Whose “Folk” Are They Anyway?
Whose “Folk” Are They Anyway?
Zora Neale Hurston and Lady Augusta Gregory in the Atlantic World
Abstract and Keywords
Drawing on insights from gender and performance studies, this chapter uses the careers and writings of Florida’s Zora Neale Hurston and Ireland’s Lady Augusta Gregory to examine the creation of both Black and Green Atlantics. By exploring their work and subsequent public reputations, it reveals how powerful notions of Irish and black, especially southern black, identity have been generated, disseminated, and redeployed around the Atlantic World, often with recourse to similar invocations of agrarianism, religiosity, and resistance (cultural and political) to oppression. The chapter also offers a pointed critique of the tendency to ignore or marginalize women in much Atlantic Studies.
What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow for the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.
James Weldon Johnson, The Book of American Negro Poetry
Theatricality has become central to our imagining of the historical real.
Alan Ackerman and Martin Puchner, Against Theater: Creative Destruction on the Modernist Stage
The first epigraph to this essay marks an important moment in Irish and African American relations. It is now seen as a kind of textual “origin story” for how literary critics and cultural historians have developed comparisons between the Irish and Harlem Renaissances in the early twentieth century. The second epigraph, by contrast, allows us to understand the historical weight of Johnson’s analogy. In 1922, when Johnson published his anthology, he recognized the efficacy of theatrical representation as a mode of defining and presenting the “New Negro,” and drew most of his examples on how to create an authentic Negro poetry from African American spirituals, folk stories, dance, and performance.1
In cultural studies across disciplines his analogy is cited, recited, and repeated to help explain and theorize historical relations between the Irish (p.196) and Harlem Renaissances, and later relations between Irish and African American cultural representations.2 The language of performance is the evidence on which claims to historical relationships are made. That is, “theatricality has,” indeed, “become central to our imagining of the historical real.”3
But what if this historical moment is not initiated by James Weldon Johnson’s evocation of Synge? What if this historical moment (where one Renaissance speaks to another) is not initiated through the strong intentionality of aesthetic influence that went on to activate shared strategies of cultural engagement and cultural national struggle? What other relations are obscured when this moment is continually repeated? A different path into the relations between the two movements—a longer and seedier path—follows from theater history and performance studies and suggests ways of understanding how two key figures, Zora Neale Hurston and Lady Augusta Gregory, operated in the movements, how they were intrinsic to the success of these movements and yet often appeared everywhere extrinsic to them. In the late twentieth century, their biographical life returns to the stage and their iconic images return to the landscapes of the U.S. South and the West of Ireland. If “performances carry with them the memory of otherwise forgotten substitutions—those that were rejected and, even more invisibly, those that have succeeded,”4 I suggest that these returns—as characters to the stage, as names affixed to festivals, museums, summer schools, and hotels—function, using James Clifford’s phrase, as “allegories of salvage.”5
In doing so, they operate as concrete allegories and “forgotten substitutions.” Their alleged permanence in the regional landscape means that the historical memory of their own contested place in national and regional narratives is forgotten. Their ambivalent place is now substituted by their contemporary capacity to engender regional authenticity and symbolize the life of the community. In this way, their return tells us less about the relations between the Irish and Harlem Renaissances and far more about the anxious relations between the regional imagination of the nation and the contemporary migratory patterns that keep divesting these regions of their ability to serve as “authentic” touchstones in national origin stories. In fact, their own “salvaging” of the folk in their early-twentieth-century ethnographic work sheds light on how these regions have salvaged Hurston and Gregory at the moment when the South and Ireland are becom (p.197) ing home to new migratory “folk” circulating the Atlantic World (and beyond).
This examination will require a reframing of the rules and signatures of the modernist paradigm that allows these two movements to cohere in historical and critical studies. It will mean attending to the particularities of this historical moment while simultaneously understanding it as carrying along the general (generic) qualities of all other historical “flash-points” in Black and Green Atlantic exchange (the cultural and political relationships between the African and Irish diasporas). Broadly stated, this “generic” quality revolves around the absence of women. From the mid-nineteenth-century political kinship between Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell to the late-twentieth-century stage performances that elucidate and make explicit cultural kinship between the Irish and African diasporas, women are everywhere visible and nowhere relevant to the production of knowledge or the circum-Atlantic exchange of ideas. Instead, women who helped to instantiate the political and cultural movements recorded by historians and literary critics are framed as singular, exceptional, extraordinary, peculiar, and anomalous.
I put pressure on these categories and take seriously the generic quality that casts women in such a way that visibility rarely equals recognition. The paradigm I use to unsettle the particularity of women’s visibility at this historical “flashpoint” is articulated by what I call “haptic allegories.” The term “haptic” means “able to come into contact with.” It is the way bodies orient themselves to the world through touch, through both bodily feelings and muscular sensation. Haptic “is also related to kinesthesis, the ability of our bodies to sense their own movement in space.”6 Allegory, on the other hand, is an incoherent narrative or image that says other than it means and means other than it says. “Within philosophy,” however, “allegory has another status as the mode in which not the subject, but the objective world expresses meaning.”7 Yoking these two conceptions of allegory together—one that attributes intentions to subjects (the writer, the social actor, the artist) and one that attributes intentions to objects (the play, the theatrical character, the image)—requires that we take seriously the haptic qualities of the allegory: the tactile and kin(esth)etic gestures that move both subjects and objects across the historiographical stage-surface together. Hurston’s and Gregory’s reified place in the contemporary regional landscape must be balanced against their own dynamic (p.198) movements. Tracking the way they continue to jump between the real (reflection) and the ideal (creation), I hope to “make intelligible series of phenomena whose kinship ha[s] eluded or could elude the historian’s gaze.”8
At first glance, this pursuit (one invested in the philosophical foundations of mimesis) seems quite a distance removed from the material conditions that precipitated relations between the Black and Green Atlantics. I will begin by tracing the intersections, the crossroads, where theatricality and colonialism circulate around a feminine still point and are joined via a dialectical, metaphoric relationship. While not denying the efficacy of this relationship, I spend time thinking about the still point, the singular feminine models that resist dialecticism. This allegorical paradigm is one whose “movement goes from singularity to singularity and, without ever leaving singularity, transforms every singular case into an exemplar of a general rule that can never be stated a priori.”9 Gordon Teskey writes, “singularity operates in allegory as does the vanishing point in a linear perspective: it is never visible itself, but everything that is visible directs the eye toward it.”10 I want to spend some time focusing on this vanishing point, to train the eye to see its image, in all of its fraught, fractured, and impossible detail.
