Mules and Men:The Rewards of Hurston's Performances
Although critically and financially her reputation as a performer damaged her career immeasurably it was her ability to assume many roles that allowed Hurston to become a first-rate collector of folk material and a imaginative and innovative writer. In reality Hurston's life was made up of a variety of performances. She might have been, as she characterizes herself in "How it Feels to Be Colored Me," "everybody's Zora," but she was a different Zora to everyone(How 153).
Even her physical appearance was perceived differently by her friends as Mary Washington points out descriptions of Zora range from Fannie Hurst's impression "a big-boned, good-boned young woman handsome and light yellow," to Theodore Pratt's observation of her being, "short, squat, and black as coal"(
As Hurston explains in the introduction to Mules and Men "folklore is not as easy to collect as it sounds. The best source is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-priveleged, are the shyest.They are most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by"(Mules and Men). In order to collect folklore Hurston had to assume many different roles in order to gain acceptance as an insider and avoid the "feather-bed resistance" by which the African American allows "the probe to enter, but it never comes out"(Mules and Men 2).
Racism explains the theory behind the "feather-bed" tactics: "The white man is always trying to know into somebody else's business. All right, I'll set something outside the door of my mind for him to play with and handle. He can read my writing but he sho' can't read my mind. I'll put this play toy in his hand, and he will seize it and go away. Then I'll say my say and sing my song"(Mules and Men 2). The narrative of Mules and Men provides testimony to Hurston's ability as a performer to break down the "feather-bed" of resistance.The text charts Hurston's development as a folk performer as she attempts to attain the status of an "insider" among her many informants.
As she explained it ,"The glamour of Barnard College was still upon me. I dwelt in marble halls.....I went about asking in carefully accented Barnardese, 'Pardon me, but do you know any folk tales or folk songs?' The men and women who had whole treasuries of material just seeping through thier pores, looked at me and shook thier heads. No, they had never heard of anything like that around there"(Dust Tracks on A Road 144).
In order to "penetrate that affected demeanor by which the Negro excludes" observers Hurston vieled herself in many guises. (Boas' Preface to Mules and Men). Hurston's adoption of black dialect throughout the text also serves to illustrate her submersion into black folk culture. As explained in the section about Mules and Men asautobiography Hurston switches back and forth between the language of the written word and the black folk speech inherent to her informants. Through changing her own dialect she characterizes herself as one of the gang, an insider among the creators of the black folk culture documented inside the text. Like a character in a play Hurston adopts the patterns of speech indigenous to her surroundings. When she narrates her story she uses gramatically correct english, when she tells of her interactions with her informants she speaks in dialect.
In certain instances throughout the text Hurston plays the role of the outsider. In part this role is a narrative device that allows Hurston to ask questions such as "A toe-party! What on earth is that?" or "What is Coon dick?" in order to help her presumably white reader by explaining these uncommon terms.The Hoodoo section of the text suggests a further reading of Hurston as the outsider. The various initiations scenes in the section on Hoodoo work as a metaphor for the various initiations recounted by Hurston throughout the text. Just as the pair of eyes painted on Hurston's cheeks following her initiation by Hoodoo Priest Luke Turner signified "that [she] could see in more ways than one" the narrative of the text testifies to Hurston's abilities to see from the various perspectives of her informants (Mules and Men 199).
Because of Charlotte Osgood Mason's ownership of Hurston's material, one other frame of reference regards the text as Hurston's own folk performance. Although Hurston does not place herself as a tale teller throughout the text, she adopts a strategy common to the folktales in the last lines of the text. The last tale she tells is of "Sis cat" :
In her essay "Thresholds of Difference: Structures of Address in Zora Neale Hurston", Barbara Johnson explains the ambibuity of the last lines of the text.
It is almost impossible to definitively answer Johnson's question except to suggest that the last lines of the text, suggest a lesson that Hurston learned herself along the journey that became Mules and Men, that the crown, whether it be that of a high priestess, or that of folklore must be earned. The last lines of the text may be seen as the crown of Hurston's text and only by earning the crown i.e. carefully reading the text may the audience understand and reap the rewards of black folklore.