H. L. Mencken, “Prejudices: Second Series” (1920): Part 2

The second half of H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series carries on topically exploring issues as diverse as the application of the work ethic to artists to Prohibition. The articles continue Mencken’s assault on American conformity and democracy, but they are so wide-ranging that it starts to really seem that he is onto something. He even manages what can be seen as a critique of capitalism. However, he is not really opposed to it as exploitation of working people. The problem with capitalism and capitalists is that they are driven to banality by the pursuit of wealth (something Mencken does not really respect, although he understands it). That it also seems to drive workers toward the fad of socialism does not help matters. His criticism of capitalism (or at times state power) is derived from what he sees as the same ill of democracy. It forces most of us to lazy thoughts and conformity. The two most important essays in this volume after “The National Letters” are his explorations of Prohibition and marriage.

But let us start with “The Divine Afflatus,” which is mostly a criticism of the application of the work ethic to art. He questions the work of a journalist named Chesterton, for his argument that creative inspiration does not exist and that creativity is largely a function of how hard an artist works. Mencken relies that inspiration is variable and contextual and simply cannot be confined to a simple formula such as “write one thousand words a day.” At the end, he states his fear that the artist will become a manufacturer. As he probably well knew, many writers were already essentially manufacturers churning out stories for pulp magazines at dizzying rates.

“Scientific Examination of a Popular Virtue” is a brief questioning of the value of altruism. It is not some proto-Ayn Rand. Just an investigation about why people are so willing to do favors for others that seem to provide no pleasure to the favor giver and are based on lies. (Think of the professor trying to write nice things about an atrocious student essay.)
“The Allied Arts” is about music, painting, and stage. If you read Mencken you know he often has music in his mind. He cannot help himself but bring Beethoven or Wagner into the discussion. In fact, these seem to be his model of the great artists. His general thesis in “The Allied Arts” is that the vast majority of human beings simply cannot appreciate music and should not try. He is glad that rich people fund music but doubt that they understand it at all. He questions the gaudiness of the visual components of opera. As with literature, “the allied arts” are challenged by the same tendency toward mediocrity, stage is perhaps the most susceptible.

“The Cult of Hope” and “The Dry Millennium” are about reform, in particular Prohibition. The first essay is a warning against allowing criticism to be taken in by reform efforts. We have seen this before when Mencken expressed discomfort at criticism or literature becoming essentially an adjunct to political efforts. He praises Havelock Ellis for having the honesty to point out that no prostitute was more dangerous to a community than a vice squad. This is something contemporary Americans know well as they are finally approaching sanity on the “war on drugs.”

“The Dry Millennium” is a brilliant and funny assault on Prohibition, which was just being enacted. He rightly argued that it would be futile to abolish the consumption and production of alcohol, but more troubling was Mencken’s conviction that the masses would more or less embrace Prohibition. None of the general strikes by working people emerged in response to Prohibition. While the masses will eat up the reform fad, any “civilized” people will stay in Europe. Women will embrace it because it means their husbands will stay at home, even if it means the lubricating effect of alcohol on relationships will be muted for a while. For Mencken, the problem with Prohibition is that it will simply exacerbate the worst characteristics of Americans.

“Appendix on a Tender Theme,” the final essay in Prejudices: Second Series, is about marriage and love. It starts with an anatomy of a relationship from romance, to the breaking of the spell, to habit. Yet, there is something promising in relationships and in love, something that promises to liberate people. Love and sex and relationships are dangerous and not at all boring or banal, despite the constant efforts of the social hygiene folks to reduce marriage to a science. The problem comes with the later phase of the relationship, when it descents into repetition and habit. There is no room for creativity and art in this relationship. He mentions the struggles Wagner had with creativity while married to Minna Planer. Thus there is something antithetical to the artist and marriage. Mencken speaks in gendered terms here (the artist is always a man; the mental block always a marriage to a woman), but we can universalize the concept, given any pairing of a creative person with a person who thinks marriage is best built with bricks and bars.