Lady Augusta Gregory (1852–1932) and Zora Neale Hurston (1891– 1960) do not—on the surface of things—seem to form a likely kinship. This is particularly the case when we take into account that Gregory was a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry who resided at the Roxborough Estate (in County Galway) during her childhood and at her husband’s estate in Coole Park (also in County Galway) during her adult life. Hurston grew up in America’s first incorporated all-black township, Eatonville, Florida. From there she moved to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City, where she studied anthropology with Franz Boas at Columbia University. Their participation in what have become known as the Irish Renaissance (1890s–1930s) and the Harlem Renaissance (1910s–1930s) is well documented. Gregory is considered the matriarch of the Irish Renaissance, while Hurston is given prominence of place as an artist of the Harlem Renaissance.
Gregory is like Hurston in two significant ways: she not only helped to create the manifesto for an Irish national theater during the Celtic revival (a task that Hurston begins to chart for the Harlem Renaissance in her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression”  and in her infamous (p.199) collaboration with Langston Hughes on the play Mule Bone), but also contributed to enriching the folk aesthetic of the movement through both ethnographic fieldwork in the West of Ireland, where she collected folklore, and, of course, in her dramatic works. Hurston was also an ethnographer, and her fieldwork—where she collected African American folklore—took her back to Eatonville before going farther South to New Orleans, the Bahamas, Haiti, and Jamaica. This fieldwork would inspire her theories of performance, which she worked out in plays, musical reviews, novels, and short stories and in the creation and writing of the ethnographies themselves. Even more than Hurston, Gregory was in almost all respects at the epicenter of the Irish Renaissance (although she is typically used as a foil to clarify the artistic projects of W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge).
Indeed, both women worked across artistic genres: folklore collecting, playwriting, theatrical directing, and, in Hurston’s case, novel writing while also writing poetry and essays on drama and political culture. It is, perhaps, because of the range of their interests and their place as women who are both constructed as artistic “insiders” and political “outsiders” that they find themselves everywhere mentioned in the history of these movements and nowhere relevant in political and cultural exchange between them. That is, Hurston’s conservative views on segregation and Gregory’s seemingly ambivalent position in relation to unionism and Irish nationalism are often noted in ways that position them “outside” the progressive politics of their peers and collaborators. Yet, their dramatic output (in a variety of genres) makes them interesting companions when considering how kinships are predicated on their absence.
From Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell in the mid-nineteenth century to Marcus Garvey and Eamon de Valera in the early twentieth, we see antislavery wed to anticolonialism and black nationalism wed to Irish independence.11 I am interested in the twinned efficacy of political kinship (via anticolonial struggle) and cultural kinship (via the theatrical idiom) that helped to define the “New Negro” and the character of Ireland’s “Ancient Idealism.”12 Throughout this essay I unpack these relationships—ones forged through regional and national struggle, Atlantic exchange (though often more rhetorical than literal), and cultural echoes and borrowings. In this way I wish to explore “wounded kinships” that other, more explicit forms of kinship make invisible.13 I want to take seriously the claim that “theatricality has become central to our imagining (p.200) of the historical real,” and expand the implications to move far beyond the modernist stage and into the historiographical stage-space of the U.S. South and the West of Ireland. In this instance I do not wish to use history to contextualize theater, but to illuminate how theatrical production and performance theory animated historical life and continues to animate historiography.
Kinship, Authenticity, and the Folk
In order to explore this, let us return to James Weldon Johnson, who starts to stake a claim for cultural kinship with the Irish Revival by wanting the African American poet to do “what Synge did for the Irish.” To make claims for kinship using the theatrical idiom and theatrical practice (via mimesis; reflection) is often in a dialectical struggle with an Aristotelian model (via poesies; action). To update Aristotle’s thoughts here, one must first “make it up” and then “make it real.” It is this tension between the reflection of an ideal (mimesis) and re-presentation and creation (poesies) that underpins so much of the anxiety regarding authenticity and performance during the Irish and Harlem Renaissances (and beyond). That Johnson could invoke Synge as a model is an irony only tacitly addressed by contemporary critics. Indeed, Synge’s Playboy of the Western World would have been known to Johnson when the Abbey Theater toured America in 1911 under the management of Lady Gregory and two years after Synge’s death. The play spurred transnational controversy among Irish and Irish American audiences, who rioted at theaters because they thought his depictions of the West of Ireland were inauthentic. The line from the play that incited rioting audiences was: “a drift of females standing in their shifts.” It was an ostensible outrage to chaste Irish women everywhere in large part because the mention of actual female sexuality—even via an undergarment—was a sacrilege to the nationalist cause, which liked its women mute and mythical. It was Gregory who was left to defend it against censors on the American tour.
