Hurston, lighting, and development have produced this image which enters the Hurston pantheon, rogues gallery, or family album. Her work in a variety of media place Hurston in the midst of mass production of mediated selves, in which “instead of being based on ritual, [art] begins to be based on another practice–politics” (Benjamin 226). The Twentieth Century autoethnographic work is the work of art in the age of mass media, so why not employ the means of dissemination to partake in the political discourse via self-portraiture.

In the discussion of Hurston’s image, a greater danger arises than that posed by concerns about specificity in media. Is the Black female body becoming the text? Alice Gambrell recounts an episode that illustrates this folly, drawing from Walter Jackson’s analysis of Melville Herskovits’s writing on the Harlem Renaissance. In this passing episode, Herskovits observes Hurston’s “motor behavior” while she sings spirituals as part of his ethnographic research. Gambrell notes that “rather than reading Hurston’s work, Herskovits reads Hurston’s body; in fact, the Harlem-based research with which Hurston assisted Herskovits was anthropometric, involving quite literal measurement and reading of bodies” (108). Gambrell finds the reading of Black bodies to be symptomatic of critical uses of the Black female intelligentsia. Gambrell writes, “In the ways in which work by Black women intellectuals is put to use in writing by White feminist and African-American male critics, Valerie Smith notes a tendency among them to continually ‘reground’ their discourse in the image of the woman’s body” (108). Despite these concerns, I press on in an analysis of the Hurston the photographed image, not as an anthropological subject or specimen, but as a co-creation of Hurston herself. To put it more broadly, I will not focus on the folk, but the clothes and the pose.

Smith and Watson offer another concern in the female artist’s relationship to her portraiture. They write, “These women who became artists before the late twentieth century…have had to confront the constitutive masculinity of the institutions of cultural production and their own cultural status as objects of the male gaze–that of the artist and that of the patron” (15). Again, I would argue that Hurston did not shy from confrontation. As an Italian-American, male critic of Hurston’s work, I cannot but find myself on the side of the male gaze, though I try to view her images through the spy-glass of female critics and Hurston herself.

The 1927 picture of Zora Neale Hurston in front of her car, Sassy Sue, offers one of her most notorious poses. In the foreground, Hurston stands with her hands on her hip. Around her white dress, a belt. Around her shoulder and bust, the holster strap of a pistol. On her head, a cowboy hat cocked back towards the sun. Her smile is all play as she stares off in the distance as one who is playing a joke on the camera. As D. A. Boxwell describes, “She is posing for the camera eye, very much in her ‘performance mode,’ with her hands on her hips, thumbs assertively on the belt, feet firmly planted on the ground” (Boxwell 605). The gleam of sunlight on her forearm, accentuates the muscles of her angled left arm, while the right seems to bend smoothly. This photo is a trace from her trip south to collect folklore and is one of the icons of a legendary Hurston (1927, Carl Van Vechten Photographs [ZA V375 JWJ Van Vechten Photographs: JWJ, Box 28; JWJ ZZan5 3 v. 2] Beinecke, Rare, Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut).

In earlier photographs, Hurston seems demure, even shy. In a 1917 photograph at Howard University, Zora stands before a fountain, a broad-brimmed black hat in her hand. She stands at three quarters with her left leg pointed towards the camera, bent slightly. Though her pose seems more mild, the fountain behind her showering down like a waterfall suggests the forces within. She is framed by the water of the fountain. In a contrasting photo from the same year, she sits with her legs crossed on the edge of the inactive fountain, her hands together perhaps from cold. Her smile mild as she looks past the camera. The camera tilt to the left makes the fountain itself seem to list from under her, as she maintains the straight, vertical access. Reprinted in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing… opposite Mary Helen Washington’s “Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman Half in Shadow,” the picture seems to be the portrait of a woman obscured (photograph from the collection of Dr. Herbert Sheen).

It is difficult to choose images from her professional life. So many have become iconic. Carl Van Vechten’s dual portraits of Zora in a black, fur-colored coat, one picture with her smiling broadly, one with her face serious, her eyes watching something out of range, the plume on her hat, the sign of flight and of writing. Here the man Alice Walker dubbed the “reigning patron of Negro Art” (“On Refusing” 3) is the photographer in a nexus of cultural promotion and production. Hurston does not shrink under the gaze, but produces serial images of herself of such contrast that they call each other into question. Notably, the smile would become part of the printed Hurston, reproduced as a sketch on the cover of the Japanese edition of Dust Tracks on a Road (image reproduced in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, from the collection of Stetson Kennedy). The other would recede into the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters). Another photograph seems to have been lifted from a mythic mural of American literature. Of course, the photographer, P. H. Polk, who would photograph the likes of George Washington Carver, Southern tenant farmers, and Eleanor Roosevelt, was no stranger to myth making (Hines 147 n7 and Higgins). In this photograph, taken at the Tuskegee Institute in 1927, Booker T. Washington’s statue lifts the veil from a Black man whose face is rising into the light, and Washington’s left hand gestures to three prodigies of the talented tenth, Jessie Fauset, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, with Hurston in a diagonal line leading from his fingertips. Notably, Hurston has no bucket to cast down, but stands dignified, arms behind her back, in her white dress, dark beads looping across the front. Turned to three-quarters, she does not seem to address the camera directly (reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters).

