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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.

One thing about Negro folklore in America, as with African folklore, is that it recognizes the ubiquity of malice. But Hurston never interprets the tales and the only comments the workmen and women make on them take the form of topping them with another tale. They know what their tales, sayings, and “by-words” mean, though they don’t expect everyone to understand. “Most people are thin-brained. They’s born wid they feet under de moon. Some folks is born wid they feet on de sun and they kin seek out the inside meanin’ of words.”

The scenes in the camp at night are among the best in Mules and Men, because of the character Big Sweet, an outrageous, knife-wielding woman who befriends and protects Hurston. “If anything start, Little-Bit, you run out de door like a streak uh lightning and get in yo’ car. They gointer try to hurt you too.” Big Sweet’s rivals believe that their reputations would be enhanced if they attacked Hurston, Big Sweet’s special friend. “You come here tuh see and lissen and Ah means fuh yuh tuh do it.” The only liquor available is a “low wine,” made in part from Sterno and sugar. Hurston enjoys the card games where she listens to brags, rhymes, prison songs, and boasts, but she is also listening for the ominous click of a blade springing open. When eventually one of Big Sweet’s enemies appears with a knife, “walking hippily” straight at Hurston, Big Sweet is quick to jump on the assailant. “Run and ride!” she shouts to a fleeing Hurston.

In Part II of Mules and Men, Hurston is seeking to be initiated into the mysteries of hoodoo. Nobody knows how many “thousands are warmed by the fire of hoodoo,” Hurston says, because believers conceal their faith. This shade worship thrives in New Orleans, the “hoodoo capital of America,” and Hurston’s arrival there also signals the end of the joshing, folksy feeling in the book. Because hoodoo doctors are more distrustful of outsiders than camp laborers or elderly black women, this section has a somber, careful tone. Hurston keeps a very straight face about the bizarre practices and menacing figures she comes across. Her reticence is prudent, but she is also sympathetic. She denounces film and Broadway for their ridiculous versions of hoodoo, yet she doesn’t want to go too far in giving away trade secrets.

Her determination to learn the secrets of conjure impresses the hoodoo doctors she meets. She undergoes rites of purification and consecration with a number of them. She helps to prepare potions and participates in rites that will rid clients of in-laws, no-good husbands, and hussies, and mess up people who just plain need to be taken down a notch in the world. Mules and Men turns out not to be a work for cat lovers. Cats get buried alive or tossed into boiling cauldrons in hoodoo ceremonies. Chickens have a terrible time, too: their necks are broken, as a victim’s name is chanted and the ground beaten with a stick. Some of the superstitions about the dead that Hurston learned about include the fact that “ghosts feel hot and smell faintish.” Sometimes the living offend the dead, who then slap the living in the face. “When this happens, the head is slapped one-sided and the victim can never straighten his neck.”

Hurston fills her book with invitations to laugh, noting that there are different kinds of laughter. She speaks of one woman so brokenhearted when her man told her he no longer loved her that she could only laugh. She says somewhere that the Negro baptizes everything about life in a stream of laughter, which can sometimes mean the laughter of cruelty. Often in the tales someone gets to take enormous pleasure in sneering at the misfortunes and stupidities of others. Her informants are far from being stereotypical happy darkies. However, back in the 1930s, with the ordeal of the Scottsboro Boys raging in the black and Communist press, Mules and Men was accused of fostering notions of “romantic pastoralism” about the black South. Some blacks in Hurston’s day resented folklore not because they were ashamed of how ignorant it made the black past seem to them, but because racists also loved Uncle Remus.

Mules and Men, as it was published in 1935, may not have been the folklore book that Hurston at first had in mind. In her excited letters to Langston Hughes in 1928 about the “gorgeous” material she had collected, she says she has enough folklore to fill seven volumes, envisioning separate volumes for the love letters, work songs, tales about religion, children’s games, etc. She warned Boas when she was first working on the book that she had decided to dispense with theory altogether. Evidently, she prepared one volume of stories, Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States. The manuscript was recently discovered at the Smithsonian, after having been decades in a basement at Columbia, and has been published as Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States.

In her introduction, Carla Kaplan—who has also edited the enormous and enormously illuminating Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters2—says that we can’t know for certain why the manuscript had been forgotten since 1929. Maybe Mrs. Mason suppressed it; maybe publishers wanted something more than a transcription of tales. Kaplan suggests that Every Tongue Got to Confess is how Hurston first imagined presenting the material gathered in Mules and Men—entirely on its own, with no connecting tissue, so to speak. In a letter, Hurston tells Hughes that she kept to the “exact dialect” as closely as she could, by listening to a story until she knew it herself, then writing it word for word as the teller spoke, taking it “from the lips” so that she would not “creep in unconsciously.”