Moreover, it was Zora Neale Hurston, in her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression” and in her plays, prose fiction, and ethnographic work, who manifested and enriched Johnson’s call to revise and reimagine the place of Negro folk performance for the movement. When she did so, she was castigated as returning the Negro to a world of blackface minstrelsy. Nevertheless, Johnson’s word in the Book of American Negro Poetry has (p.201) never ceased to form the basis of the textual origin story for how relationships between the Irish and Harlem Renaissances are framed. It remains instructive, however, precisely because it conceals so well what is essential to it: the rift between reflection and creation; authenticity and performance; the “illegitimate” kinship between historical materialism and theories of performance (in other words, our haptic and allegorical encounters with the “real”).
These are anxieties that Hurston and Gregory emulate. Curiously, they are constantly pushing this struggle to its limits, evoking the “authenticity” of the folk in their ethnographic work, self-consciously inserting themselves into their ethnographies (most significantly in Hurston’s Mules and Men  and Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland ), writing comedic drama and tactically employing irony and laughter to combat the legacy of blackface minstrelsy and the Irish caricature of English melodrama, and often coming very close to the bone, perhaps too close. In doing so, they themselves become the focus of anxiety where compatriots in the artistic struggles doubt their own “authenticity.”
Suspicion about their work and their “misplaced” politics begins in their own lifetimes. In his 1937 review of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright states: “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.”14 In the same article he also reviews Waters Turpin’s novel These Low Grounds. He uses Turpin’s novel as a foil for Hurston’s work and states that “Turpin’s faults as a writer are those of an honest man trying desperately to say something; but Zora Neale Hurston lacks even that excuse.”15 Hurston’s representations are not “honest” (authentic); by extension, neither is she.
In his autobiography, George Moore (Irish novelist, dramatist, and critic who was a part of the Celtic revival) remarks, “Lady Gregory has never been for me a very real person. I imagine her without a mother, or father, or sisters, or brothers, sans attaché.”16 Throughout this volume he pulls apart her credibility—not only her personhood but also her credibility as a folklorist and dramatist who, he says, knows nothing of the Irish language. He writes that Gregory is “content to pepper her paper with a few idiomatic turns of speech which she very often does not use (p.202) correctly” and that she should have studied “the differences between urban and rural speech” in Ireland.17 Gregory is imagined without kin; her work is described as inauthentic.
As these short excerpts suggest, to doubt the legitimacy of representation (aesthetic, social, and political) is also to doubt the legitimacy of the person. To be cast out as not “honest”‘ and not “real” is to be cast into the theatrical imagination where the condition of genealogy and kinship is illegitimacy. Thinking more philosophically about the anxieties that were produced by a particular historical moment (or reproduced using a different frame) shows how historical production itself is often riddled with this anxiety about the relationship between reflection and creation.
Hurston and Gregory both write about the rural folk during times of great migration (African Americans from the South to the North, the Irish from the West of Ireland to the American North), while the “folk” they write about are continually interpreted as spatially isolated and temporally distant from the modern. Their relationship to the “authentic folk” is negotiated (albeit differently) with their own positioning in the communities they study, where the “folk” are both “not them” and “not not them.”18 There is a significant analogical relationship between these two women. In Rethinking Folk Drama, Steve Tillis, borrowing from biologist Stephen J. Gould, reminds us that analogies are “similarities formed within different genetic systems by selective pressures of similar environments.” Homologies, on the other hand, are “similarities based on inheritance of the same genes or structures from common ancestors.”19 This analogical examination of Hurston and Gregory leads toward an understanding of a “common ancestor or inheritance.” If this is true, however, that common ancestor will emerge in the frame of theater (an impossibly double and dubious ancestor). It is in this frame that several competing and interrelated narratives are brought to the fore. They concern mimesis, gender, and how the representational spaces of the Atlantic World’s “origi-nary” plantation colonies continue to circulate the waterways.
Before Gregory and Hurston arrived on the scene to collect folklore in the West of Ireland and the southern United States, these regions had long fascinated the Atlantic imaginary. From the mid-nineteenth century to (p.203) well into the twentieth, the regions became synonymous with the “Irish question” and the “race problem.” In the Atlantic World, this was also how their regional relationship was contiguously understood. The nineteenth-century Land Wars (1870s–90s) that took place in Ireland after the Great Irish Famine (1845–51) and amid the rising tide of anticolonial struggle was historically situated at the moment when the American Civil War (1861–65) had been conceded and the subsequent Reconstruction had failed (1880s). Of course, the “Irish question” and the “race problem” were of national importance to Great Britain and the United States, but the West of Ireland and the South provided the political and cultural stage-space where these questions and problems were made manifest. And, when questions and problems regarding these regions are invoked, the thesis for understanding them is inevitably developed around the figure of woman who allegorizes a politics of threat, that is, a figure who specifically acts as the “ground” upon which threats emerge.
In the English imagination this was most visibly represented in the Punch cartoons with their ubiquitous depictions of Fenian “apes” who threatened the feminine and vulnerable Hibernia (Ireland) and needed protection from Britannia. In the southern imagination this took the image of the southern white woman whose chastity and safety were under constant threat from black men, who were also depicted as “apes” and as potential rapists, a sexual threat linked to the fear of miscegenation and a fear of “hybrid” origin. This myth justified the lynching of black men in the South throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and was first revealed as myth in the tireless research of Ida B. Wells in her 1892 publication, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Thus, a threat to a way of life, to legal and political control of the land—either for the white southerner or the landed gentry in Ireland—was constituted as a threat to the white female body, which was figured as property. The more invisible threat in this construction was to the black female body, which was considered sexually available, thus keeping women across the color line from seeing their construction as related (as there is a fine line between being imagined as property and as prostitute).
