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The High Priestess of the Vernacular

Zora Neale Hurston, high priestess of the vernacular, was the only black student at Barnard College in 1925. She became a dedicated student of anthropology under Columbia University’s Franz Boas, the pioneer of deep fieldwork and the author of The Mind of Primitive Man (1911). Boas faulted white anthropologists for judging different peoples by values that may not be universally applicable. He argued that cultures must be evaluated according to how well people had adapted to their environments. Ruth Benedict, Elsie Clews Parsons, Melville Herskovits, and Margaret Mead also got their start under Boas.

In Hurston’s day, anthropologists for the most part saw folklore as specific to sequestered communities and as collective memory from which the shape of the past could be inferred. Folk culture back then was defined as something impossible to sustain in any environment other than an isolated, impervious locale. Literacy and migration, things normally associated in black culture with progress, choice, and getting away from the South, supposedly undermined the fabric of those locales where a folk culture flourished. Rural people were the stewards of vanishing customs and beliefs, while the past was being lost because of accelerated social transformation.

Hurston was born in Florida, and as a child of the black American culture down South that she wanted to study she greatly appealed to Boas, because his anthropological relativism stressed understanding a given culture from the inside rather than by viewing it from outside. The temperament of the observer, the degree of sympathy and the absence of condescension, were important to a method of cultural analysis that depended on descriptive information. Boas instructed Hurston to pay attention to the behavior of people when they told a story as well as to the stories being told. Hurston recognized this approach to anthropology as a way of asserting vernacular black culture’s worth, even while Boas and his students were criticized within the discipline for not being rigorous enough.

Hurston judged her first field trip down South to collect folk material in 1927 a failure. She made fun of the primness with which she, the new member of the Society of American Folk Lore, asked in “carefully accented Barnardese, ‘Pardon me, but do you know any folk tales or folk songs?’” Shortly after she returned to New York that same year, she met Mrs. Osgood Mason, a white Park Avenue enthusiast of the Negro. The elderly Mrs. Mason had long had an interest in so-called primitive cultures, going back to her youth when she collected lore among the Plains Indians. She gave money to several Harlem Renaissance artists. Hurston herself got the funds for her second trip from Mason. But their private contract also gave Mason ownership of Hurston’s material and control over where she could publish it and in what form, and stipulated that Hurston was collecting folk material on Mrs. Mason’s behalf.

In 1928, Hurston was back down South, moving from Florida to Alabama to New Orleans, collecting tall tales, work songs, children’s games, jokes, lies, and conjure lore. She learned how to win acceptance in the lumber camps, sawmills, and turpentine stills where she was to find her informants. Her interest in hoodoo practices also took her to the Bahamas. Razor and knife fights were not unknown in the jook joints where she went looking for songs. Her work meant that she tended to befriend men, which didn’t endear her to the women in some of the rural counties she insinuated herself into. In a work camp, she always made friends with the toughest woman.

In 1930, Hurston went back to New York, to sort the vast amount of material she had gathered and to prepare it for publication. By the time the contract with Mason expired in 1932, no book had come as yet from their arrangement. As deep as Hurston’s friendship with her eccentric patron was at times, she eventually tired of the restrictions on how she could publish her findings and of the infantilism that white patronage could represent for black artists. To present folk culture as black communities experienced it, neither intimidated nor dressed up nor mediated by an outsider, was something of a crusade for Hurston. She was engaged in a heroic enterprise, that of trying to scrape the blackface from folk culture, to extricate it from layers of stereotype and scorn to let it breathe. Mules and Men, her landmark collection of folktales, finally appeared in 1935, and largely because by then she was a recognized author, having published the year before her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine.

Folk tales were impersonal, made from generation to generation, passed from mouth to mouth. The personality of the storyteller was supposed to be inconsequential. In Mules and Men, Hurston not only portrays the people who tell the stories and describes the places where the people live, she also inserts herself into the scenes of storytelling, or “lying sessions.” Hurston’s method brings out the quality of folklore as a learned pattern of behavior in black culture that no striving to be objective in the conventional sense could have done.

Hurston dives into the poems, songs, and seventy tales collected in Mules and Men simply by going back to her hometown, the all-black village of Eatonville, Florida. Old friends and neighbors make fun of the fact that she’s been up North and has rubbed the hair off her head against college walls. Even if she had had “a Kaiser baby,”1 she’d still be Lucy Hurston’s daughter to people in Eatonville. Hurston accepts the ribbing good-naturedly. She tells them what she wants. “Yeah, those same old ones about Ole Massa and colored folks in heaven.”

Among the several tales she hears is one about a man who “got drownded” when a flood hits his town and then bores everyone in heaven with the story, including “Ole Nora,” or Noah. When the card players and the “gregarious part” of Eatonville are gathered on the store porch, she is told, “Now, you gointer hear lies above suspicion.” A church service is going on across the way and the porch talk shifts into a tale, “How the Brother Was Called to Preach.” “O Lawd, Ah wants to preach. Ah feel lak Ah got a message. If you done called me to preach, gimme a sign.” At the end of the tale, the man who hasn’t been successful as a preacher returns to the spot where he thought he first heard the call only to discover that the voice that told him “Go preach! Go preach!” was actually a mule braying.