Perhaps equal to the number of images of herself that Hurston co-created are the number of reactions to her. Mary Helen Washington begins “Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman Half in Shadow,” by citing divergent quotations describing Hurston’s complexion. Washington writes, “Whether Zora Neale Hurston was black as coal, light yellow, or light brown seems to have depended great deal on the imagination and mind set of the observer” (7). While Washington demonstrates the role of subjectivity in reading/creating racial difference, the diverging reactions also reveal the instability of the image once created. Here, one might note a photograph of a woman in a broad hat, ruffled dress, and wide smile, whose photo has often been circulated as Hurston (Bernard 50). Perhaps in this mistake we see the visual equivalent to ethnographic ventriloquism, the process whereby the ethnographer speaks for the subject. Here, another image has literally been offered in place of and displacing Hurston’s own, much the way those reading Hurston’s complexion displaced her with their adjectives.


Recordings of the “Long Haired Babe”

An anecdote from Mules and Men helps introduce the problematic of transcribing an oral culture. Robert Williams tells a story about a man with a daughter who goes off to school for seven years. When she gets back, he asks her to help him write a letter to his brother. He dictates, “When Ah say (clucking sound and teeth) he moved from de word” (42). His book-learned daughter, however, can’t spell “clucking sound” (41). Frustrated, the man complains that schooling has been a waste. As Katherine Kinney noted, this scene shows the community signifyin(g) on the scholarly project of ethnography and mocking both Hurston and her readers by foregrounding the limits of transcription in an oral culture3. This problem is central to the preservation, continuation, and dissemination of African American culture as it moves away from the oral transmission into a national print discourse, communicating its culture to a community that has moved out of earshot.

This issue appears most fundamentally in the project of transcribing or rearranging spirituals. W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk precedes each essays with a musical epigraph, tying the printed text to the oral culture, particularly by omitting the words that accompany these notes. He is evoking an aural memory. Nonetheless, Eric J. Sundquist writes, “Well before the end of the century the difficulty of properly transcribing and annotating the spirituals was compounded by the obverse difficulty introduced by concert and published versions that inevitably simplified the songs, forcing them into a regularized tempo and the more rigid mold of the European tempered scale” (Sundquist 474). What was lost when they were placed on the European scale? The problem parallels that of transcribing Black vernacular. Was the act of conforming dialogue to standard English the equivalent to removing the communal character from the language? (See Hurston’s comments in “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals”) Alain Locke in his essay “The Negro Spirituals,” in The New Negro, reprints a handwritten comparison of transcriptions by Roland Hayes and David Guion. Of Hayes’s work, Locke writes, “The subtler rhythmic pattern, the closer phrase linkage, the dramatic recitative movement, and the rhapsodic voice glides and quavers of the great Negro tenor’s versions are instantly apparent” (207). To Locke, these nuances demonstrate “a question of feeling instinctively qualities put there by instinct” (207). The argument, on the one hand, seems to posit spirituals as some kind of inherent race-knowledge, but perhaps he harkens to the nature of musical knowledge transmitted through local aural exposure rather than through a telegraphic, symbolic medium, such as print. Perhaps “instinct” then is a term for oral memory. This debate leads us into Hurston’s use of audio recording equipment. Hurston by recording her own rendition of folk music becomes what Locke calls “the recognized vehicle” of folk music’s “transmission and its further development” (207).

In the following letter to Dr. Carita Doggett Corse, Hurston shows her sensitivity to the recording medium:


I find many folk songs of the type that you discussed with me in the office, but the difficulty in collecting them is that is hard to set them down correctly at one sitting, and the informant usually grows self conscious if asked to sing them over and over again so that they be set down so that one does not secure the same thing as when they are sung naturally. The answer is a recording machine. (Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters 415)


Hurston becomes the informant in her 1939 recordings with beginning folklorist Herbert Halpert, who at age 20 would head the expedition (Go Gator and Muddy the Water 45). In her proposal for the recording expedition, she calls Florida “the inner melting pot of the great melting pot,” claiming, “there is no State in the Union with as much to record in a musical, folk lore, Social-Ethnic way as Florida has” (“Proposed Recording” 6). Furthermore, she ties her project into a larger anthropological project in the United States, writing, “Recordings in Florida will be like back-tracking a large part of the United States, Europe, and Africa for these elements have been attracted here…” (“Proposed Recording” 6). Among the cultures recollected are Africa via Cuba, Haiti, and the British West Indies; Old Spain via “many interpreters,” and Old England via ‘black, white and intermediate lips’” (6). In a sense, Hurston’s will become the intermediate lips, bringing the songs from the Black workers on the tracks to those listening to the recordings via her own performance of the songs. In addition, several of the recordings include descriptions by Hurston and her exchanges with Herbert Halpert. As with the photograph, Hurston does not operate the recording equipment, for Halpert managed the equipment, separating her from the distribution of her own voice. However, unlike the photographs, these tapes were obviously part of a public record. We do not have direct self-portraiture in these recordings, but a sense of the self, defined in dialogue with the Other, while performing inherited material and the voices of her community.