But if the land imagined as woman was under threat during this time, this was precariously balanced alongside woman as threat: as political conversations circulated around the “race problem” and the “Irish question,” the “woman question” held tightly the hand. All of these issues were played out—sometimes separately, sometimes together—on political and (p.204) theatrical stages in Europe and America. In all respects, the “woman question” fractures the binary realms of the colonial and anticolonial imagination. That is, when cultural nationalism linked to anticolonial struggle denounces the official discourse, it does so without having to displace the imagined place of “woman.”
The figure of woman loses its ground, so to speak, when the bodies and voices of real women begin to act on their own behalf and threaten the stable referent on which grounds for political power are waged. If the figure of woman was used to illuminate a threat to “heritage,” a way of life and political control, the bodies of women in the public sphere during this time threatened claims to self-sameness, the homogeneous relationship between their bodies and their allegorical images. Though neither Gregory nor Hurston was politically active in the suffragette movement, their work in the cultural sphere and their own independent movements are not unrelated to the “universality” of the “woman question” that emerged during this time period.
Significantly, their own race and class positioning in these narratives means that their movements are not always culturally intelligible within the feminist frame. After all, Hurston was very aware of how southern black women were used as a foil for understanding white femininity and the New (male) Negro. Moreover, as a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, Lady Gregory would hardly be imagined as the figure of the vulnerable Hibernia. No longer a reflection of a struggle for control, but active agents, they become “the same as what?”20 The essential and immutable character of woman where, as Plato put it, she “imitates the earth” shows signs of disaggregating and disintegration. If her image allegorizes a politics of threat, her body—particularly in this context the bodies of Hurston and Gregory—literalizes a politics of doubt. In order for the allegory to work, women qua women who act on their own behalf must be jettisoned to a singular category of aberrant: operating outside the normalizing framework that allows ideology to make coherent (allegorical) sense of the “figure” of woman. If Hurston and Gregory are veiled in suspicion as to their own “legitimacy” it is because they make the South and the West of Ireland speak in other voices: voices that say other than what they mean and mean other than what they say.
In the remainder of this essay I explore how Gregory and Hurston produce, and are produced as, allegory. I consider how anachronistic and universalistic depictions of women are made sense of through the (p.205) historical details of a particular period in such a way that we forget that we have seen them before and we mis-recognize when we see them again. It is precisely because in the allegorical paradigm I discuss here where “there are hybrids of archetype and phenomenon, first-timeness and repetition” that kinship (with its desire to locate itself in single origins, familial and national structures of legitimacy) alludes our gaze.21 This allegorical frame is both a form of creation and a poetics of interpretation—it is not legible through inductive reasoning (particular to universal) or deductive reasoning (universal to particular), which typically function as the organizing principles in historical studies. Instead, the paradigm “is defined by a third and paradoxical type of movement, which goes from particular to particular.”22
Figures of Women in Movement
It is in the political and cultural context of the early twentieth century that Gregory and Hurston arrive on the scene with their desire to collect “authentic” folklore in regions whose “authentic character” is already at the epicenter of representational struggle. While this struggle is being waged via the circulation of popular images and bodily reproduced on the stage, these images were not confined to the cultural sphere. They were everywhere being substantiated by “scientific” research on the ground, particularly in the field of anthropology. “Authenticity” and the “folk” animated social life in the early twentieth century as both artistic and scientific communities attempted to understand “art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” As Walter Benjamin writes, “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.”23 Mechanical reproduction, Benjamin suggests, defies the search for origins. While it might defy this search, the reflex was (and is) pervasive. The “folk,” which falls under the umbrella idiom of the “primitive” (articulated as the search for origins, a return to “authentic” expressive culture), took artists, scholars, and scientists of very different aesthetic and disciplinary dispositions into a past that was figured in both historical and geographic terms.24
In this respect, Gregory’s and Hurston’s ethnographic folklore collecting can be placed in the genealogy of colonial anthropological pursuits of the time. Yet, their “intentions” and their physical presence in the field muddy the waters between art and science, between imitation and authenticity. Strictly speaking, neither Gregory nor Hurston was as committed (p.206) to the “scientific rigor” of anthropological methods as she was to recording the idioms and dialect of the folk stories in her community. Of course, Hurston was trained as an anthropologist under the direction of Franz Boas at Columbia and draws on the methods of the discipline with much greater ease and facility than the untutored Gregory. Nevertheless, as women ethnographers in the early decades of the twentieth century who were collecting folklore in their own backyards, so to speak, they were both agents of their studies while aware that their relationship to the communities (and their own subject position) could just as easily make them objects of inquiry.
