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Zora Neale Hurston’s "Mules and Men"

Cover art from Perennial Library edition, 1990

by Olivia Reburn. Reburn is a Comparative Literature major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This book review was written for the Fall 2008 class "Folklife in America."

Raised in Eatonville, Florida, Zora Neale Hurston bore witness to the rich culture and identity of an all-black community. Hurston was exposed to the strong sense of spirit and independence in Eatonville that resonated in the character of its people and the oral tradition of “lying.” She grew up hearing “dem big ole lies” told on the store porch and at social gatherings to pass the time. Lying—the telling of folk tales—provided Hurston the material to establish a distinctive voice of working class African Americans. Familiar with the Southern town’s way of life, the educated Hurston returned to her hometown as an anthropologist, a folklorist, and a writer to collect the “lies” and anthologize them in Mules and Men. In the nonfiction account of her experiences in both Eatonville among friends and relatives and with the hoodoo culture of New Orleans, Hurston documents two unique folk groups of African Americans in the South. As both an insider and an outsider, Hurston offers a unique perspective; her field work resulted in a colorful, if not a bit exaggerated, portrayal of Southern blacks. Although Hurston represents the African American culture with a mythic realism and stylized language, she nevertheless captures the “Negro imagination” through the witticisms, superstitions, and customs of the members of her community.

Mules and Men allows the reader to experience the small town life of blacks in the 1930’s. Their everyday lives inspire both communication and imagination, as the storytellers weave the ordinary with the legendary. Drawing inspiration from their heritage, their environment, and their relationships, the “boys” spin tales of slave life and creation .The people of Eatonville exchange folk narratives which describe some aspect of their system of beliefs or social structure. In particular, tales of John and “Ole Massa” are evidence of the community’s slave heritage. John almost always outsmarts Old Massa--the Negro triumphs over the white man. Another common motif are characterizations of “the Lawd,” Jesus, and the Devil and etiological fables. The stories are meant to be humorous, but they reflect the community aesthetic and contain deep-rooted beliefs. The people of Eatonville never believe the “lies,” and yet each one is rooted in a historical or religious context. The tales, jokes, and ballads are greatly exaggerated, perhaps disguising moral truths with humor. What does a folktale say about a culture? Hurston seeks to answer this question by intentional writing Part I in a stream-of-conscious manner. Each story reminds someone else of another lie, and so the collection of folklore is united by common themes of Christian morality, social realism, and gender differentiation. Still, the stories are meant more to entertain than to make serious social commentary, suggesting the notion that Mules and Men is a celebration of experiences and language rather than a generalization of a society.

As I read Hurston’s description of her experiences, I found that the effectiveness of the narrative lay in her own ability to tell a story. Hurston writes as both a novelist and an anthropologist, and so the book is richly detailed, placing each story in a larger context of another story. The experience of collecting the folklore was itself a story told from her personal perspective. Mules and Men is an anthology of the verbal and customary lore of Eatonville, and so not only did Hurston listen to narratives, dialect, phrases, jokes, and songs, but she also experienced the beliefs, superstitions, customs, games, and dances. She became involved with the people of the community, enabling her to take part in the traditions, such as the “toe sale.” Hurston was very successful in this aspect of her research, as she experienced folk life herself, rather than just hearing about it. To collect the tales, she played the roles of the hometown girl and the outside academic. She had the perspective of an insider—having grown up the community—and an outsider, college educated and reasonably well-off. This worked both to her advantage and disadvantage. From the emic approach, Hurston was more likely to be biased. She risked becoming too involved with her subjects, which raises issues of anthropological ethics. Being an outsider also worked to Hurston’s disadvantage. Folks mistrusted her expensive car and clothes and her college education. Zora had been living in the outside world for almost too long, and she appeared “too good” for the community. At the party many were hesitant to ask her to dance or to “woof” with her. She developed relationships with those she knew from her childhood, but strangers tended to mistrust her, especially other women. As a female, Hurston might have had a better understanding of another woman’s views, but she found she could not relate as well to the women as to the men. Some of the women of the community took a dislike to Zora, perceiving her as a threat. Hurston became involved in their drama, and was forced to leave Eatonville. As an anthropologist, Huston did not establish sufficient rapport with the women of the town.

Despite her unique position as both an emic and etic observer, Hurston attempted to conduct her research as a folklorist. She noted how the traditions were performed as art, in what context, their variations, function, and value to the community. Gaining the trust and respect of a group of men, Hurston was able to participate in parties, dances, gatherings, and brought to visit the swamp workers. The face-to-face personal contact she had with these men and women enriched the “lies” and Hurston’s own narrative. The informal setting—the social outlets, the dialogue, and the daily interactions between folklorist and subjects rendered Hurston’s research more natural, as she had time to develop relationships and grow acquainted with the everyday life of the tellers. As he expands upon ordinary occurrences, the teller incorporates varied aspects of culture, from cuisine to religion to heritage. However, in the informal environment negative aspects of culture come to the surface—sexism, stereotypes, violence, and racism. Hurston often implies that her subjects regard their own race as uneducated, lazy, and subservient to whites. She researched as a functionalist, emphasizing the role “lyin’” plays in a non-literate society as an escape or amusement. The community is portrayed as static, even a bit backwards, and Hurston appears somewhat elitist, as she does not emphasize contextual differences. To the outsider the people may sound ignorant, sexist, and even racist, caricatured by their dialogue. Hurston’s stylistic rendering of African American dialect may be somewhat exaggerated, especially in regards to her own voice as a writer. However, she differentiates between the dialects of her community and the hoodoo culture of New Orleans, making her documentation of the idioms more believable. The informal manner of speech and the colloquial expressions create a rich, humorous, authentic tone. At the time of publication, the rendering of the language may have offended the African American readers, who would have been embarrassed by the apparent illiteracy of their small- town Southern “counterparts.” I find the language engaging and honest, as if you were right there listening to the stories. I think that was what Hurston intended—to engage the reader in the very process of collecting folklore. However, since Hurston had no recording instruments, she had to rely on her notes and the vagaries of memory to transcribe the conversations.

Perhaps she embellished or even misrepresented the people by taking their stories and writing her own versions. Hurston sought to capture the community aesthetic through her descriptions of l