The Anthropology of Mules and Men: Science and Fiction
With the publication of Mules and Men, the first book ever written by an African American on black folklore for a popular audience, Zora Neale Hurston became one of two or three historically important collectors of black folklore. Alan Lomax, arguably the foremost expert on American folk culture, regarded the text as "the most engaging, genuine and skillfully written book in the field of folklore"(Bloom 92).With an introduction by the father of contemporary anthropology Franz Boas, its successful attempt to honestly capture the dialect of southern blacks , and its poignent and honest depictions of African American folk tales, songs, and faiths
Yet, any reading of Mules and Men as purely a collection of folklore is complicated by the intimate style of narration a time when, in the words of Robert Hemenway, "the scholarly folklorist of the thirties was expected to subordinate self to material in the interests of objectivity. The intent was to leave the emphasis on the folklore texts that were being added to the body of knowledge. After describing the corpse, the folklorist could perform an autopsy in order to learnhow the living organism functions"(Hemenway 165).
Folklore readings of the text are further complicated by various indiosyncracies within Hurston's research and recording methods. Although Hurston collected the bulk of the material that would later become Mules and Men on a 1927 expedition, friends and acquintances recalled her telling these tales long before this date.
Proof of Hurston's seeming duplicity exists in her story the "Eatonville Anthology,"(Fall,1926) in which she published the story that appears in chapter 7 as "How Brer Dog Lost His Beautiful Voice." Hurston's repition of the story "Why Negroes are Black" in her autobiography seems to further suggest that at least some of the tales collected in Mules and Men were recounted from Hurston's childhood.
Mules and Men is unlike scientifically oriented studies of folktales in that it provides no historical frame of reference with regard to other cultures and other tales. Although Hurston mentions that "High John De Conquerer" was a figure originally found in Africa, no other mention of the congruities between African American , European or African folktales appears. The section on Hoodoo, in which Hurston attempts to contextualize Hoodoo through a comparison with Christianity, forms the only part of the text in keeping with this aspect of scientific folk writing.
The pressures underwhich Hurston published Mules and Men, as well as her own construction of folkculture explain , at least to some degree, the various eccentricities of Hurston's folklore. Her publisher at Lippincott encouraged Hurston to make her text readable to the larger public. It was only at his request that Hurston added the autobiographical elements that prove one of the true artistic merits of the text.
Hurston felt a great deal of pressure to publish a collection of black folklore. At the time of the text's publication the tales of Joel Chandler Harris still proved the diffentive text. Feeling the burden of her undertaking Hurston wrote the president of Fisk university that she "was weighed down by this thought that practically nothing had been done in Negro folklore when the greatest cultural wealth of the continet was disappearing without the world ever realizing that it had been" (Hemenway p.108) .
Hurston herself had been a member of the class who failed to see the "greatest cultural wealth of the continent." In the introduction to Mules and Men Hurston wrote that although she had landed at birth "in the crib of negroism" and had known "from the earliest rocking of my cradle" about Brer Rabbit, the folktales that formed the axis upon which her literary career was built, fit her "like a tight chemise. I couldn't see it for wearing it" (Mules and Men 1).
The difficulty of translating the oral genre of the folktale into written form offers a further explanation for the intimate nature of the narrative. The story "How to Write a Letter" illustrates the inherent difficulty of translating the meaning of folk language in written words. In this story the oldest daughter has been sent off to school. Upon her return her father asks her to write a letter:
This passage illustrates how Hurston employed her own voice in order to document the differences between the written and the oral. By using dialect herself Hurston validates the language of the illiterate southern blacks who form her subjects. Hurston uses the language of "the spade" and not "the writing pen" in order to undercut the value of the written word and redeem the spoken words of black dialect.
As Gayl Jones explains Hurston's recording of black folk dialect proved the first treatment of black speech to break out of a frame that implied "a linguistic hierarchy, the dominance of one language variety over all others" (Jones 152). Hurston "was the first to initate this breaking out of the frame" and her treatment of black speech proves one of the most significant merits in terms of a reading of the text from the view point of the anthropologist. Speaking for the esthetic consciousness of the 'Negro farthest down" Hurston applied the concepts of Boasian anthropology and constructed black folk speech in its own terms (Hemenway 157).
The use of her own voice as a platform for black folk culture also suggests a reason for the apparent discrepancies between Hurston's research and her final product. Seeing herself as a one woman redeemer of black folk culture it is easy to understand why Hurston may perhaps have used tales collected on other trips or from her childhood in an effort to enhance her depiction of black southern culture.
Despite the seeming incongrities between the texts produced conventionally by anthropologists and Hurston's intimate depiction of black folk culture, as Franz Boas preface attests to, the text does ,deserve to be considered as a valid and vital contribution to black folklore. It does capture, to use Hurston's words, the world of the "Negro farthest down" not through telling of his woes but through extolling the merits of his imagination and his culture.