Zora Neale Hurston
Sincerely, Zora: Performance and Authenticity Within the Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston
The Negro’s universal mimicry is not so much a thing in itself as an evidence of something that permeates his entire self. And that thing is drama . . . everything is acted out . . . There is an impromptu ceremony always ready for every hour of life. No little moment passes unadorned.
—Zora Neale Hurston, The Characteristics of Negro Expression
‘Folk’ . . . a category notoriously difficult to define yet of immense importance to Hurston. Variously invoked to refer to a demographic group, an aesthetic, an ideology, a way of life, and a mode of expression, the term ‘folk’ . . . surface[s] again and again with respect to Hurston, and with respect to African American cultural production . . .
—Anthea Kraut, Choreographing the Folk: The Dance Stagings of Zora Neale Hurston
Carl Van Vechten took over a dozen portraits of Zora Neale Hurston. She sits in most of them, in a three-quarter view, smiling sphinx-like. She wears the same enigmatic grin in her photographed rendition of the Crow Dance, a folksong she recorded in Jacksonville, Florida during her anthropological expeditions to the South. The pictures are natural, the poses easy. She seems amused, in fact, at the thought of being photographed at all. A similar naturalness pervades the hundreds of handwritten manuscript pages from her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. It shines through the closely written lines, simultaneously wry and sincere, poetic and colloquial. Placing the pictures next to the manuscript in the quiet, bright reading room of the Beinecke Library, it’s easy to imagine the woman in the pictures generating the words on the page.
Like her writing, the public Zora was a woman of contradictions. She was hot and cold, brilliant and infuriating, thoughtful and capricious. Above all, though, she was authentic. Whatever she did, Zora Neale Hurston was never seen as insincere, pretentious, or false. In fact it’s hard to remember sometimes that however natural her portraits look, Hurston did pose for them; that however organic her authorial voice feels, she picked every word with utmost care. She appeared sincere because, quite simply, that was how she wished to appear. This quality of perceived authenticity and “realness” allowed Hurston to portray herself as a kind of conduit for the genuine African American culture that she sought to evoke in her art. If her life was truthful, then so, surely, was her work — a crucial fact for the woman who made it her life’s goal to convince the world of African American folk culture’s legitimacy as an art form. As difficult as folk is to pin down, its central attribute is undoubtedly its own authenticity. We can track this creation of a truthful yet constructed identity in the successive drafts of Dust Tracks on a Road kept in the Beinecke, tracing the evolution of Zora’s narrative persona and voice, along with the vital and unique role that theater played in both her artistic and personal lives.
Hurston’s personality fascinated and infuriated her contemporaries. “Do you think she is crazy, Carlo?” Langston Hughes plaintively asked photographer Carl van Vechten after the two authors ceased their friendship over the unfinished play Mule Bone.
Van Vechten, meanwhile, did not only photograph Hurston, but wrote about her, calling her “picturesque, witty, electric, indiscreet, and unreliable.” James Weldon Johnson captured her contradictions perfectly, observing in a letter, “[N]obody could be mad at you, at least not for long.” Modern scholars obsess over Hurston’s personality and persona as well as her work. Alice Walker instigated Hurston’s rediscovery in the early 1970s (after the author herself died in obscurity in 1960) in an essay called “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” about attempting to find Hurston’s unmarked grave. The contemporary critic Zadie Smith writes movingly about how at fourteen, she worried that her “extraliterary feelings” for Hurston caused her to identify too heavily with the author instead of analyzing the literature. Ultimately, though, Smith accepts that “[i]t is Hurston herself” who elevates her writing to greatness, her own personality inextricably enhancing and enabling her own work. The work and the woman behind it exist squarely in the public sphere.
This conjoining of art and artist did not come about by chance; it happened because Hurston wanted it that way. She was a large and public personality, quick to voice an opinion and eager to promote herself as well as her work. She understood the peculiar combination of personal experience and imagination that meld to form art, and used the perceived authenticity of her public persona to augment the authenticity observed in her work. This is the woman, after all, who compiled a dictionary of slang (Harlem Slanguage) filled with words bordering on unprintable, yet also wrote the famously lyrical Their Eyes Were Watching God; who wrote letters full of eloquent thoughts about literature and art, and then added postscripts about the “white folks” who had let her stay in their cabin to write. It is vital, however, not to confuse this conscious construction of a persona with artificiality on Hurston’s part. Simply because something is constructed does not necessarily make it false; in fact, the opposite can often be true. The Beinecke houses reams of letters not just from Zora, but about her, giving us a clear picture of the face she put forth to the world. Even more illuminating, are the drafts of Dust Tracks; with each new iteration (going from manuscript to marked up typescript to a final, clean version)
the narrative grows less abstract and theoretical and more personal. Hurston increasingly uses her own life story as a lens for her broader ideas, instead of presenting those ideas simply as abstract concepts. Chapters on “the race problem,” “Love,” and “Friendship” cede to the narrative of Hurston’s early years and later success. The revisions in Dust Tracks, then, give us a glimpse not simply of the public woman, but the private artist: a writer and performer, constantly hard at work to refine herself into the figure most reflective of her art.
