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A Diploma and a Chevrolet

'I am looking at cars,' she told a friend in February 1927. 'There is a marvelous Oakland coupe 1927 model fully equipped, been driven 3500 miles.' In March, though, she bought a cheaper model, reporting a puncture in August, and an accident with her skirt which left her 'little panties ... panting right out in public,' supposing this would be 'classed as more tire trouble.'

Two years later she decided to buy a new vehicle rather than spend $95 on repairs, without telling her Park Avenue patron. But 'Godmother' Charlotte Osgood Mason found out when the company checked her references, and wrote back, asking 'Why couldn't Negroes be trusted?'
Hurston-Zora-Neale-LOCZora Neale Hurston


Collecting Folklore

Cars were important to Zora Neale Hurston, whose extensive folklore-collecting trips in the Deep South would have been impossible otherwise, although she relied on the generosity of others to pay for them. She often used cars to mark the changing social status of her fictional characters, including the version of herself that appears in her ground-breaking study, Mules and Men (1935).

What was - and, I think, still is - revolutionary about this book is the way it does not just document folklore but dramatises the way in which the author collected it. Having studied anthropology with Franz Boas at Barnard College in New York, Hurston thought long and hard about how to present her findings, a task complicated by her benefactor's ridiculous insistence that she be consulted at every turn. In fact, her experiences made their way into short stories, her first novel, sketches written for the theatre, and articles published in the Journal of American Folklore. But it was in Mules that she found the perfect showcase for her research.

The narrative effectively orders the material thematically, and scenes are carefully constructed so that the tales (and the conversation that precedes and follows them) more clearly reveal their significance to the culture from which they emerge. We get a sense that the tales are not just a form of entertainment but often recalled as a way of responding critically to current circumstances. Above all - and this is Mules' true genius - they are made to comment on Hurston's own anthropological practice, both as a fieldworker and the author of a monograph.

A dismissive review at the time called on its author to 'cast her lot with the folk' rather than superficially skim its stories, songs and jokes. Nowadays the prevailing wisdom would reply: she was the folk, at one with the people she wrote about. And yet when Hurston, on her opening page, pictures herself returning to her 'native village' with a 'diploma and a Chevrolet', as she puts it, one has to wonder whether Eatonville, Florida was the self-sufficient idyllic rural black community a generation of critics have often assumed it to be.

Driving South

The car's appearance on the very first page of the text might be interpreted as a strategy adopted by the author to exaggerate her outsider status, in order to subsequently impress the reader how far she later managed to blend in. Even if she makes clear that her friends in Eatonville were not going to be intimidated by the vehicle, it is obvious that the strangers she will meet later on will be.

But the Chevrolet does not go away. It appears twice more in the Introduction, adding a faint brush of narrative to general remarks on the difficulties in collecting folklore, before crossing the township line at the beginning of Part One. Henceforth the car reappears at key points in the story.

Later on she leaves Eatonville and heads south and as she passes the Polk County line
[t]he asphalt curved deeply and when it straightened out we saw a huge smoke-stack blowing smut against the sky. A big sign said, 'Everglades Cypress Lumber Company, Loughman, Florida.'

We had meant to keep on to Bartow or Lakeland and we debated the subject between us until we reached the opening, then I won. We went in. The little Chevrolet was all against it. The thirty odd miles that we can come, it argued, was nothing but an appetizer. Lakeland was still thirty miles away and no telling what the road held. But it sauntered on down the bark-covered road and into the quarters just as if it had really wanted to come.

We halted.
If folk-tales common confer human characteristics on animals, Hurston does the same with her car, which, far from feeling out of place as it moves closer towards the mythical heart of the 'real' South, must actually be restrained in its enthusiasm to lead the way.

Once in the camp, however, the car's presence arouses the suspicion of the workers.
They all thought I must be a revenue officer or a detective of some kind. They were accustomed to strange women dropping into the quarters, but not in shiny gray Chevrolets. They usually came plodding down the big road or counting railroad ties. The car made me look too prosperous. So they set me aside as different.
But she has a solution:
I took occasion that night to impress the job with the fact that I was also a fugitive from justice, 'bootlegging'. They were hot behind me in Jacksonville and they wanted me in Miami. So I was hiding out. That sounded reasonable. Bootleggers always have cars. I was taken in.
Yet she still has problems persuading the men to tell stories - '"dey say youse rich"' - this time the difference is attributed to her expensive dress: '"Oh, Ah ain't got doodley squat," I countered,' claiming that her man bought her the dress from the proceeds of their illegal trade when business was better.

It is a story she doesn't have to rely on for long. She proves she is 'their kind' by being able to sing a few verses of 'John Henry'. 'After that my car was everybody's car' and she teams up with James Presley and Slim to form an impromptu vocal group, travelling to Mulberry, Pierce and Lakeland. Soon Hurston is confident enough to reveal her true purpose: 'I got confidential and told them all what I wanted.'