We get folk explanations for why Negroes are black—they misunderstood when God commanded, “Get back!” We are treated to a song poem, “When the clock struck one I had just begun. Begun with Sue, begun with Sal, begun with that pretty Johnson gal./…When the clock struck ten I was in the bin, in the bin with Sue, in the bin with Sal, in the bin with that pretty Johnson gal….” Even the children know the long tales of Ole Massa and John, of Jack and the Devil. Shoo-pie, Charlie Jones, Calvin, Matilda, Shug, Gene Brazzle—Hurston’s speakers have names, and she invests their shared language with lively, moody personality. Part of the brilliance of Mules and Men is in the way Hurston sets up the tales, prepares for them in one social situation that then flows into another.

At the Everglades Cypress Lumber Company in nearby Polk County, where Hurston goes next to find material, men look the new arrival over. Someone explains to her that people suspect that she’s a detective or a revenue officer, because of her shiny Chevrolet. The rough lumber camp puts Hurston through some verbal rituals, attitude checks of a sort. Once she plausibly accounts for her $12.74 dress and shows that she can laugh at a good put-down, the woofers at the Saturday night pay-day dance accept her. She climbs a table and sings verses of “John Henry.” “After that my car was everybody’s car.” At first they don’t believe anyone would want to write down “lies,” but Hurston sponsors a lying contest with prizes “and some tall lying was done.”

She spends time with a “swamp gang.” “Wake up, bullies, and get on de rock. Tain’t quite daylight but it’s four o’clock.” She describes them squatting along the railroad track, waiting for the white foreman, moving closer together when they laugh. This work crew is known for its lies. “Ah seen a man so ugly till he could get behind a jimpson weed and hatch monkies.” She goes with them to the sawmill and then goes fishing with them when there is not enough work. The men take turns telling long stories about Ole Massa and John. In her glossary, Hurston defines Jack or John as “the wish-fulfillment hero of the race” who usually defeats Ole Massa, the Devil, as well as God.

The crew agrees that in stories where the black man loses out it wasn’t John, the culture hero, who “de white folks was foolin’ wid,” because he was too smart ever to let himself be beaten. John has the better of Ole Massa in some of the longest tales in the book. In some stories Ole Massa is made to be as superstitious and credulous as the slaves. He is a symbol of arbitrary power, and though he sometimes successfully impersonates God, he isn’t respected. When an “ole nigger” prays to God to “kill de whites” and gets stoned by Ole Massa instead, he picks himself up and demands of the “Lawd,” “Can’t you tell a white man from a nigger?” The white man can outsmart the black man in some tales, but the black man is then admired for the style with which he accepts the lesson he has learned and passes it on to the next guy. They continue to “handle some grammar” with Ole Massa and by the last tale about Ole Massa he is “pitiful” while John has stepped off to freedom in Canada.

Hurston finds a chance to hear why there are no mockingbirds to be heard on Fridays; how the dog and the alligator ruined each others’ looks; how the snake received the weapon of poison from God; how the woodpecker nearly drowned the world; and how “de possum” lost his tail and thereby his spirit. Over trout catching, the men and women tell tales about boll weevils, gnats, and the notoriously bothersome mosquito. They tell why cats have nine lives and affirm that it’s nine years of bad luck if you kill a cat. A few of the tales that Hurston records have a lyricism not often associated with folklore:

De wind is a woman, and de water is a woman too. They useter talk together a whole heap. Mrs. Wind useter go set down by de ocean and talk and patch and crotchet.
They was jus’ like all lady people. They loved to talk about their chillun, and brag on ‘em.
Mrs. Water useter say, “Look at my chillun! Ah got de biggest and de littlest in de world. All kinds of chillun. Every color in de world, and every shape!”
De wind lady bragged louder than de water woman: “Oh, but Ah got mo’ different chilluns than anybody in de world. They flies, they walks, they swims, they sings, they talks, they cries. They got all de colors from de sun. Lawd, my chillun sho is a pleasure. ‘Taint nobody got no babies like mine.”
Mrs. Water got tired of hearin’ ‘bout Mrs. Wind’s chillun so she got so she hated ‘em.
One day a whole passle of her chillun come to Mrs. Wind and says: “Mama, wese thirsty. Kin we go git us a cool drink of water?”
She says, “Yeah chillun. Run on over to Mrs. Water and hurry right back soon.”
When them chillun went to squinch they thirst Mrs. Water grabbed ‘em all and drowned ‘em.
When her chillun didn’t come home, de wind woman got worried. So she went on down to de water and ast for her babies.
“Good evenin’ Mis’ Water, you see my chillun today?”
De water woman tole her, “No-oo-oo.”
Mrs. Wind knew her chillun had come down to Mrs. Water’s house, so she passed over de ocean callin’ her chillun, and every time she call de white feathers would come up on top of de water. And dat’s how come we got white caps on de waves. It’s de feathers comin’ up when de wind woman calls her lost babies.

  1. 1

    Literally, a baby by the Kaiser, a phrase that became current during World War I and meant that you were important.

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