As we read through draft after draft, however, it is important to do so in conjunction with the other materials touching on Hurston at the Beinecke, noting what she leaves out of her autobiography as well as what she keeps in. A particularly obvious though understandable absence is that of the ill-fated Mule Bone. Although Hurston claimed in a letter to James Weldon Johnson that she had rewritten the play without Hughes’ help (and was subsequently justified in sending it to a potential theater under her name alone), Hughes’ letters tell a different story. By his account, Hurston essentially attempted to steal the play from him, secretly sending it out under her own name and then 1972, acting like the injured party when he attempted to confront her. Whatever was the case, this much is clear: a once promising partnership between two of the greatest minds of the black community disintegrated before ever coming to fruition. Hurston mentions the incident not at all in her autobiography; Hughes’ last words on the subject comprise the melancholy quote, “This play was never done because its authors fell out” written on a copy of the unfinished work.
Still, despite its unfinished nature and its fraught history (or more likely because of those facts), the play has become a kind of lost Ark of the Covenant, an emblem for a type of African American theater that could have been yet never was. This obsession has less to do with the text of the play itself and more with what its authors intended it to be: “a Negro folk comedy.” Writes Henry Louis Gates Jr. in an introduction to an edited version of the work, the piece could have and perhaps even should have been “a culturally authentic African-American theatre, one constructed upon a foundation of the black vernacular.” Whatever her subsequent behavior may have been, Hurston believed when she started Mule Bone that it would be a new type of black theater, uniquely able to capture the popular folk culture that she felt was being under- and misrepresented. In short, though already primarily a non-theatrical writer (she called Mule Bone “my first crack at the play business”), she believed that performance could, in some way, evoke folk culture in a manner different from other art forms — mirroring, perhaps, the mix of performance and authenticity that existed within her own life. In any case, despite its importance in theater history, the episode takes up not a word of Dust Tracks on a Road — a murky dispute involving lies, deception, and possible plagiarism has no place in the narrative which Hurston constructs for herself.
In contrast to this omission, the first draft of Dust Tracks (and the second) contains a chapter entitled simply, “Concert,” though this section was later cut from the main body of the book. It contains a detailed account of “The Great Day” and its later manifestation “Let the People Sing,” a review of spirituals and folk songs that Hurston organized in 1931, and which subsequently toured the country. Hurston passionately describes in detail her reasons for putting up the concert, explaining that she was not seeking a theatrical “reputation” but rather to bring an authentic type of African American music to a wider audience, placing the music of the “Macedonia church,” for the first time, inside the Broadway concert hall. In the final draft, however, this almost anthropological explanation is mostly excised, replaced by a shorter section, as if Hurston felt it would be self-indulgent to go on too long about the concert. What remains constant though, throughout all drafts as well as her own correspondence, is Hurston’s casual tone in discussing this grand, incredibly successful endeavor. She speaks of the idea and its fruition, though not of its execution. The tone is similar in a letter to James Weldon Johnson, in which she implores “His Majesty” to come see what his “humble servant” has wrought. It is almost as if Hurston wishes that the concert had somehow grown organically out of the earth in order to prove the naturalness and the validity of the music that it showcased.
In general, as Hurston continually refines her memoir through her revision process, she enhances passages that stick closely to her personal narrative, and cuts those that become too abstract, or that make her seem like too much of a distanced observer. She describes in loving detail, for instance, her time as a young girl working for an all- white Gilbert and Sullivan troupe: “the golden stairs . . . of that theater. The sounds, the smells, the back-stage jumble of things were all things to bear me up into a sweeter atmosphere.” In her first draft, she spends pages in a kind of philosophic reverie, examining the nature of time, race, love, and friendship. The language is high-flown and dense, the subject abstract. She doesn’t begin her own life story for dozens of pages and even then it is frequently interrupted by more abstraction. In contrast, the final text of Dust Tracks on a Road begins with a single poetic image, “the dead-seeming, cold rocks,” which Hurston uses to describe the effects that “time and place” have had on her, before diving directly in to her own life story and her birth in “a pure Negro town.”