Recorded in June 1939, her exchanges with Halpert in “Gonna See My Long Haired Babe” and “Georgia Skin Game” demonstrate her self-fashioning in dialogue with an Other. In her foreword to her collection of Hurston’s writings from the Federal Writing Project, Pamela Bordelon describes, “With her bodacious insight and helpful commentary, Hurston explains where she fist heard these railroad spike chants, gambling songs, and Bahamian folk tunes” (xxii). Her bodacious commentary, however, comes in the form of extreme professionalism, in which her performances, that signature style, seem to be reserved for the songs themselves. Her delivery is direct although not without its share of lyin’. Though her tone suits a scientific process, presenting herself as folklorist (Go Gator and Muddy the Water 45), behind the voice seems to be some careful construction. One could say she begins her recording of “Gonna See My Long Haired Babe” with a string of fictions: “My name is Zora Neale Hurston. I was born in Eatonville, Florida. I’m thirty-five years old.” Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891 (making her forty-eight years old at the time of the recording), and her name on the 1900 census lists her as Zora L. Hurston (Dust Tracks on a Road, “Introduction” xi). Her voice proceeds without hesitation through this factual information, as she cites as her source Max Ford and an old railroad employee.

At times, Hurston seems less aware of the nature of the recording and seems to focus more on the performance for Halpert. In her discussion of “Ah, Mobile” (and here I must rely on Pamela Bordelon’s transcriptions), Hurston describes this lining song. Halpert asks a few questions about the workers’ physical movement during the lining. Hurston replies, “Well, I’ve seen them put [the lining bar] between their legs, this way, and put it back. And they get used to this plane under the rail and they ‘Ha! Ha’ like that.” (Go Gator and Muddy the Water 161). “This way” seems, for Halpert, to indicate a physical demonstration of the the workers’ position. Also, Halpert tries to get Zora to describe the action she performs when she says “Ha! Ha!” (161). Ironically, here is the equivalent, in audio recording, to the problem with the clucking sound in Mules.

Surely some of Hurston’s talents for both ethnography and fiction writing show themselves, when she changes her voice to be the Shack Rouser in “Wake up, Jacob,” as she shouts “Come out under dat cover, bullies, come out from under dat cover, unless you want some trouble with the worker” (Go Gator and Muddy the Water 175). In the “Georgia Skin Game” Hurston will lower her voice and improvise the patter of the dealer:


There you done fell, Charlie. See, I can’t catch nothin’. I can’t even catch nobody lookin’ at me. Yea, take another card. Take this queen. Oh, no, I don’t play those gals until way late at night. Give me another queen. (Go Gator and Muddy the Water 166)


Hurston deepens her voice for this fast patter, and suddenly the ethnographic research, the fictional creation, and the performance all come together in this one artist who is able to make herself into one of the faces of her community.

Not all is without conflict in this exchange between Hurston and Halpert, in which we hear what Bordelon describes as “his noticeably condescending manner and her ever-ready replies” (46). Halpert repeatedly questions how much time each song allows between hammer blows. In the dialogue following, “Goin’ to See My Long Haired Babe,” Halpert comments, “Well, now, look, the only thing is that you were given a long piece of singing without the rhythm of the hammer section. I want to know approximately how often that comes” (160). Hurston replies, “Well, they often… do that” (160). Janson S. Jones comments on the passage, “Halpert sounds a bit irritated during the second half of the recording, after Hurston’s performance. Especially in his last passage. It almost seems like he’s looking for a hole in Hurston’s description — something that doesn’t seem right or accurate” (“Gonna See”). To my ears, Halpert does not sound so irritated, in fact his delivery of “Well, now, look” is quick and does not have the directive force it does in print. Their exchange is fast, but not overtly angry. On the other hand, this question of how much time each song offers between blows persists throughout various recordings. Again, in “Shove it Over,” another lining rhythm, Halpert clarifies that a part of the song “gives quite a lot of rest in between” (Go Gator and Muddy the Water 162). Hurston answers the criticism implied in these questions of rest when she says of the song liner, “Whatever song he starts, if it is a fast rhythm, if it is a slower rhythm, well, they wait, you know, a little slower,” adding, “but they get just as much work done, it seems, somehow or another” (163). Here Hurston offers a paradox in the face of Halpert’s insinuation, maintaining her professional, ethnographic demeanor, delivering a response that answers any outsider’s implication of laziness without dignifying the suggestion with an explicit comment. Here is an image of Hurston, who can signify with sensitivity to both registers of meaning and representation on media.

