Did Zora Neale Hurston Plagiarize Her First Work? ::: Readings From Zora’s ‘Barracoon’

In Zora Neal Hurston’s first(finally?) published edition of ‘Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”‘, Deborah G. Plant includes an afterword and section of additional materials, edited by her.

In that section, she quotes Zora:

“Woodson knew that people’s memories were notoriously unsound and must be checked carefully by reference to written documents.”

This quote is from a biography of Ms. Zora. “Woodson”, in this quote, is none other than great luminary scholar, Carter G. Woodson. It is important to note that Zora’s “Barracoon” is not a personal vendetta against continental Afrikans or Pan-Afrikanists. Her work was in part commissioned(read that as directed and funded) by Carter G. Woodson and his staff.

As stated in Plant’s writing, citing Ms. Zora’s introductory chapter of her “Barracoon”:

From February to August of 1927, Hurston conducted fieldwork in Florida and Alabama under the direction of Franz Boas, her mentor, the renowned “Father of American Anthropology.” Boas had early on approached Woodson, the “Father of Black History,” about a fellowship for Hurston, in support of the research. In accordance with their arrangements, Hurston was to collect black folk materials for Boas and scout around for undiscovered black folk artists. In addition to the gathering of historical data for Woodson, she was also to collect Kossola’s story.

Woodson supported Hurston’s field research with a $1,400 fellowship. Half of the funds came from the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization founded and directed by Woodson.

I add this above for sake of preventive maintenance. Preventive maintenance particularly of arguments that have been formed as reaction to accounts documented by Zora Neale Hurston. Ms. Zora documents a detailed recounting of Cudjo Lewis’s last experiences as a captive of Dahomean royalty.

In this recounting, Mr. Cudjo discusses how Dahomean leaders and warriors destroyed his hometown. Mr. Cudjo relays how his own family’s leader had his head cut off and worn as decoration. Yet, as this article’s click bait-y title suggests, this is not my main topic.

Plant continues her discussion of how this book came to existence as she notes:

…in the October 1927 issue of the Journal…he[Woodson] published Hurston’s Kossola interview as “Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver.” A footnote at the beginning of the article stated that as “an investigator of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History,” Zora Neale Hurston had traveled to Mobile to interview Lewis, “the only survivor of this last cargo.” The note states further, “She made some use, too, of the Voyage of Clotilde and other records of the Mobile Historical Society.” In reality, Hurston made more than a little use of the society’s records. And though part of the article was “a first-hand report,” the larger portion of the article was secondhand information drawn from Emma Langdon Roche’s Historic Sketches of the South (1914). Emma Roche was a writer, artist, and farmer born in Alabama in 1878. Her book is an account of the origins of slavery in America, couched in proslavery tenets and paternalistic perspectives.

Plant furthers her account of Zora’s usage of Roche’s work, offering a cogent enough explanation for Zora’s oversight. That oversight being not including a citation for Roche’s work. There is actually nothing to see here, though.

As stated, Woodson, a premier scholar commissioned Zora to seek out peer reviewed accounts of what might be USA’s last slave smuggling aboard the Clotilda. Further, Ms. Zora’s usage of Roche’s work is only utilized in her introductory chapter. This information aids in verify Mr. Cudjo’s words, but in no way does it form even a foundational presence in Zora’s contribution.

Nuance & Anti-patriarchy

bell hooks said that Feminism is for everybody. The idea that every woman has the right to determine her own reality is for all of us to embrace. I’ve spent the time since encountering bell hooks and other feminist/womanist writers in some serious introspection about my own behavior, what I say, how I say, and just the general way in which I go about relating to the world around. However, what I’ve noticed is a lack of a place where the nuances and particulars of being a man –particularly a Black Man — in the struggle against patriarchy on a personal level has the floor. Part of this is because so few of us truly and sincerely engage anti-patriarchy. That lack of participation makes it hard to come together to compare experiences because most of the time when men are engaged with an anti-patriarchal discussion it’s due to a call out where someone is being held responsible for their oppressive behavior; where it then becomes a competition where we are comparing the weight of our respective pain and betrayal on a personal and group level. Such behavior is silencing the very valid voices of feminists and womanists on how we as men are hurting women via our privilege as well as preventing the kind of discussion that needs to happen regarding how we are interpreting behaviors so we can make this unity thing work.

 

What my experience has shown is the lack of models and lack of discussion started by us about engaging feminism as well as our hurt and pain in relationship to our solidarity with women. For those of us that are sincere about unity and solidarity it creates this hesitancy to ask questions or bring things up for discussion because of the potential backlash and being labeled unsafe in the communities we frequent. This troubles me because it creates this cycle of silence where we only bring up our experiences in response to when women criticize us because of patriarchy. The fact is that not enough of us are speaking up and out about patriarchy and our pain and so when we make mistakes, they end up being translated as the standard for our behavior rather than the exception.

 

On the other end of that, however, are some folk out there who seem to have already made up their minds about the inadequacy or worthlessness of men especially black men and thus a man’s engagement of anti-patriarchy is them waiting for you to mess up so they can be like,”a-ha! I knew u wont shit.” Granted this is a reaction against the system of patriarchy but if one has been written off from jump there’s no solidarity to grow into. Everything I have experienced in my time and growth in anti-patriarchy shows me that it is very much an act of unlearning and undoing that which has been normalized. Mistakes are apart of the process and at times seems to be very little leeway for that. Sometimes there is the rush to judgment over a sloppily worded thought or poor understanding of a concept.

 

As a practical example, I look to the character Teacake in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. Looking at how Hurston writes Teacake: how he is, how he sees Janie as an equal partner, how he is willing to talk with her and listen. Hurston could have made TeaCake perfect, could have had him and Janie ride off into the sunset or have him tragically die but have maintain that vision of TeaCake as the prototype. However, in Teacake, Hurston puts in jealousy which causes him to abuse Janie, and his pride which plays a role in his death — culminating when Janie kills Teacake. we are made aware that the rabies has taken over and there is nothing really left of Teacake there. Hurston show us how tragic, murderous and destructive the kind of behavior we define as manly (patriarchal) can be but also that it’s something that even the most exceptional among us struggle with. Whether paragon or pariah we have to look at Teacake in the totality of being.

 

I think this is a lesson we could all use.