Returning to folk expression was a paradigm of modernism’s relationship to performance across the arts and sciences. Returning to the “folk” during the Irish and Harlem Renaissances, which was predicated on a return to the West of Ireland and the southern United States, was a means of returning theater to its “roots”—something more “primitive” and “archaic,” more emotive and, thus, more “real.” Gregory and Hurston headed out to the fields of the West and South to collect folklore in an attempt to capture, salvage, and make manifest (through their writing and stage performances) the formula of pathos that would lead to the origins of expressive culture for a nation. In turn, they become part of the formula. They are figures of women in movement caught between two representational regimes: the poetic and the mimetic. While they are on a search for the pathos formula (a search for archetypes of expressive culture) they are “read” in terms of an “ethos” formula (Plato’s pervasive sphere of influence where mimesis is understood as representing the characteristic spirit, prevalent tone of sentiment, of a people or community).25
This is most clearly understood when one explores how their anthropological pursuits were inextricably bound to their theatrical ones. Gregory alludes to the relationship between the “folk” and theatrical expression in Our Irish Theatre (1914), where she begins to articulate the goals of an Irish national theater project. This is written in concert with her folklore-collecting projects in the West of Ireland during this time. She writes:
We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory, and believe that our desire to bring upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland will ensure for us a tolerant welcome, and that freedom to experiment which is not found in theaters of England, and without (p.207) which no new movement in art or literature can succeed. We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of ancient idealism. We are confident of the support of all Irish people, who are weary of misrepresentation, in carrying out a work that is outside all political questions that divide us.26
In order for Gregory to be a part of the “ancient idealism” of the people, the theater must be “outside all political questions that divide us”; this is possible (at least rhetorically possible in this instance) because she “brings upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland” that she collected in the field. That both projects—ethnographic fieldwork and dramaturgical creation—were happening simultaneously (and that Gregory was the linchpin between them) will be important to this discussion.
Hurston’s plans for “the new, real, Negro theater” are expressed in letters to Langston Hughes that she sends “during the early period of her research in the South, collecting black folklore at Columbia under Franz Boas.”27 In a letter from April 12, 1928, she shares with Hughes her plans to create “a culturally authentic African-American theater, one constructed upon the foundations of black vernacular.”28 In this letter she writes: “Did I tell you before I left about the new, the real Negro theater I plan? Well, I shall, or rather we shall act out the folk tales, however short, with the abrupt angularity and naivete of the primitive ’bama Nigger. Quote with native settings. What do you think?”29
Hurston reformulates many of the ideas she writes to Hughes in “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934). In this essay she makes complex (and some would say contradictory) claims in reference to “originality” and “drama.” She states, “it is obvious that to get back to original sources is much too difficult for any group to claim very much as a certainty. What we really mean by originality is modification of ideas.”30 With regard to drama she states, “the Negro’s universal mimicry is not so much a thing in itself as evidence of something which permeates his entire self. And that thing is drama.”31
Hurston’s and Gregory’s quest for authentic “folk” is not unique. Modernist artists and early-twentieth-century anthropologists all found rich material for artistic creation and scientific theorizing. What is unique was that they found the “folk” in their own backyard and readily identified the “folk” with the theater (and, by extension, cultural national projects) (p.208) while also inserting themselves into their folklore collections. They created personae for themselves that, in turn, allowed the “ethnographic encounter” to become “the subject of the book, a fable of communication, rapport, and, finally, a kind of fictional, but potent, kinship.”32 While other modernist artists and theater practitioners may have found inspiration from “exotic” folk (Bertolt Brecht from Chinese acting; Antonin Artaud from Balinese dance; Pablo Picasso from African masks), there was never any desire or inclination to become an anthropologist, to study the “authentic” culture from the “inside.” These “exotic” and “archaic” forms of expression were fashioned as detachable characteristics from cultures displaced both historically and geographically and that served as inspiration for a new Western art and drama.33 Gregory’s and Hurston’s structure of address was unique in this regard: they presumed to both “speak for” and be a part of the “exotic” cultures they studied.
While they, too, found forms of expression in the field that could be detached and re-presented onstage, these “detachable” characteristics— idioms and gestures of folk expression—carried with them the gravitas of real Irish folk and southern folk. That is, for them, performance led back to the folk whose self-expression was inextricably tied to the land and their history on that land. For Hurston and Gregory, their folk drama was a part of the formula of pathos that resided—nay, originated—in the South and in the West of Ireland. The multiple images—folkloric and theatrical—were held in a precarious balance insofar as it was not clear what form of expression was imitating the other. Their “intentions” for theatrical representation presuppose that one could “arrang[e], as far as possible, the individual images in chronological order by following the probable generic relation that, binding one to the other, would eventually allow us to go back to the archetype, to the ‘formula of pathos’ from which they all originate.”34
This is implied not only in Our Irish Theatre and “Characteristics of Negro Expression” but also in the structure of address in the folklore collections that are fashioned as faithful recordings of cultural expression. In the introduction to her first chapter in Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Gregory announces that she “had no theories, no case to prove, I but ‘held a clean mirror to tradition.’”35 Hurston re-inflects the mirror metaphor by announcing in the introduction to Mules and Men that she was “glad when somebody told me: you may go and collect Negro folk (p.209) lore.” She was able to collect the folklore, she says, because she had the “spy-glass of anthropology to look through.”36
However, by inserting themselves as personae in the folklore they record, they continually make explicit the poetic regime that they inhabit. That is, Gregory announces, “even when I began to gather these stories, I cared less for evidence given in them than for the beautiful rhythmic sentences in which they were told,” because they “provide a clue, a thread, leading through the maze to that mountain top where things visible and invisible meet.”37 When Hurston announces to the Eatonville folks that she has come “to collect some old stories and tales,” she is asked by B. Moseley: “What you mean, Zora, them big old lies we tell when we’re jus’ sittin’ around here on the store porch doin’ nothin’?”38 These “lies,” Zora reports, “are not as easy to collect as they sound,” because people are “reluctant to reveal that which the soul lives by.”39 They go into the field knowing that they are collecting lore that cannot be confirmed and cannot be denied: folklore stories that are “lies” and have no “evidence,” and at the same time are the expressive means by which “the soul lives” and “where the visible and invisible meet.” But if the stories they record cannot be confirmed and cannot be denied, the veracity of the folklore is considered suspect in relation to the teller, not the tale.
