“Like Flowers Under Hot Water”: Hurston’s Reverse Ethnography in Mules and Men
This paper examines the legacy of Zora Neale Hurston in the context of media and scientific history. In her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expressions” (published in Nancy Cunard’s 1934 Negro: An Anthology), Hurston insists that no group can be trained to reproduce a spiritual: “Its truth dies under training like flowers under hot water.” The irregular harmony and changes in pitch and rhythm are destroyed by training. Training seeks to create a group that can regularly sing a song that approximates an ideal version; such training is antithetical to the singing of spirituals, of which no two performances are alike. Hurston was concerned that the truth about the “real” spirituals be known. “The real spirituals are really not just songs. They are increasing variations around a theme.”
This pronouncement, I would like to suggest, should be seen in its technical and intellectual context. In an age when so-called race records attempted to sell recorded African-American expression, Hurston’s statement calls into stark relief the effort to make stable phonograph recordings to represent living people. What is more, this idea of a dynamic culture stands in contrast to her classmate, Margaret Mead, whose work depended on a reified notion of the cultures she studied.
Hurston’s struggle against these different ways of representing culture is displayed in Mules and Men. In this novel, Hurston purports to set out to capture an oral tradition that was thought to be dying. Based on her effort from 1928-1932 to collect folk tales, her 1935 novel demonstrates an antagonism to the idea that civilization was threatening to destroy the folk way of life. Part I begins with a strong narrative voice. In order to convince people to tell her stories, Hurston learns that she must become a storyteller herself. Already becoming a participant, the narrator continues to lose authority in Part II. Instead of an I/they split, the narrative is split into you/we as the narrator begins the study of voodoo. The reader is invited along, but only with the understanding that those who watch but do not participate will not receive the full understanding of the story. The last section of the book is the culmination of the sequence. In the last section, an encyclopedia or miscellany of voodoo facts, the narrator is absent. Only a list of bare facts remains, and those facts are hard to read without the guiding hand of the narrator. One would have to enter into conversations with others in order to find the materials and use the recipes.
This depiction of the failure to find a dying culture–instead presenting a culture that defends itself and assimilates any investigators–is an effective challenge to contemporary ethnographic media and anthropology. Instead of presenting a subordinate culture that can be ascertained reliably by an outsider, Hurston depicts a thriving community that deserves the respect of those who wish to study it. In so doing, Hurston calls for a revision of the notion of understanding between cultures. One cannot simply observe and record; in these works, Hurston demands that her readers join in to further understanding.
Brief Bio: Christopher Leslie is a lecturer of Science, Technology and Media Studies at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering in Brooklyn, New York. His research considers the cultural formations that surround technology, science, and media in the 19th- and 20th-century United States. He teaches courses in science and technology studies, the history of science and race, multicultural U.S. literature, modernism, and science fiction.