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The Anthropology of Mules and Men: Science and Fiction

 


Zora on a Folksong Collecting Trip in Haiti

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  Mules and Men has come to be viewed as seminal text  of American folklore.

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).

Negro folklore is not a thing of the past. It is still in the making.Its 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 treated no more reverently than Rockefeller and Ford.
Characteristics of Negro Expression

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Haitian Folk Musicians

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.  

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Polk County Dancers

Yet even in the section on Hoodoo, the autobiographical nature of the text additionally appears at odds with a discipline in which the narrator functioned traditionally as an "objective" participant observer. Unlike the traditional participant observer, Hurston engages and interacts with her informants. At some points in the text it is difficult to tell, as Barbara Johnson has observed, "whether Hurston the narrator is describing a strategy or employing one"(Johnson 137). In other words, it is hard to decipher exactly who is the performer, Hurston or her informant.

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) .

As Robert Hemenway recounts Hurston felt herself to be on a mission to redeem black folktales, faiths and songs from obscurity and place them along side other vital contributions made to American culture by blacks. Mules and Men in part formed Hurston's broadcast to the world that the "negro farthest down" had much to contribute in the way of imagination. Through her tale-telling Hurston asserts that the primacy of African American culture, stating that the   "Negro imagination is so facile that there is little need for outside help" (Mules and Men)

00375r.jpg (24036 bytes)In Eatonville Circa 1934

 

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). 

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Hoodoo Altar
Only after she earned "the spy-glass of anthropology" while studying with Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and Melville Herskovits at Barnard did Hurston truly recognize the worth of the folk culture in which she was raised. Granted anthopological vision Hurston began to see folklore as "the boiled-down juice of human living" (Go Gator and Muddy the Water p.) Hurston viewed folklore as devoid of time or space and inherent to every culture. In Hurston's timeless construction folklore "is still in the making" and Mules and Men can be read in part as Hurston's own contribution to folklore. The section of this site devoted to Mules and Men as performance regards the text in this way.

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:

"Now tell him some mo'. Our mule is dead buy Ah got another mule and  when Ah say (clucking sound of tongue and teeth) he moved from de word."

"Is you got dat?" he ast the girl.

"Naw suh, Ah ain't got it yet."

"How come you ain't got it?"

"Cause Ah can't spell (clucking sound)."


A group of Hurston's Folk Informants
As this passage signifies, although many informants begin thier tales by "saying a piece of literary fust," folk language at base is untranslatable into the written word. Her own words chart Hurston's attempts to document this oral language.

Although she begins the text by narrating the events in grammatically correct english, as she enters the domain of the folk tale tellers her voice assumes the patterns of dialect inherent to her informants speech. Compare the first sentence of chapter 1 "As I crossed the Maitland-Eatonville township line I could see a group on the store porch" with a passage that appears a few paragraphs later, "let 'im tell me this one first, then, if Ah go he can tell me some more on de way over."

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.

Research is formalized curiosity.It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and that they dwell therein.

Dust Tracks on a Road

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.

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