The day is saved, as every one knows, by the powerful effects of habit. The acquisition of habit is the process whereby disgust is overcome in daily life—the process whereby one may cease to be disgusted by a persistent noise or odor. One suffers horribly at first, but after a bit one suffers less, and in the course of time one scarcely suffers at all. Thus a man, when his marriage enters upon the stage of regularity and safety, gets use to his wife as he might get used to a tannery next door, and vice versa. I think that woman, in this direction, have the harder row to hoe, for they are more observant than men, and vastly more sensitive in small ways. But even women succumb to habit with humane rapidity, else every marriage would end in divorce. (290)

We have to (as usual) try to get beyond the sexist language to see the heart of the matter. Marriage endures because we are slavish and cowardly and easily seduced by routine. Our art sucks for the same reason.

Washington Irving, “Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle Gent.” (1802–1803)

There is nothing that seems more strange and preposterous to me than the manner in which modern marriages are conducted. The parties keep the matter as secret as if there was something disgraceful in the connexion. The lady positively denies that any thing of the king is to happen; will laugh at her intended husband, and even lays bets against eh event, the very day before it is to take place. They sneak into matrimony as quietly as possible, and seem to pride themselves on the cunning and ingenuity they have displayed in their manoeuvers. (7)

To get my feet wet with Washington Irving, I will start small, with the nine satirical letters of “Jonathan Oldstyle,” published in The Morning Chronicle in 1802 and 1803. As I understand it, they were edited by Irving’s brother who must have known that the content was satire, but they were more ambiguously presented to the audience. In this way, the political and social satire of these letters is more advanced than much of the satire we see today, which is satire on its face and presented in clearly satirical venues (Comedy Central, for instance). I think it would be nice if the many daily newspapers printed a bit more subtly exposed satire than much of the drivel on the lifestyle pages.

By this point in this project, I reckon I am incapable of not seeing anarchist tensions in the bulk of American prose. In these letters, it comes across as an a type of vernacular conflict between the old and the new, set primarily in the theatres but also in other arenas of the American commons. Accounts such as these certainly make me pine for the vibrant commons of the past. While I often find “Johnathan Oldstyle” hopelessly old-fashioned (or course that is Irving’s intention), I wonder if I am not part of this generation’s “Oldstyles” At least in Irving’s day they could struggle about the proper way to present oneself when engaged in the public sphere or the content of its discourse. Today we lack much of a public square at all, being reduced to the scraps of Internet memes and the faux public space of contemporary coffee shops. In both the macro and the content, the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle are of the public. Whether we take them seriously or not, we read them awakened to the richness of the vernacular and contested public sphere.

Listen to Oldstyle complain of the popular fashions and to his ears vulgar flirting among the youth.

But now, our youths no longer aim at the character of pretty gentlemen: their greatest ambition is to be called lazy dogs—careless fellows—etc. etc. Dressed up in the mammoth style, our buck saunters into the ball-room in a surtout hat under arm, cane in hand; strolls round with the most vacant air; stops abruptly before such lady as he may choose to honor with his attention; entertains her with the common slang of the day, collected from the conversation of hostlers, footmen, porters, etc. until his string of smart sayings is run out, and then lounges off, to entertain some other fair one with the same unintelligible jargon. (6)

The rich levels of vernacular conversation are striking to me. The origin of vernacular conversation among the “pretty gentlemen” is learned from the underclass and carried into the ballrooms with no small degree of pomp to be spread to the ears of young women. Quite wonderful actually.

Most of the letters deal directly with the theatre, one of the most important public institutions for white men of early America. It is important to note that the content of the performance was deemed relevant to readers and author alike. They were, in other words, part of the public conversation. More memorable, however, is Oldstyle description of the audiences, fully engaged in the public conversation and putting on display their own styles for public consumption. They are as much a part of the show as the people on the stage.

I am attracted not to any particular comment or observation of Oldstyle as much as I am fascinated by the document itself, which imagines (or documents…for us it can only be imagination) a more vibrant, creative, and engaged relationship with the commons.

