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May 22, 1999

A Well Untapped: Black Folk Tales of the Old South



A Well Untapped: Black Folk Tales of the Old South By SARA KENNEDY

Two years after a rich collection of African-American folk stories gathered in the 1920s and '30s by the writer Zora Neale Hurston was discovered in the photo files of the Smithsonian Institution, it remains unpublished.

The work was discovered by Kristy Anderson, 47, an independent filmmaker from Tampa, Fla., who was examining photos at the National Gallery of Art and came upon a computer listing of Hurston materials titled "Negro folk tales from the Gulf States, 1927-31."

When she got the works from the National Anthropological Archives, part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, she realized the manuscript, with 482 folk tales told to Hurston, a black writer, by 121 people, was an important literary find.

"I know every Hurston manuscript published and unpublished, and I knew it was new," she recalled in a recent interview at her Tampa home. The tales are important because they are the sort of unvarnished material Hurston would have liked to print as it was, but her New York publishers, apparently concerned about its explosive racial frankness, would only permit its tamer portions to be included in her works.

There still are problems in having the material published, including the scarcity of Hurston scholars and meager pressure from academia for its publication. Moreover, there are eight Hurston heirs, who must decide together what should be published. The Hurston estate's literary agent, Victoria Sanders, said: "I haven't told anybody yet. It's all new."

Hurston's books have recently had a renaissance and are finding a new generation of readers.

Ms. Anderson's discovery is significant because of its large size, nearly 300 pages. Scholars say the tales provide a glimpse into the complex, emotive language and oral storytelling traditions of poor, rural black people in the South when the segregated society considered their culture unimportant and rarely recorded it.

"I think it's a tremendous find," Ms. Sanders said, adding that it was valuable commercially as well as for other reasons and that "certainly the estate is happy she has brought it to our attention.'

Dr. Robert Hemmenway, a Hurston biographer, said the document was important because "there are things in the manuscript that have not been published before and represent a wonderful compilation of African-American folk tales." He said the document also appeared to have been the raw material for "Mules and Men," Hurston's seminal collection of African-American folklore, published in 1935.

"I think it is a significant find for two reasons," said Hemmenway, who is also chancellor of the University of Kansas, in a telephone interview. He said the collection "tells us something about the decisions Zora made when she put together 'Mules and Men,' and it's an important collection of black folk tales at a time when African-American life was becoming increasingly urbanized and a lot of Southern blacks were moving into the urban North," and some of their stories got lost along the way.

"What it becomes is the expressive and imaginative culture of people who many times were illiterate," Hemmenway said. "They were not sitting down writing short stories and poems. They were telling tales. It's a cultural window into how people lived. You can learn more about what life was like for African-Americans by their folklore."

Hurston collected the stories during trips through the rural South paid for by a wealthy white patron, Charlotte Mason of New York. A contract with Hurston dated Dec. 1, 1927, specified that the information compiled must not be divulged to anyone else, perhaps another reason much of the collection remains unpublished.

Mrs. Mason provided Hurston with an automobile, a motion picture camera and $200 a month to roam the South in search of the best tall tales and most interesting stories. Hurston took one dress, packed a pearl-handled pistol in her purse and, posing as a bootlegger's girlfriend from Jacksonville, haunted sawmill camps, juke joints and workplaces across Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

"She would say, 'I just need a little time here cause my man's in the joint,' and the next thing you know, she's collecting folk tales and songs and everything else," Hemmenway said.

Her tales were couched in the black dialect of the South and carried an angry undercurrent of protest against the harsh, strictly segregated and frequently dangerous society in which the storytellers lived. God talks, preacher tales, devil tales, witch and hant (ghost) tales; John and Massa tales (servant and master); Massa and white folks tales (about white people), and tales about talking animals and cheating lovers were all included, Dr. Hemmenway said.

"Black people in slavery are explaining to each other why something is the way it is in the John and Massa tales; it gives black people a way to explain why white people are oppressing black people," he added.

Some of the pages of the document are in Hurston's own hand. She listed the real names, ages, occupations and hometowns of her sources, which included schoolchildren, domestic workers, phosphate miners, lumber, sawmill and railroad workers, housewives, preachers and even one person identified as a "bum and roustabout." Some were identified as former slaves, like a Sally Smith who Hurston indicated had been born in Tarkwa, in what is now Ghana, and brought to the United States in 1859.

Officials are still trying to determine why the manuscript containing the folk tales remained unnoticed for decades in the photo files at the Smithsonian, said Hamlet Paoletti, a public affairs specialist there.

It is the latest in a string of Hurston works to pop up in arcane places. When Hurston died penniless and little known in 1960, her papers were not saved as part of her estate but were dispersed. They are now being gradually rediscovered.

The National Endowment for the Arts is providing $75,000 to the film production company of Ms. Anderson and to Julie Dash, a Los Angeles filmmaker, to finish their biographical documentary about Hurston, which is tentatively titled "Black South" and is scheduled for completion within a year, Ms. Anderson said.

Hurston studied anthropology seriously and wrote 4 novels, 36 short stories, 2 books of folklore (the newly found document might be considered the third), an autobiography, pieces for the Florida Writer's Project and a dozen plays, Ms. Sanders said.

Lois Gaston of Tampa, Hurston's grandniece and at one point the spokeswoman for most of the writer's heirs, said she had not seen the document and could not say whether it would be published. "At this point, about all I can really say is I'm aware, and we're just delighted anytime something supports Zora and her contribution to our society in terms of preserving our culture," she said, adding, "We're excited because it is something that promotes Zora and her dedication and commitment to her craft and her calling."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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