What set Hurston apart from other black artists and intellectuals of the time who also valued folklore was that she regarded folktales as expressions of a conscious aesthetic, an already well-developed art form with its own conventions and traditions, and not merely as raw material from which art could be made. Hurston wasn’t troubled by dialect, which others found off-putting because it seemed ignorant. But to Hurston dialect wasn’t the most important thing about the idiom of the Negro. She valued the flowing poetical style of blacks, and their cultural tendency to think in images, as she called it. In his foreword to Every Tongue Got to Confess, John Edgar Wideman reflects on dialect as a transliteration of black speech, which he defines as a creolized language: “Creole languages refuse to remain standing, hat in hand at the back door as segregated, second- class, passive aspirants for marginal inclusion within the framework of somebody else’s literary aesthetic.”

In Afro-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World,3 Roger D. Abraham presents folk tales in standard English because, he says bluntly, there is no way to rid dialect of its racist associations. It is interesting to compare Abraham’s version of one tale, to which he has given the title, “The Man Makes and the Woman Takes,” to the same tale in Mules and Men, rendered as “Why Women Always Take Advantage of Men.” It’s a story in which a woman, to counter the physical strength God has given man, learns from the Devil how to control man with the keys to the bedroom, the kitchen, and the unborn generations that God has given her.

Hurston sets up the tale through an argument. “Don’t you know you can’t git de best of no woman in de talkin’ game?” George Thomas chides Gene Brazzle. He says the woman could have had “mo’ sense, but she told God no, she’d ruther take it out in hips…. She got plenty hips, plenty mouf and no brains.” Matilda Moseley jumps in with “Oh, yes, womens is got sense, too.” She proceeds to tell why women always have the advantage over men. In the beginning, man and woman had equal strength until man tired of the fights, went to God, and asked for and was granted more strength than woman:

Ole Maker, wid de mawnin’ stars glitterin’ in yo’ shinin’ crown, wid de dust from yo’ footsteps makin’ worlds upon worlds, wid de blazin’ bird we call de sun flyin’ out of yo’ right hand in de mawnin’ and consumin’ all day de flesh and blood of stump-black darkness, and comes flyin’ home every evenin’ to rest on yo’ left hand, and never once in all yo’ eternal years, mistood de left hand for de right, Ah ast you please to give me mo’ strength than dat woman you give me, so Ah kin make her mind. Ah know you don’t want to be always comin’ down way past de moon and stars to be straightenin’ her out and its got to be done. So give me a li’l mo’ strength, Ole maker and Ah’ll do it.

Abraham’s version in standard English:

Old Maker, with the morning stars glittering in your shining crown, with the dust from your footsteps making worlds upon worlds, with the blazing bird we call the sun flying out of your right hand in the morning and consuming all day the flesh and blood of stump-black darkness, and flying home every evening to rest on your left hand, and never once in all your eternal years mistook the left hand for the right, I ask you please to give me more strength than that woman you give me, so I can make her obey me. I know you don’t want to be coming down way past the moon and the stars to be straightening her out all the time. So give me a little more strength, Old Maker, and I’ll do it.

Oddly enough, there is more poetry in the standard-English version and as a script it gives the interpreter more freedom.

Elsewhere, Wideman has described black literature as the history of a writing that sought to escape its frame. Wideman was thinking of black writers who wanted to give the stories of black people without having to have a guiding or mediating voice to explain to a white audience what the stories are about and what the attitude toward them should be. In this, you might say that Zora Neale Hurston was ahead of her time, because it’s one thing to read Every Tongue Got to Confess supported by an acquaintance with Hurston’s work and another thing to come to it cold, as, presumably, publishers did in 1929. There are far more tales in this volume than in Mules and Men, and some from that work appear here. Divided into fifteen sections, the book goes from “God Tales,” “Preacher Tales,” and “Devil Tales,” to “Mistaken Identity Tales,” “Fool Tales,” and “Woman Tales,” to “Talking Animal Tales” and “Animal Tales.” Most every tale, no matter the length, is signed with the teller’s name.

De preacher was up preaching and he said: “Every tongue got to confess; everybody
Got to stand in judgment for thyself; every tub got to stand on its own bottom.”
One little tee-inchy woman in de amen corner said: “Lord make my bottom wider.”

—Rebecca Corbett

The way the tales are told captures the voice of a faded era and they add up to a picture of a people. Hurston identifies her informants in an appendix—“Rebecca Corbett: Cook. Age 35. Born in Georgia.”—but you miss Hurston as a guide, because the stories of her even fleeting relationships with her informants in Mules and Men are part of the book’s interest and appeal. You especially miss her appreciation of repartee, because, like Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X, Hurston was incapable of coming up with a bad line in a verbal contest. She makes everyone in Mules and Men a quick wit. Then, too, Every Tongue Got to Confess may be the uncensored or undoctored version of Mules and Men, and it may include material that displeased Mrs. Mason or perplexed publishers who hadn’t enough clues to know how to read the tales, but the volume is not “more bitter,” as Sterling Brown said Mules and Men needed to be, in order to get closer to the truth of black life.

