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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"(Washington 7).

Although nothing quite explains the disparity between the different physical descriptions of Hurston the fact that she was simultaneously engaged in many different projects,ideas, and worlds perhaps helps to reveal why she seemed so different to so many people. During the time she wrote Mules and Men she was both an artist who lived and worked in Harlem, hung out with notable New Negroes like Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Richard Nugent and did graduate work at Barnard and an ambitious folklorist who assumed many different roles, including that of a fugitive gun-toting bootlegger, in order to gather the tales of the "Negro farthest down."

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.

In 1927, when she first traveled back to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida to collect folklore at the bequest of Franz Boas, Hurston met with little success.  According to her autobiography Hurston's first experiences as a folklorist "were disappointing. I found out later that it was not because I had no talents for research, but because I did not have the right approach." Hurston's experiences at Barnard College and Howard University had distanced her from the small-town girl she once was and at first denied her the ability to assimilate with her former neighbors and friends(Dust Tracks on  A Road 144).

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 as autobiography 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.

Hurston charts her various transformations from outsider to insider throughout her narrative. Although Hurston casts herself in many roles throughout the text from the prodigal daughter returned home to Hoodoo priestess and initiate, by far the most telling of her roles occurs during her visit to Polk County.

 

Only after she has donned on the guise of a bootlegger is Hurston invited into the inner circle, she enters Polk County as an outsider.  When she arrives in Polk County, a lumber mill frequented by outlaws and convicts, she "tried to be friendly" but "there was a noticable disposition to fend me off."

As a folklorist she felt herself "figuratively starving to death in the midst of plenty." Because of her "shiny gray chevrolet" and her expensive dress her prospective informants "thought I must be a revenue officer or a detective of some kind ......The car made me look to prosperous . So they set me aside as different"(Mules and Men).Meeting with the "ole feather-bed tactics"  in Polk County Hurston  turns herself into "a fugitive from justice, 'bootlegging.'"  She tells her compatriots that "They were hot behind me in Jacksonville and they wanted me in Miami. So I was hiding out. That sounded reasonable. Bootleggers always have cars. I was taken in."

 

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).

Only after Hurston has learned to see in new ways can she wear "the crown of power." As she explains the "crown without the preparation means no more than a college diploma without the four years work" (Mules and Men ). Hurston explains and emphasizes that "It must be earned."

Throughout the text, Hurston's status as an insider is like the crown, it too must be earned.   In Polk County Hurston  earns her invitation by ridding herself of her "$12.74 dress from Macy's" and cloaking herself in the vestiges of a bootlegger, a known commodity in the area. Only then is she invited, literally, into the circle as she is asked to dance.

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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" :

"Once Sis Cat got hongry and caught herself a rat and set herself down to eat 'im. Rat tried and tried to git loose but Sis Cat was too fast and strong. So jus' as de cat started to eat 'im he says, "Hol' on dere, Sis Cat! Ain't you got no manners atall? You going set up to de table and eat 'thout washing yo' face and hands?"

Sis Cat was mighty hongry but she hate for de rat to think she ain't got no manners, so she went to de water and washed her face and hands and when she got back de rat was gone.

So de cat caught herself a rat again and set down to cat. So de Rat said, "Where's yo' manners at, Sis Cat? You going to eat 'thout washing yo' face and hands?"

"Oh, Ah got plenty manners," de cat told 'im. "But Ah cats mah dinner and washes mah face and uses mah manners afterwards." So she et right on 'im and washed her face and hands. And cat's been washin' after eatin' ever since.

I'm sitting here like Sis Cat, washing my face and usin' my manners.I

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.

"So ends the book. But what manners is she using. Upon reading this strange, unglossed final story, one cannot help wondering who, in the final analysis has swallowed what. The reader? Mrs. Mason? Franz Boas? Hurston herself? As Nathan Huggins writes after an attempt to determine the sincerity of Hurston's poses and self-representations, "It is impossible to tell ....who was being fooled."

 

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.

 

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