As in her writing, Huston fashions herself as an authority. When she first identifies herself in “Goin’ to See My Long Haired Babe,” she explains that she got these songs when she “was collecting folk material for Columbia University, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University” (158). The doubling of her university credentials seems to overemphasize her academic validity. More often, her life-experience proves a more valuable diploma, following Janie’s law that “you’ve got tuh go there tuh know there.” Hurston is the vehicle for transmission and her history is her authentication. Time and time again she says, “I have known [this song] all my life,” as concerning “Tampa” and “Poor Boy.” Audio recording and broadcasting would prove enticing to Hurston, aware of media and messages. In one of her letters, she writes, “I would like the chance at that radio program more than most things in the world….On one, I was asked to write the same kind of Amos and Andy thing. They wanted my name to give the air of authentic Negro to it… But I am not going to go on record as saying that is real.” (Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters 499) Here Hurston demonstrates her sensitivity to medium and mass media, and to their tendency to drown out, record over, and ultimately erase.


Dust on the Tracks

Autobiography becomes a subversive tool in the hands of the signifyin(g) subject. Smith and Watson describe “work that both mimics and questions the notion of autobiography’s authenticity, teasing the public as well as the art establishment about the limits and possibilities of the artist’s re-presentation of the ‘real’ life in autobiographical acts…” (Smith and Watson 4). Though they discuss works that use postmodern, meta-textual and self-referential techniques, these descriptions of “teasing the public” and questioning “autobiography’s authenticity” seem to fit Hurston’s Dust Tracks on the Road (1942) like a tight chemise. In the chapter, “I Get Born,” she begins, “This is all hear-say” and adds, “Maybe some of the details of my birth as told me might be a little inaccurate, but it is pretty well established that I really did get born” (27). From the start, Hurston has positioned the autobiography as another site of signifyin(g) and lyin’. Françoise Lionnet sees in Hurston’s text, more than the lying contest, “a continuing tension between philosophical skepticism about communal values and visionary creation” (Autobiographical 106 n15). Breaking down her term “autoethnography,” Lionnet writes, Hurston “opens up a space of resistance between the individual (auto-) and the collective (-ethno-) where the writing (-graphy) of singularity cannot be foreclosed” (Autobiographical 108). Dust Tracks then becomes a portrait of the self who is part of, yet not merely representative of, the community.

When Hurston places herself into the community, the autobiography employs Smith and Watson’s “contextual” register, interweaving the “I” with the collective “we.” In their example of the “contextual,” Lomas Garza’s Tamalada dresses the scene of tamale making in signs from other cultural registers, such as the folk-art rendition of the Last Supper and the calendar featuring two Mexican dancers. Hurston will employ similar textual markers in order to weave scenes from her life into a larger communal discourse. In her auto-ethnographic work, she will record these “ceremonies,” be they lying contests or funerals, and she will contextualize the personal, extremely important events in the cultural language she works so hard to preserve. In the scene of her mother’s death, Hurston takes on the language of the folk tales she had spent her life collecting and celebrating. She writes, “Just then, Death finished his prowling through the house on his padded feet and entered the room. He bowed to Mama in his way, and she made her manners and left us to act out our ceremonies over unimportant things” (88). Lionnet sees a further cultural resonance in the death of the mother, writing: “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” (Autobiographical 112). Thus, if Smith and Watson see autoethnographic works encoding communal cultural signs in the personal event, Lionnet also sees the personal event become iconic of communal history. Yet, for Lionnet, Hurston’s self-portrait presents her conflict with the community as well. She will remain critical of the cultural values, such as the forces within the family that can crush the individual. Here Lionnet cites the moment when Hurston’s brother Bob refuses to put her though school, leaving her to serve as a maid to his wife (Autobiographical 113). Within Hurston’s personal complaint, Lionnet sees a broader critique of racial solidarity and other notions of unity that play out typically in political venues but not always in individual life stories.


Mules and Men

In Hurston’s 1935 collection of folklore, Mules and Men, she offers more images of herself through the spy glass of anthropology, as well as the returned gaze of the community of Eatonville. She bridges what Leigh Anne Duck sees as a temporal divide between North and South, while crossing between anthropologist and participant in cultural ritual. While Hurston might “come back with a diploma and a Chevrolet,” she knew the folk of Eatonville “were not going to pay either one of those items too much mind” (2). In Eatonville, for once in her life, hard as it is to believe, Hurston is “just Lucy Hurston’s daughter” (2). Of course, this humbling recasting of herself tends to accentuate everything about Hurston that is not “just” anything. As Boxwell points out, in Mules and Men, she “assumes a variety of identities” as she presents herself “as an acting force” in the course of the ethnographic project, “that is, one who does, not merely looks” (Boxwell 607). When she goes to the sawmill in Polk Country, she will construct a version of herself to account for her car, for they suspect she “must be a revenue officer or a detective of some kind” (Mules 60). To dispel their fears and gain entry into this community, she tells them she’s a bootlegger wanted in Miami, since “bootleggers always have cars” (61). Surely, she is a bootlegger, in the contemporary sense, trafficking in her private recordings under the nose (and in service of ) of the government controlled reproduction.