Gregory’s critics say that the folklore was made up for her, that her place in the stories (and by proxy in her community) was that of a unionist who was separated from the community by her class and ethnicity (indeed, that there are very few “bad landlord” stories appears as the “proof ” that the tales are not “real”).40 Gregory also includes at least one reference to a comedy she has written for the stage (The Full Moon) when she introduces a section in the volume on “The Fool of Forth.”41 This last example illuminates what appears to be Gregory’s gravest error in having her folklore collection “authenticated”: the stories, it is sometimes assumed by her contemporaries, are not collected for their own sake but simply as “material” to be mined for theatrical representation.
Hurston’s persona, “Zora,” is the guiding principle and our guide through Mules and Men, whose narrative structure complicates how we are to read it in terms of genre. By using a narrative conceit more akin to the work of fiction (particularly the novel) than to ethnographic report-age, the veracity of the tales is questioned because the very form makes critics doubt how the “real” can possibly be represented via a medium too (p.210) artistic to be scientifically authentic, and a writing style where the ethnographer fashions herself as the protagonist. In other words, Gregory’s and Hurston’s self-conscious structure of address—their own allegorical conceits—allows for commonsensical readings of their work that become displacement exercises that tell us about their person. And their person is all the more dubious because they do not seem to be collecting the folklore for itself, but in order to use it as material for staged performances and fiction.
While it is clear that Hurston and Gregory think of authenticity in terms of a poetic regime (movement, action, creation, self-expression which they articulate in “Characteristics of Negro Expression” and Our Irish Theatre), their work is judged by a related but discontinuous regime: the ethical regime where an image is the reflection of an ideal form (origin) that should represent and guide the beliefs of a community, nation, and ideology. Following this line of thinking, Gregory’s and Hurston’s critics are convinced that their formula of pathos does not lead them to the authentic folk of the lands (with an origin) but back to earlier theatrical representations: blackface minstrelsy and Irish caricature that predated modernism’s use of the primitive and were an insidious circulation of stereotypes that were fashioned into what Elin Diamond refers to as “transatlantic curiosities.”42 Their work simply refers back to something that was already a false copy. Even if this cannot be completely denied, it is the political and perceptual complications that emerge in relation to their person that attends to readings and interpretation of the “intentions” of their ethnographic and artistic work. This echoes earlier critiques explored in this essay where Richard Wright describes Hurston as “not honest” (because he believes she follows a literary form leading back to blackface minstrelsy and not forward to social realism) and George Moore describes Gregory as “not real” (which has the effect of displacing her unreality onto her work, which is described as employing artificial language).
Of course, it is not each woman’s person that can be denied (they exist), but her persona. In large part, these are personae that they themselves created and that are enhanced by their desire to form fictional but powerful kinships with the communities they study. By placing themselves at the center of real stories (“lies”) about the folk imagination, they fashion their narratives as ethnographic allegories: they are at once inside the frame (p.211) and outside, attempting to control its multiple meanings. Gordon Teskey explains the function of persona in allegory in the following excerpt:
The word persona means “mask,” literally a thing “to sound through,” per-sonare, indicating a sonic essence transpiercing a mask that at once represents and conceals the wearer. But in the figure of personification whatever voice that persona has emerges from the logical dissonance of the mask with itself. … Personification has been regarded as the sine qua non of allegorical expression. But if this is so, then it is not because personification reveals what is essential to allegory but because it hides what is essential to it so well. One way in which it does this is to give a feminine gender to the figures that confer form, rather than to the female receptacle, so that these “intermediary icons” will already possess Matter’s gender. Yet even as they perform this intermediary role feminine agents are both examples of the universals they instantiate and living sources from which those universals cascade into the world.43
Thus we are back at the moment of the particular being universal and the universal being particular, the moment where we cannot separate the teller from the tale, or the real woman from the imagined place of “woman.” We will see these figures of women in movement again, but the “formula of pathos” might elude our gaze.
Allegories of Salvage
We know by now that Hurston died penniless, buried in an unmarked grave, with all four of her novels, her autobiography, and her two ethnographic studies out of print. The collection of plays now housed at the Library of Congress indicates that she was a prolific playwright who never saw a single play produced in her lifetime. Upon her death in 1960 she was all but forgotten. Hurston was first “rediscovered” by Alice Walker, who writes about her own relationship with Hurston’s ethnographic and fictional work in a 1975 article she published in Ms. magazine, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.”44 By the 1980s Hurston had become—to paraphrase Hazel Carby—an academic industry.45 In the late 1980s Hurston also joined the heritage industry in the guise of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of Arts and Humanities held in Eatonville, Florida, since 1988 (p.212) (Historic Eatonville is now trademarked) and the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Art (also in Eatonville since 1990). In addition, Hurston’s house in Fort Pierce, Florida, is now a National Historic Landmark.
