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Hurston's Mules and Men
on November 26, 2005
I read Zora Neale Hurston's novel "Their Eyes are Watching God" and wanted to read more. Hurston (1891 -- 1960) had studied anthropology at Barnard with one of the founders of modern anthropology, Franz Boas. With Boas' encouragement and funding from a private source, Hurston travelled South to collect African-American folklore. Her first stop was Eatonville, Florida, an all-black community where Hurston had spent much of her childhood. She then went South to Polk County, Florida and its sawmills and the Everglades. She went further South to Pierce and Lakeland gathering folk materials before heading to New Orleans to study Hoodoo. In 1927, she rented a small house in Eau Gallie, near Melbourne, Florida where she organized her extensive notes. Her book, "Mules and Men" was published in 1935.
"Mules and Men" is an outstanding source of information about the folk-tales, called "lies", of rural Southern African-Americans. (Florida was a gathering place for African-Americans throughout the South because of the economic opportunities it offered.) She visited old friends in Eatonville, and won the confidence of people in the other communities she visited. The tales include animal stories ("why dogs and cats are enemies", "how the snake got poison," for example) stories of pre-civil war days involving a slave named "Jack" and his master, stories of the battle between the sexes, contests between "Jack" and the devil, bragging contests, and much else. Hurston also collected songs and lyrics, including "John Henry", sermons, and hoodoo formulas while in New Orleans.
But this book is much more than a compilation of folk materials. Hurston brings her material to life by bringing the story-tellers and the communities she visited to life. She writes with deep and obvious affection for the rural African-American communities of the South in the mid-1920s. Hurston's folk-tales are embedded in a fascinating story of their own as she introduces the reader to the small towns, the parties, the sawmills, the jooks, and the life of her story tellers. One of the characters that Hurston befriends is a woman named Big Sweet who lives with a man named Joe. Joe cheats on Big Sweet, and Big Sweet puts Joe right in no uncertain terms. Big Sweet and her enemy, a woman named Lucy, draw knives with potentially fatal consequences in a fight in a jook that involves Zora. Big Sweet is a strong and convincingly drawn character in her own right. The characters and communities in the book were for me even more convincing that the stories.
The first part of Mules and Men describes Hurston's collecting of folk tales, while the second, shorter part discusses her experiences with Hoodoo doctors in New Orleans. Hoodoo played a large role in the lives of some African-Americans. I was reminded of Memphis Minnie's blues song "Hoodoo Lady" and of Muddy Waters' "I got my mojo working". The founder of Hoodoo was a woman named Marie Leveau. Hurston describes how she gained the confidence of several Hoodoo doctors in New Orleans, received initiation from them, and was in one case asked to stay on as a successor practitioner. Hurston relays Hoodoo spells used to kill an enemy, to make an unwanted person leave town, to get a lover or to get rid of an unwanted lover, and to bring help to those in jail. She recounts the stories of these conjures, of the Hoodoo doctors, and their clients with a great deal of seriousness. I found this section of the book fascinating but troubling and different from the folk-tales and people discussed in the first part of the book.
The book is written almost entirely in dialect, but I found it easy to follow as the book progressed. Hurston wrote this book to preserve an important part of African-American culture in the United States and to express her commitment to and love for this culture. She believed this culture had its own strengths and could develop its own course and destiny internally. This is a fascinating, moving book and a thought-provoking picture of one form of the African-American experience in the United States.