Leigh Anne Duck, in her article “Go there tuh know there,” describes Hurston as traveling across not the color line but the figurative time line that seemed to separate the progressive, urban North from the backwards, post-Reconstruction South. Hurston is figured as a border crosser, who can move between cultures and between times, “reconciling ‘folk’ and ‘modern’ cultural forms in individual experience” (Duck 266). In her analysis, Duck contrasts the “temporality of capitalist modernity in which time is understood as the dimension of progress” (265) with “folk time,” an “uncannily pleasurable experience of time…which compensates so precisely for the alienating effects of modern individualism” (270). Referencing Mules, Duck describes folk-time as the “exaggerated ‘lying’ time of ‘forty o’clock’” (275). Describing Hurston’s ability to cross time zones, if you will, Duck borrows Johannes Fabian’s term “intersubjective time” (275). If time is the medium through which we come to know the world, these various times offer another set of realms for Hurston’s polymorphous self-portraits. In Mules and Men, Hurston plays this role by ultimately becoming the center of her own ethnography, eschewing the ethnographer’s sense of “modern” and “primitive” for her own place within the time of the tales.

In the second part of the ethnography, the Hoodoo section, Hurston will fully become both subject and ethnographer. No longer crossing from the North to the South, she is the Northern educated Southerner in the midst of Hoodoo ceremonies. As she travels out into the night with Father Watson (the Frizzly Rooster) and Mary for the midnight ritual of the boiled cat, she finds herself removing the veil of Boasian objectivity, perhaps going off into a trance. Then, instead of recounting the alien or backwards practices of a folk, she instead describes from within the ritual “great beast-like creatures” that “thundered up to the circle from all sides” (221). The poet is left without her words, as “Indescribable noises, sights, feelings” arise within and around her. Finally, her vision of her experience is obscured all together, as she explains, “Many times I have thought and felt, but I always have to say the same thing. I don’t know. I don’t know” (221). If the purpose of the ritual was, as Father Watson explained, because “Sometimes you have to be able to walk invisible,” perhaps here she renders herself invisible not as a lens through which we observe her community, but as one who has been so fully absorbed into her community that she ceases to be an object at the center of our attention. This is not Ralph Ellison’s invisibility, one born of the blindness of others and one that can be harnessed for subversion. This is the invisibility of the auto-ethnographer who can herself become a medium for our experience of Hoodoo, a medium who transmits, rather than a clerk who boxes for orderly shelving in our Curiosity Cabinet. This is not abnegation of ethnographic duties, not abjection of the self, but “entrance into” with an attendant flourish of dramatic craft.


When Leafy Met Big Sweet: Polk County

Leafy Lee is not Zora Neale Hurston. The meek virgin from the North is not our bold performer and provocative artist. However, like Hurston, she does come down to Florida to collect songs, largely filling the role of the narrator of Mules and Men, even going to a sawmill, although here the “Everglades Cypress Lumber Company” of Loughman, Florida, is the “Loftan Lumber Company” (I). Many of the songs in the play have appeared in Mules and Men or her recording session with Halpert, including “Wake Up, Jacob!”, “John Henry,” and “Let the Deal God Down,” not to mention “The Polk County Blues.” Small details seem to be different. Leafy stays with Miss Bunch instead of Mrs. Allen in the book, but old friends reappear, namely Big Sweet. Arguably, the ethnographic work stuck to the facts and the stage play benefits from embellishment, but ultimately that will prove too simple a dichotomy. Also, Hurston collaborates with white co-author Dorothy Waring, whose contributions I will not divide from Hurston’s here. Robert Hemenway reports on an interview with Waring, “When Waring urged Zora to keep a ‘sort of Gershwinesque feeling’ about their Polk County musical, Zora’s reply was, ‘You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about’” (Zora Neale Hurston 298). In a letter to Claude Barnett Hurston, she wrote her thoughts of “Porgy and Bess:” “The story is not true to our lives and I want to do something more penetrating” (Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters 499). Although Hurston’s play was not produced during Hurston’s life time, it has since won a MacArthur Award.4 In the introduction to “Polk County,” Hurston offers an extensive description of the Sawmill camp, much better suited for ethnography than set construction, more elaborate even than in Mules. She describes everything from the flora and fauna to the amount of money docked each man for his living quarters. Most of her time is spent describing the “ephemeral” characters, the transients of the camp, and the women who “have drifted down to their level, unable to meet the competition outside” (II-III).