Mules and Men, therefore, does not represent the car as an obstacle to her project, but as an important asset. According to the account she gave in her autobiography of the time she spent in Polk Country, it was in buying drinks and giving rides in her car to Slim - in order to 'build him up a bit' as a 'valuable' informant - that she enrages his former girlfriend Lucy, and comes close to losing her life.

But if the car got her into trouble, it also gets her out of it. The Chevrolet makes a final appearance in the getaway at the end of Part One, amid the chaos of shouting and fighting:
Curses, oaths, cries and the whole place was in motion. Blood was on the floor. I fell out of the door over a man lying on the steps, who either fell himself trying to run or got knocked down. I don't know. I was in the car in a second and in high just too quick. Jim and Slim helped me throw my bags into the car and I saw the sun rising as I approached Crescent City.
The recurring appearance of the car in the text serves surely not 'to ease the reader into an alien environment', as one biographer has claimed, but to underline (perhaps even exaggerate) the distance between the mobile Hurston and her static informants, trapped - most of them - for the rest of their lives in the one place. The distance is evoked poignantly by one of her Eatonville friends, who says to her when she states her intention of moving on:
'If Ah wuz in power Ah'd go 'long with you, Zora,' Bubber added wistfully. 'Ah learnt all Ah know 'bout pickin' de box in Polk County. But Ah ain't even got money essence. 'Tain't no mo' hawgs 'round here. Ah cain't buy no chickens. Guess Ah have tuh eat gopher.
It is true that the car disappears (with one exception) in Part Two which ends with the narrator apparently now established in business as a conjure woman in New Orleans with Kitty Brown, rooted in one place while others visit her. Outside the frame of the book, of course, she would travel onward, driving back to New York on one occasion, accompanied by Langston Hughes and Jessie Fauset, through Alabama and Georgia. This extra-textual evidence is, naturally, inadmissible, but only, in fact, reinforces what Hurston herself writes in the closing paragraphs of Mules and Men in the much-puzzled-over tale about 'Sis Cat.'

Smelling a Rat

The tale concerns Sis Cat's two attempts to eat Rat. The first time, Rat reminds her to wash her face and hands beforehand, and as she does so, he takes the opportunity to escape. Cat doesn't fall for the trick the next time, instead choosing to consume her prey and wash herself afterwards. Hurston concludes: 'I'm sitting here like Sis Cat, washing my face and usin' my manners.'

Critics tend to argue that, if she is claming to have fooled anyone, it must be the guardians of literary or anthropological orthodoxy. But surely the relationship between the cat and the rat more closely parallels Hurston's relation with folklore, and recalls the difficulties she discusses in her Introduction. If she had wanted a poetic figure for her differences between her own work and that of conventional treatments of folklore, she would have chosen a tale with two predators, such as the stories about Brer Dawg and Brer Rabbit told earlier in the book.

The structure of the Sis Cat tale parallels Hurston's own attempts to catch her prey. According to her autobiography, the first time she tried to collect folklore, she failed:
I found out later that it was not because I had no talents for research, but because I did not have the right approach. The glamor of Barnard College was still upon me. I dwelt in marble halls. I knew where the material was all right. But, I went about asking, in carefully accented Barnardese, "Pardon me, but do you know any folk-tales or folk-songs?"
This figurative washing of the face and hands alerts her potential informants, who 'looked at me and shook their heads. No, they had never heard of anything like that around here.' In the words of Mules' Introduction, her attempt to 'probe' was 'smothered under a lot of laughter and pleasantries.'

The next time she went South, she was careful to downplay her mission as collector, even to the extent of fabricating an alternative identity. Her 'manners' as a writer (novelist, anthropologist) are not 'used' until after she had got the material she wanted and carried her field-notes off to the one-room shack in Eau Gallie, Florida, where she began to draft her manuscript.

Sis Cat made one earlier appearance in Mules and Men. She and Brer Dawg pool resources and buy a whole ham and, returning home, take turns at carrying it. But while Dawg carries it to the chant of 'Ours! Ours! Ours! Our ham!', Cat accompanies her labours with 'My ham, my ham, my ham.' Not surprisingly,
[w]hen they was almost home, de cat was carryin' de ham and all of a sudden she sprung up a tree and set up there eatin' up de ham. De Dawg did all he could to stop her, but he couldn't clim' and so he couldn't do nothin' but bark. But he tole de cat, 'You up dat tree eatin' all de ham, and Ah can't git to you. But when you come down ahm gointer make you take dis Indian River for uh dusty road'.
Unlike many of the other tales this is not met with spontaneous collective laughter or an appreciative remark from Hurston. I imagine a there is an awkward silence before the story-teller asks, rather pointedly: '"Didja ever pass off much time round de railroad camps, Zora?"'.

Can it be that Mack Ford is signifyin on Hurston here, that his tale is a (rueful, bitter?) fable about the folklorist herself, selfishly taking something that belongs to everyone and is meant to be shared?
Posted by Alasdair Pettinger Fri 10 Jun 2011 23:47 GMT+0100
 

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