Zora Neale Hurston, Diddy-Dah-Widdy, and the WPA Federal Writers’ Project


JULIE BOTNICK

Zora Neale Hurston; Carl Van Vechten. Silver geletin print, 1938. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection, reproduction number LC-DIG-van-5a52142.

Long before food blogging hit the scene, writers were documenting how Americans fed themselves through the never-completed America Eats! collection of the WPA Federal Writers’ Project.

What’s even less well known is that Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most celebrated literary figures of her time, went on relief when the Depression cut off sources of funding for her folklore collecting and writing projects.

One piece that has survived from her work documenting black folkways and foodways is her short story “Diddy-Wah-Diddy,” “the largest and best known of the Negro mythical places.” Hurston’s penchant for humor and the vernacular shines in the story. Diddy-Wah-Diddy “is reached by a road that curves so much that a mule pulling a wagonload of fodder can eat off the back of the wagon as he goes.” The story is a fanciful folktale, using the techniques of exaggeration she picked up as a girl listening to the men storytelling on Joe Clarke’s porch in Eatonville. “It is a place of no work and no worry for man and beast…The food is even already cooked. If a traveler gets hungry all he needs to do is to sit down on the curbstone and wait and soon he will hear something hollering ‘Eat me!’ ‘Eat me!’ ‘Eat me!’ and a big baked chicken will come along with a knife and fork stuck in its sides. He can eat all he wants and let the chicken go and it will go on to the next one that needs something to eat. By that time a big deep sweet potato pie is pushing and shoving to get in front of the traveler with a knife stuck up in the middle of it so he just cuts a piece off of the end and so on until he finishes his snack. Nobody can ever eat it all up. No matter how much you eat it grows just that much faster.”

Dip testing the gum before removal from the truck: Lake City, Florida (1948). Photographer: Muir, B. W. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/151983

What seems like a fun tale gains a new dimension when its source is examined: not Hurston, but the turpentine camps of northern Florida. Hurston collected folklore in the camps, in which the isolated workers had vast, undiluted stores of folktales. The workers were living in states of virtual slavery and peonage under unimaginably harsh and dangerous conditions. They lacked a voice; contemporary journalists’ descriptions of the camps focused more on the orderly rows of little houses or on the large numbers of blacks in the state’s workforce. The tales and songs Hurston collected are some of the only records we have of the daily lives of these men and women.

Contemporary black intellectuals reviled Hurston, though. They wished she would use her platform to emphasize blacks’ accomplishments in the arts and science instead of focusing on the folklore that made them look different, overly-emotional, and ignorant, doing nothing to combat racial stereotypes.

Her tales from the turpentine camps, on the surface, could be seen as silly, promoting these stereotypes. A sweet potato floating through the air with a knife sticking out of it? Pure fantasy. But a closer reading shows a culture of resistance and resilience. In the camp workers’ wildest dreams, all they want is unlimited access to food, a basic need that often locked them into the camp through debt racked up at the company store, or one that they were sometimes flatly denied. Food was hope and optimism. It was otherworldly. It was fun.

Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston collects music for the WPA- Eatonville, Florida. 1935. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/107444
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