Amongst these women arrives Leafy Lee, “a slim mulatto girl, who wants to be a Blues singer” (IV). Unlike Hurston, who sets out to record folk culture particularly in Polk County, Leafy “subconsciously” chooses this spot, where “Blues are not only sung in the real manner, but are made” (IV). Even Hurston’s photograph in front of the fountain at Columbia does not present her figure as Leafy’s character description presents her, “Simple, kindly, and timid of life” (IV). This is a dramatic figure who seems hardly ready for her education from the camp women and men and certainly not for Big Sweet who “has a quick temper and great courage” (IV). As juxtaposition of Zora and fountain produces contrast in the Howard photograph, these two women will act out their opposing but complementary personalities. In Dust Tracks on the Road, Hurston records her first meeting with Big Sweet when she “felt as timid as an egg without its shell” (188). She describes, “When I pulled up beside her and offered her a ride, she frowned at me first, then looked puzzled, but finally broke into a smile and got in” (188). The drama will raise the stakes of this initial showdown: “Big Sweet looks Leafy over from head to foot slowly and deliberately, and back again. There is either hostility or cold indifference in the faces of every woman about her.… Finally she meets Big Sweet dead in the eye. They eye-ball each other well” (1-2-10). The tension is broken when “Leafy breaks into a grin.” (1-2-10). In response, Big Sweet purses “her lips, but the chuckle gets bigger and bigger as she and Leafy expand their smiles. Finally Big Sweet gives in, takes her foot down, stands akimbo with an attempt to conceal her admiration under rough good humor” (1-2-10). Big Sweet exclaims, “You crazy thing!” and Leafy does not miss a beat, saying, “Crazy your ownself” (1-2-10).

Notably, at this point, Leafy “imitates Big Sweet’s stance,” a stance not unlike Hurston’s cowboy stance in front of Sassy Sue, or perhaps Everett Hurston, Sr.’s photograph of Hurston on a fishing trip. In the photograph, she wears pants, a short jacket, buttoned down shirt, and broad-brimmed hat. One hand in her pocket, one hand on her hip, elbow angled, her foot rests on the running board of a car, as her face tilts raises into the light, jaw set (included in Hemenway). Leafy is not quite Hurston, though, and in this confrontation, Leafy learns how to imitate Big Sweet’s pose, just as she plans to learn the Blues songs. It is a lesson in performance and, to use Judith Butler’s term, performativity. Leafy has changed from the mousy woman who entered with bag and a scrap of paper seeking some place to stay. Leafy explains, “I come from New York” but quickly adds, “I wasn’t born up there” (1-2-10). As in Hurston’s folklore collecting, being from the South is key to access. Where is Hurston in this showdown? Everywhere, but particularly outside of herself, showing some of the ways the sawmill community saw her. Laura B. first identifies Leafy as a “school teacher” and then as a woman come down to see her man friend “(1-2-5). They will call her “nothing” and “just a old storm-buzzard” (1-2-6). Hurston is seeing herself through the spy glass of the community she has come to observe. Lionett’s comment about Dust is even more true of her: She reverses ethnographic ventriloquism “by letting her informants inform us about Zora’s persona in the field.” (Autobiographical 104).

Nonetheless, Leafy is this combination of how a younger Hurston might look next to Big Sweet and how the community might have seen Hurston, mixed together for dramatic effect. Leafy soon enough proves she can learn the songs and more. After Big Sweet tells her sad tale, Leafy rushes to her and embraces her saying, “You make me feel so little. Just being a virgin aint a thing besides what you are, honey” (1-3-4). Big Sweet, returning the embrace to Leafy, whom she affectionately calls Little Bits, replies, “Oh, you going to be a lot of help to me. You got more schooling than I got” (1-3-4). Leafy disagrees, saying, “But you knows the most. Mama used to always tell me that study-ration beat education all the time.” Big Sweet replies, “but I am to put my wisdom tooth in your head” (1-3-5). And here is a more intimate portrait of the ethnographic project, the desire of the book-educated for the dust-track educated Other. (1-3-5). Yet that Other is a version of Hurston as well, the Hurston whom Walker will celebrate, “who held her own, literally against the flood of whiteness and maleness” (Walker 4). The Hurston of Robert Cooke’s photograph at the sawmill camp, where a relaxed, seated Zora, leans back without receding, raising a hand in a gesture of ease and control, fingers holding a cigarette as an afterthought. A tiny watch keeps factory time, but she is unhurried (reprinted in Go Gator and Muddy the Water).

