The Outsider

One thing I found rather interesting while reading Mules and Men was how careful Zora Neale Hurston had to be when she was a newcomer in Polk County. She was extra cautious when interacting with the people of the boarding house, as it turned out for good reason. They treated her as an outsider – the same way that she described the way that they would treat a white person interested in their lies. She was especially considered different for having a car and an expensive dress. It wasn’t until she had made clear that she was just like them that they took to her and accepted her as a new part of the community. I thought it was rather interesting how quickly they accepted her, considering how differently she was treated from the beginning. And it was also interesting how eager they were to share their lies with her, even though she was still an outsider. They would have been concerned with telling her lies before they accepted her, but they were fine with sharing them with her so she could share them with many other people. I wonder what makes the distinction here? Where is the line? Why does it matter who shares the story if it’s going to be shared with everyone eventually?

4 Replies to “The Outsider”

  1. This is a really interesting question. If the issue here is that storytellers do not want to share their stories with outsiders, but Hurston publishes them in a novel, they have no control over who hears or reads them. I forget whether or not the story tellers in Mules and Men were aware that Hurston was writing their stories to share with the public, but maybe if they knew they would be okay with this because she has control over how and why the stories are told. Since an accepted individual is writing the stories with an assumed understanding of the context and community surrounding them, can be shared in a way that represents and reflects a community in the way it wants to be.

  2. Hurston’s insider-outsider status reflects some of the categories we discussed when reading Gilroy at the start of the semester. What does it mean to be a member of the Polk County African-American community? As you point out, Hurston’s car and fancy dress make her an outsider. Thus, being a member of this community seems to entail a certain amount of poverty; this is an essential aspect. These early scenes in Polk County show that African-Americans are not a homogenous group. African-Americans do not achieve solidarity just based on their skin color. The distrust between African-Americans and white people is easy to recognize and understandable. Yet the levels of distrust between African-American communities is important to understand as well, especially as we try to understand an authentic black experience. The thing that is essential for becoming a member of the black diaspora does not allow for a similar in-group status within each individual community that considers itself part of the black diaspora.

  3. I think protection of their stories and trust is a really big part of why they were so wary of Hurston at first. Personal narratives and the way we choose to represent ourselves is a really sensitive and well, personal, issue. You see that a lot with ethnographies – they can take years to write, not only to collect enough information to create an accurate representation of a group, but also because it takes that long for the ethnographer to establish good relationships with those those they want to represent. And the quality of the relationship can affect the authenticity of the collected stories too. Ultimately though, many people do want their stories told. And I think that speaks to why they were so willing to tell Hurston their lies in the end. Once they trusted the way she would tell their stories, they could be comfortable knowing the stories would reach a wider audience.

  4. Could treating people as outsiders be a way of protecting their stories? As they are primarily oral traditions, the stories are meant to be shared and passed down within their communities. They seem to be suspicious of her intent in what she was going to do with the stories. I wonder if the concern and hesitation to accept her had anything to do with the way that Joel Chandler Harris took and profited off of the stories of the black community. Harris stole from the oral traditions from their communities and created a narrative that did not necessarily portray them in a positive way. If they were familiar with him, they may not have wanted a repeat of this event. Even when they do decide to share with her, perhaps they have decided that she would be a person they have deemed worthy to share their “lies.”

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