NOTE: I am considering taking this blog in a new direction. I feel I am close to a general interpretation of American letters from an anarchist perspective. Plus, I am quickly running out of Library of America volumes to analyze. (I live in Taiwan and lack access to the libraries that may solve this problem.) I would like to continue to do what I can with the canon, but also look more broadly at questions of American character in other areas of life, especially history. Maybe take a closer look at American anarchists as well. I also need to finish my various Philip K. Dick projects. We will see what the future will bring.

James Weldon Johnson, Essays and Poems

The status of the Negro in the United States is more a question of national mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise the status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art. (688)

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With this passage, from his preface to an anthology of black poetry, James Weldon Johnson summarized the politics of documenting and making known black cultural endeavors. Johnson would have said (and this seems to be the case) that it was not so much that the Harlem Renaissance created black cultural traditions in the United States. This had a long history going back to Phillis Wheatley. What he Harlem Renaissance saw was a conscious effort to articulate for white America what that tradition was and what the contribution of blacks was to American cultural life. Sure there were new things going on—ragtime, the impressive contribution of Caribbean writers, an explosion of black nationalism, growing interest in folk lore, and a vibrant debate about how artists should present black life in America—but all of these had suppressed roots. Johnson was eager to reveal those roots.

In the preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, Johnson revisits something he wrote in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, summarizing what he saw as the fundamental cultural contribution of African-Americans to American culture: the “Uncle Remus” stories, slave songs, the cakewalk, and ratime. As he shows, these are really four trees, each with their own branches. In a sense they come down to folklore, music, poetry, and dance. Much of the introduction is devoted to tracing the genealogy of black poetry from the slave songs (the so-called “spirituals”). He returns to the Afro-centric suggestion I wrote about in the last post.

This power of the Negro to suck up the national spirit from the soil and create something artistic and original, which, at the same time, possesses the note of universal appeal, is due to the remarkable gift of adaptability; it is more than adaptability, it is a tranfusive quality. And the Negro has exercised this transfusive quality not only here in America, where the race lives in large numbers, but in European countries, where the number has been almost infinitesimal. (697)

He then goes onto point out the African heritage of Alexander Suma, Alexander Pushkin, and Colerdige-Taylor. The problem in America, holding back an even more fundamental contribution to world culture is the “grueling race-struggle” that consumes all the intellectual energies of both the black and the white South. The Souls of Black Folks is just one piece of evidence suggesting the extent of what was lost. Making matters worse, the black artist has been placed into “a certain artistic niche.” (It is for this reason, it seems, that Johnson refused to write in dialect even when dealing with something as grassroots as religious rhetoric (see “God’s Trombones” below).

A similar mixed feeling comes across in his preface to The Second Book of Negro Spirituals. The spirituals are clearly a major contribution to world literature and culture, but they are also the funnel that so much black creativity was forced through due to centuries of slavery and enforced illiteracy. Even this tradition had been truncated as people simply forgot the songs and poems. “Indeed, the Spirituals taken as a whole contain a record and a revelation of the deeper thoughts and experiences of the Negro in this country for a period beginning three hundred years ago and covering two and a half centuries. If you which to know what they are you will find them written more plainly in these songs than in any pages of history. The Spirituals together with the secular songs—the work songs and the sex songs—furnish a full expression of the life and thought of the otherwise inarticulate masses of the Negro race in the United States.” (731–732) He ends his preface with a suggestion that the “Spirituals” will continue to be a rich source for ragtime and blues composers.

“The Dilemma of the Negro Author” and “Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist” makes distinct but related arguments. Johnson seems to be borrowing from W. E. B. Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness” and the “veil” when talking about black authors, who must present their works for both a black and a white audience. In fact, catering to either audience is debilitating, but necessary given the realities of racism in America. The long-term consequence of this, however, has been a slow changing of attitudes toward blacks rooted in greater national appreciate for their cultural contributions. Again, Johnson returns to his beloved ragtime as evidence of this change. “In this way the Negro is bringing about an entirely new national conception of himself; he has placed himself in an entirely new light before the American people. I do not think it too much to say that through artistic achievement the Negro has found a means of getting at the very core of the prejudice against him.” (765)

Black Manhattan is one of those works I have come across several times in anthologies, but only in abridged format. Each time I am certain that the whole is very rich indeed, but I have not yet had a chance to look at the entire thing. In the passages included here we are given a street-level perspective on the cultural life of black New York during the Harlem Renaissance. For all the thinking we do about culture it is important to keep in mind the sheer joy involved in consuming culture. I still hope to read the entire thing someday.