It may seem that the play has an unfair advantage over the other media, because it can incorporate sounds, movement, sights, and text. Alice Burney, a specialist in American literary and cultural history in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, promoted a staged reading at the Arena Stage in 2001. In her words, “It now seems that the theater may have been her best medium for integrating folklore, autobiography and music” (Dalrymple “Unpublished Hurston”). Lionnet’s comments also suggest that the performance of the play might serve to transmit the culture: “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” (Autobiographical 102). Though this staging has been scripted, the interpretation of the actors mirrors the interpretation of liars, folk singers, and dancers. Nonetheless, even that reading included sound clips of Hurston to “add texture and authenticity to the event” (Dalrymple “Unpublished Hurston”). The web site featuring the notice of the performance, features a photograph of Hurston, presumably also to add texture and authenticity. Outside the foyer from the play, the producers showed the footage Hurston shot during her 1929 expedition. These choices raise the question of a medium’s relative merits in conveying that ever elusive “presence,” a fan’s question as much as an ethnographer’s.


As ever yours, Zora

When Carla Kaplan assembled and edited Hurston’s letters, publishing them along with photographs, biographical essays, and analysis, she collaborated with Hurston on another auto-ethnographic interface that continues to produce versions of Hurston that comment on and complement each other. These letters present two more of Smith’s and Watson’s artistic modes, telescopic and relational. Smith and Watson describe this first artistic mode, the telescopic, which features “temporal contraction or expansion of the stages of an embodied action through which the artist engages in autobiographic story telling” (Smith and Watson 31). Here I would argue that Carla Kaplan has co-created such a telescopic project. These letters reveal what Patricia Meyer Spacks calls, Hurston’s “Fictions of the self” (cited in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters 20). Smith and Watson further explain, “Temporal succession may also create a serial relationship in which multiple instances of self-referencing unfold as process,” in other words “embodied subjectivity seen in time” (Smith and Watson 34, 35). As with many collections of letters, in Hurston’s we see the serialized portrayal of her material circumstances. She tries to acquire a recording machine (Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters 98) and documents her expenses in her reports to the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (103). We get a sense of the Hurston who had to endure the “humiliation of ‘going on the WPA’ for a middle-class acclaimed professional author” (Go Gator and Muddy the Water 14), and yet only one letter references the experience (Zora Neal Hurston: A Life in Letters 420, also cited in Go Gator and Muddy the Water 179 n1). Kaplan presents these letters in contrast to our images of Hurston. Referring to the infamous “Sassy Sue” photo, Kaplan writes,


It is easy to romanticize Hurston with Model T and pistol, searching out “the Negro farthest down” and “woofing” in “jooks” along the way. But the truth is that she worked hard under harsh conditions: traveling in blistering heat, sleeping in her car when “colored” hotel rooms couldn’t be had, defending herself against jealous women, putting up with bedbugs, lack of sanitation, and poor food in some of the turpentine camps, sawmills, and phosphate mines she visited. (Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters 52)


Though, I wonder, too, whether even this new image is not somehow “romanticized,” just in a different way. Kaplan makes it clear that these letters are comments on and complications of our other images of Hurston.

The letters also bring intimate exchanges, some accompanied by drawings by Hurston. On a Christmas note to Fannie Hurst, she paints what Kaplan calls her standard Christmas card, a naked female figure, hands on her hips, bending backwards to watch the sky, standing on a flat plain; the sun peeks over rolling mountains in the background. On another note, she writes, “Thank you, thank you dear Langston. You warmed me tremendously in my dark hour” (89). This is Hurston, the professional, the effusive friend, and the sassy performer, whether writing to “Godmother” Charlotte Osgood or to Lawrence Jordan, to whom she writes, “I cannot see you forsaking the classic halls of Universities for the songs and tales of camp and road-chain gangs and what-not. I challenge you—I dare you to try it!” (90).

In this midst of this temporal self-fashioning, Hurston also employs the relational mode, in which visual and textual depictions are juxtaposed in a “dialogic” relationship, at times “interrogating one another,” “standing in relation of inversion” (22). A postcard to Carl Van Vechten, postmarked March 28, 1927, serves this purpose. On the one side, the image offers a “huge swimming pool at Alcazar Casino, St. Augustine, with white bathers” (described in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters 96). On the other side, a solitary phrase “In which I did not take a dip” (96). The message on the back of the photograph challenges the photograph’s assertion of the resort of privilege and pleasure for white bodies, by offering on the flipside text written by an excluded Other present on neither side, but made manifest through wit. Although the postcard may seem a fairly domestic version of this artistic practice, Kaplan’s anthology becomes a multimodal, multimedia temporal collaborative self-portrait, combining text with images. She even includes the photograph captioned “Young Hurston with cigarette,” a woman in a hat, whose image, Valerie Boyd explains, has been widely circulated and misidentified as the writer. We have always been collaborators in this multimedia project.