Hurston was a dedicated researcher—“formalized curiosity,” “poking and prying with a purpose”—but she was uninterested in the sort of work in ethnology that got lost on a shelf. In 1935, she enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Columbia but didn’t attend classes. Her grant from the Rosenwald Foundation had been reduced, because its head disapproved of her study plan as not being exhaustive enough. Hurston’s biographer, Robert Hemenway, tells us that she was insulted as an anthropologist who had done important fieldwork.4 But a Guggenheim fellowship took her to the West Indies in 1936. In Haiti, she wrote her best novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her fellowship was renewed in 1937 so that she could write Tell My Horse (1938), an uneasy study of Jamaican and Haitian voodoo. The book was not well received and Hurston had to figure out how to make a living.

She joined the Federal Writers’ Proj- ect in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1938. In her excellent biographical essay on Hurston in Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston from the Federal Writers’ Project,5 Pamela Bordelon emphasizes the blow to Hurston’s pride that going on relief must have been, not to mention the humiliation of the segregated offices and Jim Crow policies in the Florida FWP itself. Go Gator brings together Hurston’s essays and commentary on Florida and folklore, her sketches of Southern life in the 1930s, folk pieces for performance that constituted her last FWP assignments, as well as transcripts of recordings of songs she made for the project. Go Gator also corrects the Hurston canon, removing some essays wrongly attributed to Hurston in an earlier volume of FWP writings, The Sanctified Church (1981), edited by Toni Cade Bambara.

Hurston went on writing about folklore and reviewing books on related subjects. She set off to Honduras in the 1940s on one of her quests for knowledge of the New World vernacular culture. More of Hurston’s work on folklore may yet come to light. The rest of her FWP work and the six other manuscripts she projected around the same time as Negro Folk-Tales of the Gulf States are perhaps somewhere, waiting to be found. She collected “like a new broom,” “grabbing everything” that she saw—apparently, there was no limit to what Hurston could find out. The folk tale has been defined as a story that has no end, which in a way is one of its problems. Jack can beat the Devil on one day and in the next story he has to beat him all over again. The tales go on and on, repeating and repeating, with, one supposes, subtle variations, nuances, and regional differences.

Though Hurston was trained in the American tradition whereby anthropologists regarded the societies they were trying to understand as fast-disappearing, she came to think of black folk culture as constantly in the making. The intrinsic creativity of a people was something she would have thought much about after reading Boas’s Primitive Art (1929). “Negro folklore is not a thing of the past,” Hurston declares in “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” an essay probably written in 1930 that she contributed to Nancy Cunard’s anthology Negro (1934). Hurston goes on to assert that Negro folklore’s great variety

shows the adaptability of the black man: nothing is too old or too new, domestic or foreign, high or low, for his use. God and the Devil are paired, and are treated no more reverentially than Rockefeller and Ford. Both of these men are prominent in folklore, Ford being particularly strong, and they talk and act like good-natured stevedores or mill-hands. Ole Massa is sometimes a smart man and often a fool. The automobile is arranged alongside of the oxcart. The angels and apostles walk and talk like section hands. And through it all walks Jack, the greatest culture hero of the South; Jack beats them all—even the Devil, who is often smarter than God.

Hurston found a dynamism in folk culture where others tended to treat it as static and documentary, because for her black people’s culture was a folk culture. Anything having to do with the vernacular, whatever is classified as folklore, whether urban or rural, was folklore.

Following on from her, the scope of folklore, the “boiled down juice of human living,” as Hurston defined it, has expanded since Langston Hughes and Anna Bontemps edited The Book of Negro Folklore (1958) in the era of Disney’s film version of the Uncle Remus tales. Back then, folklore, a popular culture, had to be defended against distortions of it in mass, or mainstream, culture. It was a great relief to some blacks perhaps when folklore went urban, when, instead of Ole Massa tales in dialect, you could get the slangy toasts and ballads of coked-out pimps.6 To judge from Daryl Cumber Dance’s huge recent anthology, From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore,7 everything funky, including hip hop, is defined as vernacular and therefore folk. The folk feeling is now triumphantly mainstream. But it’s also been literary for quite a while—Ralph Ellison, Ishmael Reed, to name but two.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    Edited by Carla Kaplan and Robert Hemenway, to be published later this fall by Doubleday.

  3. 3

    Pantheon, 1985.

  4. 4

    Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (University of Illinois Press, 1977).

  5. 5

    Norton, 1999. See also Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, to be published in January 2003 by Scribner.

  6. 6

    See The Life: The Lore and Folk Poetry of the Black Hustler, compiled by Dennis Wepman, Ronald B. Newman, and Murray B. Binderman (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976).

  7. 7

    Norton, 2002.

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