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Zora Neale Hurston: Opinions?

From: catherine yronwode 
Newsgroups: alt.lucky.w,alt.magick.folk,alt.magick.tyagi,alt.religion.orisha
Subject: Re: Zora Neale Hurston: Opinions?
Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2000 12:44:37 GMT

Reave Socratic ( wrote:
> Just picked up a copy of _Folklore, Memories & Other Writings_ which
> includes Hurston's investigations as a folklorist into Voudoun and
> Hoodoo (which I'm not sure she keeps separated very well, but that's 
> on first blush and a light skim; the jury's still out).
> Do any of the experienced root doctors (Cat? Jo?) out there have an
> opinion about Hurston?  Reliability?  Comparison with Hyatt?
> Reave

Well, "the jury is still out" is a pretty fair assessment of Hurston's
collection of hoodoo material. Her tales of Vodoun-like initiations in
New Orleans were far-fetched enough at the time that her contemporary,
the folklore-collector Harry M. Hyatt, twice visited New Orleans and
asked specifically about the things she mentioned, only to be told by
all his informants that they wre unaware of such events. 

Pro-Hurstonites have in the past marked this discrepency up to Hyatt's
being white and Hurston black. They claim that local black informants
were freer in giving her information than they were with him. 

Anti-Hurstonites note that Hyatt had no trouble eliciting the most
intimate details about hoodoo and spiritualism from his informants all
over the South and that if there were any Vodoun-like goings-on in New
Orleans in the 1930s, he would not have been excluded from the

One particular mark against the "they wouldn't tell the truth to a white
man" argument is that Hyatt collected information from a man who seems
to have witnessed a Vodoun-like ceremony in New Orleans during his youth
(circa the 1880s) -- and he stated that such events were no longer
carried on in New Orleans by the 1930s because the old people had passed
away. He did not claim that common everyday hoodoo no longer existed,
merely that what we now identify as a Haitian-influenced Afro-Caribbean
priest-or-priestess-led ceremonial religious meeting -- which hit New
Orleans in the early 1800s and was carried through the 19th century in
increasingly debased forms by the likes of Marie Laveau and her kin --
had, by the 1930s, run its course and died out for lack of pracitioners. 

Hyatt's other New Orleans informants seemed not at all
Vodoun-influenced, and, in fact, when it came to describing old
folk-magical charms and remedies, the New Orleans residents were typical
of urban people everywhere -- ignorant of the names or sources of herbs
and minerals and content to purchase pre-mixed formula oils rather than
make them up from wildcrafted herbs. 

This makes Hurston's tales of participation in Vodoun-like ceremonies
seem highly unlikely.

As Hyatt saw it, the major contribution to hoodoo made by the New
Orleans root workers and two headed doctors during the 20th century was
not Vodoun -- which had passed away completely by that time -- but the
syncretic use of Catholic candle-burning rites. These Hyatt noted at
length in a special section devoted just to candle-magic. This New
Orleans candle-burning phenomenon was also commented upon by one of
Hyatt's informants, an African-American minister named Reverend Young,
who explained how the the northward movement of New Orleans candle-magic
had by then reached up the Mississippi River to Memphis, Tennessee.
(Since that time it has spread throughout most urbanized
African-American communities and is heavily practiced among hoodooists
in New York, Chicago, Oakland, Detroit, and Baltimore, in large part due
to the popularity of Henri Gamache's 1942 volume "The Master Book of
Candle Burning." )   

Leaving aside Hurston's possibly fictionalized account of Vodoun
initiations in New Orleans, what can be said about the rest of her
fieldwork? Most of it -- especially the material she collected in
Florida among her own relatives -- is congruent with Hyatt's
contemporary 1930s collections throughout the South and with his 1970s
fieldwork in Florida. Thus one can give it more credence, because it was
confirmed by another investigator's field notes. 

Why did Hurston possibly fictionalize her accounts of Vodoun-like
initiatory ceremonies in New Orleans? Well, as we all know, she was
primarily a novelist, and she was also working on the material with an
eye to selling articles and thus earning a living. 

Perhaps she thought people would be more interested in her writing if it
was spiced up like that. Perhaps she thought that Negro life was so
obscure to the white world that no one would ever cover the same ground
and interview the same cultural base of informants a mere two years
later and find out that she was fabricating material. It's impossible to
say, but speculations such as these have been aired in print for a while
and have, sadly, cast a bit of a pall over some of what she wrote. 

For my part, i give credence to everything Hurston published that
accords with Hyatt's more lengthy and extensive field work, and, when
the rest is discarded, the result is that her material bolsters and
amplifies his and vice versa. The image of Zora Neale Hurston undergoing
a Voodoo initiation rite in New Orleans i can just chalk up to a
novelist's quaint fancy and leave at that.  

Eoghan, if you are reading this, i'd like to know what your opinion is,
and what your colleagues in the world of folklore think of Hurston as a
folklorist these days. And Jo, what do you think? 

cat yronwode

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