Pulling in the Horizon

Smith and Watson explain the process of the female artist, working towards autoethnographic representation in various media: “Working at this interface enables women artists to foreground the experiential history of the identity statuses they bear, and bare. Their representations in various media embody and body forth in culturally specific settings their experiential histories” (Smith and Watson 28). What archivists and advocates like Carla Kaplan and Pamela Bordelon have done by transcribing, reprinting, and staging Hurston’s lesser-known works from a variety of media, has helped reveal not Hurston’s physical body, but a corpus of work that, when examined together, reveal a multimedia, autoethnographic process that weaves her “I” into the context of a community, though not uncritically. Her versions of herself are fruitful and multiply our understanding of Hurston as artist, anthropologist, and former citizen of Eatonville.


Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York, Harcourt, 1955.

Bernard, Emily. “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston – Book Review.” Black Issues Book Review 5.1. January – February 2003. 50.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999.

Boxwell, D. A. “‘Sis Cat’ as Ethnographer: Self-Presentation and Self-Inscription in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men. African-American Review 26.4. Winter 1992. 605-617.

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life f Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Dalrymple, Helen. “Unpublished Hurston: Zora Neale Hurston Play Read at Library.” The Library of Congress Information Bulletin. 60.1 January 2001. Electronic access: 24 February 2008 <;

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Teri Hume Oliver. New York: Norton, 1999.

Duck, Leigh Anne. “‘Go there tuh know there:’ Zora Neale Hurston and the Chronotope of the Folk.” American Literary History. 13.2 (2001) 265-294.

Gambrell, Alice. Women Intellectuals, Modernism, and Difference: Transatlantic Culture 1919-1945. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

— “Introduction.” Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert Hemenway.Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1970.

Higgins Jr., Chester. “P. H. Polk and Me.” The New Crisis 105.6. December 1998. 36-41.

Hines, Linda O. “White Mythology and Black Duality: George W. Carver’s Response to Racism and the Radical Left.” The Journal of Negro History 62.2 April 1977. 134-146.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography.

— “Georgia Skin,” “My Long Haired Babe,”“Wake up, Jacob!,” Southern Recording Expedition. Collected by Herbert Halpert 1939. Electronic access: 18 February 2008 at The Library of Congress, “Florida Folklife: From the WPA Collections, 1937 – 1942.” <;

—Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston from the Federal Writers’ Project. Ed. Pamela Bordelon. New York: Norton, 1999.

— Mules and Men. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

— “Polk County: A Comedy of Negro Life on a Sawmill Camp with Authentic Negro Music in Three Acts.” ca. 1994. Electronic access: 25 February 2008 at The Library of Congress, “The Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress.” <;

— “Proposed Recording Expedition into the Floridas.” 1939. Typescript, nine pages, housed in Washington, D. C., The Library of Congress. Zora Neale Hurston Corporate Subject File. Digital ID: afcflwpa essay1. Electronic access: 18 February 2008 at The Library of Congress, “Florida Folklore: From the WPA Collections, 1937 – 1942.” <;

— “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals.” Negro: An Anthology. Ed. Nancy Cunard. London: Wishart and Co., 1934. 359-361.

Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Coll. and Ed. Carla Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Jones, Janson S. “Gonna See My Long Haired Babe.” Dust Tracks on the Web.  Electronic access: 17 February 2004 <;. This internet site expired on or about 7 June 2007. For further information, see Janson Scott Jones, Canning the Folk: Issues of Aura and Authenticity in Folklore and Geography with Zora Neale Hurston and the Florida Federal Writers’ Project, a thesis submitted in 2005 to the University of Oklahoma for the degree of Master of Arts.

Lionnet, Françoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

— “Of Mangoes and Maroons: Language, History, and the Multicultural Subject of Michelle Cliff’s Abeng.Postcolonial Representations: Women, Literature, Identity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. 22-47.

Locke, Alain.“The Negro Spirituals.” The New Negro. Ed. Alain Locke. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1925, 1992. 199-213.

Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Interfaces: Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Sundquist, Eric J. “Swing Low: The Souls of Black Folk.To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1993. 457-539.

Walker, Alice. “On Refusing to Be Humbled by Second Place in a Contest You Did Not Design: A Tradition by Now.” I Love Myself When I Am Laughing …And Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Ed. Alice Walker. New York: The Feminist Press, 1979. 1-6.

Washington, Mary Helen Washington. “Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman Half in Shadow.” I Love Myself When I Am Laughing …And Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Ed. Alice Walker. 7-25.







1   Admittedly, a full, though by no means complete, survey would also include the footage Hurston shot on her 1929 field recording.

2   Remediation is “representation of one medium in another” (Bolter and Grusin 45).

3   Prof. Kinney furnished her remarks in a lecture she gave on March 3, 2004 in the postgraduate course she was teaching at the University of California at Riverside. The title of the course was “African American Literature: Emancipation through the Harlem Renaissance.”

4   Charles MacArthur Award for outstanding new musical: “Polk County,’ by Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring, adapted by Kyle Donnelly and Cathy Madison, music composed, adapted and directed by Stephen Wade, Arena Stage (Washington, D. C.).” “And the Awards Went to …,” The Washington Post (Final Edition: 6 May 2003), p. C02.