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Tiffany Ruby Patterson. Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life.

Tiffany Ruby Patterson. Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2005. 229 pp. $64.50 cloth/$22.95 paper.

Tiffany Ruby Patterson delights in the history of the black US South throughout her recounting of that history in Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life. One example of her joy in reconstructing Hurston's relationship to the South lies in her revelations about the townsfolk of Sanford, Florida. There in the early 1930s, Hurston encountered the paternal grandparents of historian John Bracey during her creation of Jonah's Gourd Vine. A novel about a philandering preacher whose model was Hurston's own father did not sit well with the Sanford community, who knew Reverend John Hurston well. The Braceys took Hurston in after she ran out of money, and even though Sanfordians were distrustful of her, Hurston ingratiated herself to them by having Mrs. Bracey accompany her to measure their heads and, doubtless, otherwise charm them. This is the Hurston that we know best, the outsider-insider, cross-regional gadfly who renders the mind of the black South in Mules and Men and its soul in Their Eyes Were Watching God. But, unfortunately, this pleasantness and the sense of discovery that Patterson's book promises remain unfulfilled; the book's treatment of Hurston as a cultural and historical icon of the South is uneven at best. While it certainly is the case that Zora Hurston sprang from one of Eatonville's first families, and while she did seek diligently to record "the souls of black folk," her status as an active, engaged participant in, or even reporter of, the burgeoning postbellum black South is exceptionally difficult to fashion.

Patterson's efforts to situate Hurston in the South will put off some readers, in part because of her dismissal of Jean Toomer: she omits both Hurston's and Langston Hughes's acknowledgement of the importance of folkloric value in Toomer's Cane to their work as they traveled through Georgia. In addition, Patterson discounts the complexity of the African American and larger diasporic consciousness displayed in Countee Cullen's richly arrayed poem "Heritage." Perhaps more enduring than the racial biases of Enlightenment thinkers whom she discusses is the sanction of D. W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation as a true, historical account of the history of Reconstruction by all three branches of national government shortly after its appearance in 1915. Patterson misses Griffith's greater impact on the thinking of even educated white Americans than any of the Enlightenment discourses on race. (Although she cites the early 20th-century cultural popularity of both Griffith's film and the novel that inspired it, Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, there is no indication that the film is based upon the book.) Patterson's overly long and meandering introduction troubles for its stress on the importance of "past presents"--the author's term for documents that once embodied a genuine present for their producers and for today's audience signals the recovery of the past. While this idea may have yielded some promise for Patterson's readers, it is dropped shortly after the introduction; we do not engage in a focused way with Hurston's texts until chapter three, wherein Patterson discusses the 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.

Patterson also casts W. E. B. Du Bois as the timeless intellectual voice that buttresses Hurston's apotheosis of southern black folk--which, though a representation demonstrably true, neglects the extent to which this Du Boisian perspective sometimes seemed disquietingly conflicted. Similarly, Patterson has omitted the fact that Hughes's famous 1926 essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," grounded in the notion that black art was not only propagandistic but also was subversively folk-based in being so, was his answer to the conservatism of George Schuyler's "The Negro-Art Hokum," Hughes's text appearing in The Nation the week after Schuyler's. This sequencing alone would appear to disturb Patterson's view that in Hughes's art "black folk were everywhere, but they lacked regional distinctiveness and were uncoupled from the political economy in which they were born and shaped. Hughes could therefore appropriate the language of the folk without confronting their identity as southerners" (10). This claim seems a cruel indictment of both Hughes and the Migration, even as it seeks to reify Hughes's reputation as being the poet of the urban black masses. It additionally strips a variety of works, notably Hughes's novel Not without Laughter (1930) and even Du Bois's great sociological study The Philadelphia Negro (1899) of their power not only to represent southern blackness in urban contexts but also to present black identity itself as a site of contestation. While Hurston's South is what might be called a "pure" South, her voice was not alone in representing blackness in its southern setting.

Readers will find Patterson's book useful for charting Hurston's literature with elements of late 19th- and early 20th-century southern history. The incorporation of Hurston's Eatonville as well as the growth of other black towns and the injustices suffered by black workers in Florida's phosphate work camps, turpentine mills, and in the railroad industry, are all part of the milieu that nurtured Hurston. But again, Patterson connects Hurston only peripherally to these instances through her work, and in some cases, has her disappear in entire discussions of the hidden horrors and ordinary inhumanity of the New South. More unsettling still is Patterson's account of Hurston's recounting of the 1920 Ocoee riot, originally scheduled for the WPA volume The Florida Negro. Patterson gives the very strong impression that Hurston recorded events as they happened in Ocoee, but Robert Hemenway writes that Hurston was likely at Howard University at the time. In his edition of The Florida Negro, Gary McDonough recalls through Hemenway and Stetson Kennedy's confirmation that Corita Doggett Corse, the state director of the Florida Writers' Project in 1938, was "alarmed to find out that Hurston had presented herself as an eyewitness to events she had not actually seen and dispatched her immediately to Ocoee," where she gathered the section on the riot that was dropped from the Florida volume, but appears in part in the guidebook (xxi). In relating the details of the Ocoee riot, Patterson informs us that she uses both Hurston's account and that of Walter White, who was there in 1920--but the confusion between these two accounts--18 years apart--leaves the reader with the erroneous impression that Hurston's reportage was original and on-the-scene.

Readers interested in the folkloric Hurston and in accounts of black towns developing after Eatonville, the lynching of Sam Hose, and other historical elements will find frustrating Patterson's effort to place Hurston at the center of these events. This missed mark is unfortunate because while Patterson does indicate that the black southern mind would be largely unknown to us without Hurston's presence, the book she constructs to tell us so leaves Hurston largely absent.

Reviewed by

Nathan Grant

SUNY, Buffalo
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Author:Grant, Nathan
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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