Hurston also has been the subject of many plays written about her life. Laurence Holder’s Zora Neale Hurston was first produced off-Broadway in 1989 and has been produced many times in the United States in the last twenty years. Neema Barnette also directed Ruby Dee in the adapted stage play All About Zora for the PBS series American Playhouse under the title Zora Is My Name! It is now widely available on DVD.46 Lynda Marion Hill has written about several other incarnations of Hurston’s life being adapted for the stage, as well as the landmark production of the never-produced play Mule Bone, whose tumultuous history ended the friendship between Hurston and her collaborator, Langston Hughes. Hill writes, “The Broadway production of Mule Bone [in 1991] is a landmark in American theater history because for the first time mainstream theater produced a play by a nonliving major black playwright” (in this case, two).47
In her biography of Lady Gregory, Elizabeth Coxhead explains that, “within ten years of her death [in 1932], a friend who was almost contemporary could write: ‘I perceive no one in Ireland cares in the very least about her. She is almost forgotten already.’”48 Her plays also fell out of favor after her death, and to this day they are almost never produced. Her ethnographic work has only been the subject of scant critical investigation. Interestingly, however, we find Gregory being revived in the Irish landscape in the 1990s. While she is certainly not an academic industry, her return bears a remarkable resemblance to Hurston’s. She, too, has become a fixture in the heritage landscape: “an annual conference, the Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering, has provided a forum for her writing since 1995”;49 the Kiltartan Gregory Museum, opened in 1996, is dedicated primarily to her life and achievements; and her name is now branded on the Lady Gregory Hotel, Conference Centre and Leisure Club in Gort, County Galway, not far from where she lived at Coole Park. There have been numerous biographies of Lady Gregory published in the last thirty years, and her life story has also been the subject of a play by Sam Mc-Cready, Coole Lady: The Extraordinary Story of Lady Gregory, which had its premiere in Sligo in 2003.
(p.213) In her introduction to a special issue of the Irish University Review, Anne Fogarty states that, “Despite her ubiquity as a point of orientation in the heritage landscape of modern Ireland and in academic investigations of the Revival period, the iconicity associated with Gregory is a sign less of her continued prestige and influence than of the complex cultural anxieties attaching to her.”50 This understanding of Gregory as being attached to “complex cultural anxieties” and as someone who seems “at once to embody a foundational moment in modern Irish cultural history and remain forever extrinsic to it” could easily be said of Hurston’s own return.51 Indeed, to embody—with one’s whole body—a “foundational moment” while remaining extrinsic to the “real” story is what allegorical personae do. Their returns are both ubiquitous and singular. Here, Teskey’s thoughts come to mind again: “singularity operates in allegory as does the vanishing point in a linear perspective: it is never visible itself, but everything that is visible directs the eye toward it.”52 It is in the contemporary landscape—where Hurston and Gregory are everywhere and nowhere—that we might be able to more firmly grasp the constitutive paradox of authenticity and performance as they animate cultural history, a paradox illuminated by the concept of “allegories of salvage.” This ethnographic conceit coined by James Clifford bears startling resemblance to Hurston’s and Gregory’s spectral return as commodity-icons for heritage tourism in their native landscapes, and their biographical return as “authentic material” for play-texts and staged performances. They continue to trace the formula of pathos where they become “hybrids of archetype and phenomena.” That is, their returns mark a curious repetition and revision of their own ethnographic collecting practices and of their use of this material for “authentic” stage performances.
That the primitive (and the “folk”) were a means of expressing “authentic” culture, and began circulating in material and performance form as commodity fetish, during modernism’s cultural reign in the early twentieth century is well documented. Clifford’s statement that ethnography during Boas’s time was considered “a last chance rescue operation” underscores the fact that “salvage” was the preoccupation of ethnographers who went to collect geographical “others” and of artists who then interpreted them as historical “others.”53 It was through these “others,” it was supposed, that we could glean an authentic and spiritual essence that could save us from “political expansionism and technological and social change.”54
(p.214) During the early twentieth century, when the Irish and Harlem Renaissances began to flourish, salvaging the “folk” as a “last chance rescue operation” had a very immediate rationale: the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North and of Irish immigrants to the American North. How do these migratory figures in movement “salvaged” by Hurston and Gregory in the early twentieth century help to shed light on Hurston’s and Gregory’s contemporary return and the “cultural anxieties” attaching to their person? How does their reappearance as “intermediary icons,” where their names, images, and biographical lives become landmarks for regional authenticity, tell us something about contemporary Atlantic migration and the continual tracing of the formula of pathos?
We might find that the singular allegorical figures mean other than what they say and say other than what they mean. When migration patterns change—which has happened on a radical scale in the U.S. South and in Ireland in the last fifteen years—formations of national kinship come under scrutiny: How do we incorporate these “new others” into our national story? In many respects, in both Ireland and the U.S. South, this remains at best an open question. Contemporary migrants often occupy the position of being everywhere and nowhere in the landscape, caught in a kind of suspended animation where they too become haptic allegories, “tangible abstractions that one can see and feel and touch.”55
Cultural anxieties attached to Hurston and Gregory, who were also once “other” to the culture of nationalism, now seem to stand in curious proximity to the cultural real. They are names and screens blocking alternative paths into time and space that allegorize the haptic encounters of these new “others.” Although Hurston and Gregory are now safely “grounded” in the regional landscape, their restless movements through Atlantic historiography are painful, sensuous reminders of what has not yet passed: the Atlantic voyage to erasure. Recognizing the “singular” returns of gendered specters as “heritage kitsch” doing allegorical work in commodified form might begin to allow us “to make room for the spectres in whose restlessness the rhythms of another mode of living speaks to us.”56
(1) . In his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, Johnson discusses four African American artistic creations that have “sprung from American soil and been universally acknowledged as distinctive American products.” These four “products” are the Uncle Remus stories, “spirituals” or slave songs, the Cakewalk, and ragtime. James Weldon Johnson, Preface, The Book of American Negro Poetry ed. Johnson (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922), 8.
(2) . To name but three examples, see Tracey Mishkin’s The Harlem and Irish Renaissances (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998); Brian Gallagher’s “‘About Us, For Us, Near Us’: The Irish and Harlem Renaissances” and George Bornstein’s “Afro-Celtic Connections: From Frederick Douglass to The Commitments,” both in Literary Influences and African-American Writers, ed. Tracy Mishkin (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), 157–70 and 171–88.