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The anthology in my hands (as always the Library of America edition for those not keeping track) includes a sampling of Johnson’s poetry. Some are intimate and beautiful. Some are political and deal with the failures of the American dream for African-Americans. Many begin to explore the African roots of the black experience (this may be of interest of those who want to historicize the philosophy of Afrocentrism). Yet others feed off of black folklore. The pillar in this collection is “God’s Trombone,” which attempts to recreate (although not in dialect) the rhetoric and performance of the “old-time Negro preacher.” I was struck by the use of repetition, which must have been a device used to keep the performativity on high and aid memorization. Clearly the line between song and preaching is fine. Here are two tastes of that:

Young man, come away from Babylon,
That hell-border city of Babylon.
Leave the dancing and gambling of Babylon,
The wine and whiskey of Babylon,
The hot-mouthed women of Babylon;
Fall down on your knees,
And say in your heart:
I will arise and go to my Father. (848)

On Calvary, on Calvary,
They crucified my Jesus.
They nailed him to the cruel tree,
And the hammer!
The hammer!
The hammer!
Rang through Jerusalem’s streets.
The hammer!
The hammer!
The hammer!
Rang through Jerusalem’s streets. (857)

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For anarchists, what is most important in these texts I reviewed today is that they reveal the cultural cost of hierarchy. James Weldon Johnson was clearly not an anarchist, but he knew the impact of racial hierarchy on a people’s intellectual life. In the midst of the celebration of black people’s contribution to American culture, Johnson is constantly mourning the numerous works that were never created, or forgotten, due to slavery and its legacy. Even whites suffered from this, which is why he thinks the white South was incapable of producing artists, too much of its intellectual effort was devoted to propping up power. Is there not truth in that? It is easy to think about how many Mozarts have been lost to the factories and mines. How many Mozarts were lost to the bureaucratic job or the mundane tasks of propping up the ideologies of the power? How much creativity do we squander because high school guidance counselors advise students into business school and toward other “practical” majors? Even if we can begin to measure the cost of government and capitalism in blood and toil, can we even begin to measure its cost in lost creativity?

Zora Neale Hurston: “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942)

What I had to swallow in the kitchen has not made me less glad to have lived, nor made me want to low rate the human race, nor any whole sections of it. I take no refuge from myself in bitterness. To me, bitterness is the under-arm odor of wishful weakness. It is the graceless acknowledgement of defeat. I have no urge to make any concessions like that to the world as yet. I might be like that some day, but I doubt it. I am in the struggle with the sword in my hands, and I don’t intend to run until you run me. So why give off the smell of something dead under the house while I am still in these tussling with my sword in my hand? (765)

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Dust Tracks on a Road is Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography written mostly in 1941. This date is important because she consciously removed much of her criticism of American imperialism after the Pearl Harbor attacks. What we end up reading is a slightly self-censored account of Hurston’s life and times. There are voluntary excisions and the edition in the Library of America has much of her earlier version. I will take a look at what she has to say about America’s place in the world later.

The autobiography is lively and interesting throughout. For me, what makes this work so interesting is the tension throughout between mobility and community. Hurston was clearly of the black South in this way. For all the clichéd images of the black South as rooted in towns, confined by Jim Crow, after slavery mobility became a way of life, not just for those who moved North but within the South as well. Hurston’s father was one of these wanderers, looking for new opportunities (and often new women). Yet at the same time, he settled in Eatonville, one of the first all-black towns in the South, a prime example of black self-rule. We imagine that Hurston’s interest in black autonomy was inspired in large part by growing up in such a community. Hurston’s life was full of this same need for community and companionship frustrated by an opposing need to explore the world, seek out new opportunities, and develop her abilities. Whether it was going from job to job in her youth, fleeing her step mother, or escaping an ill-conceived marriage Hurston was often on the move. I wonder if her ability to navigate the world was based on her foundation in the strong community of Eatonville. As we see again and again in American literature, individual freedom and the enduring community are really two sides of the same coin.