This tension between Hurston’s role as an anthropologist, artist, and observer (in other words, an outsider), and her identity as an African American folk artist mirrors that of W.E.B. DuBois’ famed double consciousness, the concept that African Americans need to wear two faces, one within their own culture and one in the outside white- dominated world. Henry Louis Gates, in his afterword to Dust Tracks, notes this correspondence, “as she constantly shfts back and forth between her ‘literate’ narrator’s voice and a highly idiomatic black voice.” The division becomes particularly clear in her her casual and “idiomatic” chapter names such as “My Folks” and “Books and Things,” which contrast with the high flown language that fills many of her opening paragraphs. Such a change must be deliberate, especially since Hurston was still revising chapter names in the final draft of the book.
The divide between Zora as observer and Zora as participant runs through all drafts of Dust Tracks on a Road and also through many of Hurston’s other writings, both published and private. She both studies the folk and generates it, trying both to describe and evoke it through her changes in the tone of her narrative voice. Zora mixes high talk with low, good news with bad, and intellectual breakthroughs with gossip. She takes the disconcerting and masks it with humor — a prime example of this, and one that runs through much of her writing (including both Dust Tracks on a Road and Harlem Slanguage) is the phrase “My people! My people!” which Hurston describes as “the observations of one class of Negroes on the doings of another branch of a brother in black.” She bitterly calls it “a traditional cry” simultaneously scorning the lack of education of the many and the arrogance of the few. Simultaneously distancing herself (as the anthropologist emerges) from the phenomenon and making it intensely personal (she has heard it “from the earliest rocking of my cradle days”), She imbues in the strangely theatrical four-word phrase all that she finds wrong with black culture; it embodies the divide that she herself tries to span with her ideas and her narrative voice.
From first draft to last, Dust Tracks on a Road becomes a different book, growing from a collection of ideas and theories into the narrative of an artist’s birth. A parallel, hidden narrative of how this artistic persona came to be exists in the evolution of the drafts, accessible only to those willing and able to leaf through the thin pages of the first draft, crammed with faded, penciled words; to read Zora’s scrawled notes on her second, typed draft; to note the chapter headings still missing from the third. Every choice that she makes within her revision process is directly related to her central goal as an artist: to capture the entire sprawling, varied world of African American folk culture using any artistic means necessary. She saw this culture as contradictory, changeable, and ultimately performative, and so it follows that she would view her life — so inextricably tied up with her work — as a type of theater in and of itself. In creating a persona full of dichotomies, multi-faceted and inescapably performative, Hurston was in fact shaping herself in the image of the culture she was attempting to evoke. Her contemporaries and scholars who followed them were not incorrect in examining the author alongside her work — her life and work are inextricably intertwined. Each informed the other, powered by the woman who can in the end only be described in the way that she signed her own letters: performatively, authentically, and “sincerely, Zora.”
1 Kraut, Anthea. Choreographing the Folk: The Dance Stagings of Zora Neale Hurston. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. back to text
2 Langston Hughes to Carl Van Vechten, Zora Neale Hurston Collection 1930–1972, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library, Yale University back to text
3 Van Vechten, Carl. Some “Literary Ladies” I Have Known. back to text
4 James Weldon Johnson to Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and Grace Naile Johnson papers, circa 1850–2005: Correspondence, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library, Yale University back to text
5 Smith, Zadie. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. back to text
6 Zora Neale Hurston to James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston Collection 1930–1972, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library, Yale University back to text
7 Mule Bone, Langston Hughes papers 1862–1980: General Writings, Yale Beinecke. back to text
8 Hughes, Langston and Zora Neale Hurston. Mule Bone. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. back to text
9 Zora Neale Hurston to Carl van Vechten, Zora Neale Hurston Collection 1930–1972, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library, Yale University back to text
10 Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. Chapter Proofs. Zora Neale Hurston Collection 1930–1972, Yale Beinecke back to text
11 Ibid. back to text
12 James Weldon Johnson to Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and Grace Naile Johnson papers, circa 1850–2005: Correspondence, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library, Yale University back to text
13 Dust Tracks on a Road, 102 back to text
14 Dust Tracks on a Road, 1 back to text
15 Gates, Henry Louis. Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston. Afterword. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. back to text
16 Hurston, 177 back to text
17 Hurston, 178 back to text
18 Hurston, 177 back to text
Other Works Consulted
Dicker/sun, Glenda. African American Theater: A Cultural Companion. Malden: Polity
Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Why the Mule Bone Debate Goes On.” New York Times February 1991.
Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Springfield: University of Illinois, 1977.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Collected Plays. Ed. Jean Lee Cole and Charles Mitchell. Rutgers: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
Hurston, Zora Neale. The Characteristics of Negro Expression.
Hurston, Zora Neale and Langston Hughes. Mule Bone. Ed. George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
Krasner, David. “Migration, Fragmentation, and Identity: Zora Neale Hurston’s Color Struck and the Geography of the Harlem Renaissance.” Theatre Journal December 2001, 533–550.
“Zora Neale Hurston.” Encyclopedia Britannica.