(3) . Alan Ackerman and Martin Puchner, eds., Against Theatre: Creative Destructions on the Modernist Stage (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 4.
(4) . Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performances (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 5.
(5) . James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Allegory,” in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. James Clifford and George Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 113.
(6) . Guiliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys through Art, Architecture, and Film (New York: Verso, 2002), 6.
(7) . Susan Buck-Morris, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 228–29.
(8) . Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method, trans. Luca D’Isanto (New York: Schocken, 1969), 31.
(10) . Gordon Teskey, Allegory and Violence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 5.
(11) . See Michael Malouf, “Sovereignty at Home and Abroad: Marcus Garvey,” in Malouf, Transatlantic Solidarities: Irish Nationalism and Caribbean Poetics (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 44–79; Bruce Nelson, “‘Come out of Such Land, You Irishmen’: Daniel O’Connell, Slavery and the Making of the Irish ‘Race,’” in Eire/Ireland 42, nos. 1–2 (Spring/Summer 2007): 58–81.
(12) . Lady Augusta Gregory, Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter of Autobiography (New York: Putnam, 1914), 9.
(13) . Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of a Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 176.
(14) . Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears,” in New Masses, October 5, 1937. Reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. et al. (New York: Amistad Press, 1993), 17.
(16) . George Moore, Hail and Farewell (1911), ed. Richard Cave (London: Colin Smythe Ltd., 1985), 547.
(18) . This phrase is taken from Richard Schechner’s study Between Theatre and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 35–36, where performance is defined as “the restoration of behavior” or “twice-behaved behavior.”
(19) . Gould quoted in Steve Tillis, Rethinking Folk Drama (Westport, Conn.: Green-wood Press, 1999), 171.
(20) . Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis: Essays on Feminism and Theatre (New York and London: Routledge, 1997), iv.
(21) . Agamben, The Signature of All Things, 29.
(23) . Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), 220.
(24) . These concerns have been especially prevalent in southern folklore and pop culture studies in the work of James C. Cobb, Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999); Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Richard A. Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Jon Smith, “Southern Culture on the Skids: Punk, Retro, Narcissism, and the Burdon of Southern History,” in South to a New Place, ed. Suzanne Jones and Sharon Monteith (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), 76–120; Brian Ward, “That White Man, Burdon: The Animals, Race and the American South,” in Transatlantic Roots Music: Folk, Blues, and National Identities, ed. Jill Terry and Neil A. Wynn (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 153–78; and David E. Whisnant, All that is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).
(26) . Gregory, Our Irish Theatre, 9.
(27) . Henry Louis Gates, Introduction, in Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, Mule Bones: A Comedy of Negro Life (1931), ed. Henry Louis Gates and George Houston Bass (New York: The Library of America, 1991), 9.
(29) . Hurston in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, ed. Cara Kaplan (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 116.
(30) . Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression” in Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs and Other Writings, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New York: The Library of America, 1995), 838.
(32) . Clifford, “On Ethnographic Allegory,” 104.
(33) . See Elin Diamond “Deploying/Destroying the Primitivist Body in Hurston and Brecht,” in Ackerman and Puchner, Against Theatre, 113.
(34) . Agamben, The Signature of All Things, 29.
(35) . Lady Augusta Gregory (reprinted with a foreword by Elizabeth Coxhead), Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920; London: Colin Smythe Ltd., 1970), 15.
(36) . Hurston, Mules and Men, in Wall, Hurston, 9.
(p.217) (37) . Gregory, Visions and Beliefs, 15.
(38) . Hurston, Mules and Men, 13.
(40) . These opinions of Gregory’s contemporaries are discussed in Patricia Lysaght, “Perspectives on Narrative Communication and Gender: Lady Augusta Gregory’s Vision and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920),” Fabula 3, no. 4 (1998): 256–76; they are espoused by Selina Guinness in her essay “Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland: Irish Folklore and British Anthropology 1898–1920,” Irish University Review 6, no. 1 (1998): 37–46.
(41) . Gregory, Visions and Beliefs, 250.
(42) . Diamond, “Deploying/Destroying the Primitivist Body,” 114.
(43) . Teskey, Allegory and Violence, 22.
(44) . Alice Walker, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” Ms., March 3, 1975, 74.
(45) . Hazel V. Carby, “The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston,” in New Essays on “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” ed. Michael Awkward (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 71–93.
(46) . Zora Is My Name!, directed by Neema Barnette (MCMXC Community Television of Southern California: Monterey Media Inc., 2006), DVD.
(47) . Lynda Marion Hill, Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale Hurston (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1996), 184.
(48) . Elizabeth Coxhead, Lady Gregory: A Literary Portrait (London: Secker & Warburg, 1966), v.
(49) . Anne Fogarty, Introduction, Irish University Review (special issue on Lady Gregory) 34, no. 1 (2004): viii.
(52) . Teskey, Allegory and Violence, 5.
(53) . Clifford writes: “Few anthropologists today would embrace the logic of ethnography in the terms in which it was enunciated in Franz Boas’s time, as a last-chance rescue operation. But the allegory of salvage is deeply ingrained.” Clifford, “On Ethnographic Allegory,” 113.
(54) . Barkan and Bush quoted in Diamond, “Deploying/Destroying the Primitivist Body,” 114.
(55) . Judy Enders, “Memories and Allegories of the Death Penalty: Back to the Medieval Future,” in Thinking Allegory Otherwise, ed. Brenda Machosky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 39.
(56) . David Lloyd, “The Indigent Sublime: Spectres of Irish Hunger,” Representations (special issue on redress), 92 (Fall 2005): 153.