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The strong sentiment throughout the book if Hurston’s dedicated individualism. She was quite conscious of his this individualism was becoming more difficult to maintain in the face of an emerging black rights movement in America. She speaks of this tension from time to time in the book, especially in a chapter “My People! My People!” In this chapter she talk about her love of black people, but also what she saw as their failing, including that of the educated black middle class, who she accused of trying to find their place in white America. I wonder if much of this attitude comes from that fact that her childhood was largely in an all-black town. She lived there until she was thirteen, so she did not experience the day-to-day discrimination and violence that so many others experienced. Here is a bit of what she had to say about this:

Light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole. God made them duck by duck and that was the only way I could see them. I learned that skins were no measures of what was inside people. So none of the Race clichés meant anything anymore. I began to laugh at both white and black who claimed special blessings on the basis of race. Therefore I saw no cures in being black, nor no extra flavor by being white. I saw no benefit in excusing my looks by claiming to be half Indian. In fact, I boast that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief. (731)

She concludes by getting right too it. “Our lives are so diversified, internal attitudes so varied, appearance and capabilities so different, that there is no possible classification so catholic that it will cover us all, except My people! My people!” (733) What is only slightly hidden under this is that once you get rid of that quest to find a voice of the people, you are left with that individualism and the claim we seem to come to is that it was only possible given a strong community solidarity.

Dust Tracks on a Road is in roughly three parts. The first five chapters deal with Hurston’s childhood and the emergence of her curiosity about literature, writing and folklore. This awakening in her mind is her major focus in these chapters, along with the history of her father and his arrive in Eatonville. The next five chapters deal with her education and the maturation of her career. She got a late start due to poverty and the need for work, but through the help and inspiration of some important teachers and thinkers her career took off and she began her field work on African-American folklore. The final five chapters deal with different topic such as Hurston’s views on religion, race, love, and literature.

Although Hurston is most well-known for her study of black folklore and her novels about black life, she was inspired in her youth by folklore around the world. She was given texts by some white teachers passing through. It created for her an image of the ideal individual. It seems that this fed into her overall promethean individualism. “In a way this early reading gave me great anguish through all my childhood and adolescence. My soul was with the gods and my body in the village. People just would not act like gods. Stew beef, fried fat-back and morning grits were no ambrosia from Valhalla. Raking back yards and carrying out chamber pots, were not the tasks of Hercules. I wanted to be away from the drabness and to stretch my limps in some mighty struggle.” (596–596) The power of this folk literature is its ability to dream of the absolute limits of human potential. Unfortunately, for Hurston and for many others, it caused a great isolation that could only manifest in a bold individualism. (For the less creative it manifests in social awkwardness, Internet trolling, and other horrendous modern vices we need not get into.) “A cosmic loneliness was my shadow. Nothing and nobody around me really touched me. It is one of the blessing of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.” (598)

One of the more important moments in her life was the time she spent with a dramatic troupe. It is yet another example of how community and solidarity were simply the reverse side of wandering and individualism. Detached from communities, they formed a tight-knit society on the move. Her experiences there match the tension in her father’s own life, between rootlessness and his settlement in Eatonville.

I saw thirty-odd people made up of all classes and races living a communal life. There were little touches of professional jealously and a catty crack now and then, but let sickness or trouble touch any member and the whole cast rallied around to help out. It was a marvelous thing to see. There were a few there from good families and well-to-do homes who slept in shabby hotels and made meals on sandwiches without a murmur. From what they said and did, you would think they were as poor as the rest. (664)

The wandering troupe seemed to abolish class distinctions within their own community.

I want to leave this with a look at one of the chapters that did not make it into the final text, “Seeing the World As It Is.” This was the original final chapter, but was cut due to editors opposition to her international commentary. This must have had something to do with the outbreak of World War II, but I wonder if the editor would have been so insistent that Mark Twain remove anti-imperial commentary from his autobiographical works for the same reason. The deleted chapter provides a much more focused and direct attack on “Race Solidarity,” which she saw as a presumptuous attempt to unify black people’s thinking and political perspectives. In addition she finds the leaders who promote “racial solidarity” (she calls them “Race Men”) are odious and opportunistic. There are some unfortunate aspects to this, such as her insistence on rejection of worried about the past. This seems to contradict the evidence she provides in Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, both of which show how history does have an impact on how people see their place in the world. Poverty played a role in Hurston sitting out the 1950s for sure, but we see here that she concerns about a struggle based on “racial solidarity.” Although her opinions almost certainly emerged in the context of a an all-black, self-governing community her cultural upbringing was interracial, indeed global.

The rest of the deleted chapter “Seeing the World As It Is,” attacks US hypocrisy in the international arena. We can understand almost at once why it could not appear in print in 1942. “The Unite States being the giant of the Western World, we have our responsibilities. [. . .] But there is a geographical boundary to our principles. They are not to leave the United States unless we take them ourselves. Japan’s application of our principles to Asia is never to be sufficiently deplored. We are like the southern planter’s bride when he kissed her the first time.” (791) She associates the Nazi conquest of Europe with colonialism, showing that Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” are as hypocritical as the Wilsonian demand for national self-determination. In the end, the “four freedoms” were a form of white privileges. Pearl Harbor was long enough ago that I think we can safely read this chapter for what it was, an obvious declaration of the reality of the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, something well known now.

 

 

Zora Neale Hurston: “Tell My Horse” (1938)

Our history has been unfortunate. First we were brought here to Haiti and enslaved. We suffered great cruelties under the French and even when they had been driven out, they left here certain traits of government that have been unfortunate for us. Thus having a nation continually disturbed by revolution and other features not helpful to advancement we have not been able to develop economically and culturally as many of us wished. These things being true, we have not been able to control certain bad elements because of a lack of a sufficient police force. [. . .] It is like your American gangsters. (482–483)

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Zora Neale Hurston wrote Tell My Horse in 1938 after she completed field work in Haiti and Jamaica in 1936 and 1937. In some ways the book is a follow up to Mules and Men looking at the survival of African traditions in the New World. She explores voodoo (switching to this spelling, so I will too) in both works. As expected, the tradition is much more fully developed in this book surveying life in the Caribbean. Hurston is also interested in the overall question of black self-rule. While the stories in Mules and Men clearly emerged from a biracial society and reflect the emotional and creative needs of a people oppressed from within, Tell My Horse shows a people capable of self-rule but suffering the exploitation of an entire world system, policed by the United States (Haiti was occupied in much of the 1920s by the United States).

The book is broken up into three parts. The first too provide a general history, examination of social conditions, and political background of Jamaica and Haiti. The theme for both of these is the legacy of slavery and resistance to slavery. In Jamaica it is explored through a surviving maroon community. In Haiti is more overly politicized through the historical memory of Haitian revolution. (And by the way, I have noticed while working on this blog how often Haiti comes up in US writing.) The third part of the book is the longest and constitutes the bulk of the material is an anthropological accounting of voodoo in Haiti. The book ends with some Creole language songs, many of which are discussed in the texts in their full context.

As I hinted above the major tension in the first parts of this book is between self-rule and an empire posed from above. I opened this review with a quote by a Haitian physician, recorded by Hurston. He is basically showing how the burden of empire has caused a social breakdown in Haitian society. The options are authoritarian policing or a total violent breakdown of social order. In fact, these are the same things. Police emerge as a reflection of the annihilation of society. It also seems to speak to the problem of empire. The disorder on the ground in Haiti and other Caribbean nations was the constant justification for US imperialism. Yet, to look on the bright side, the signs of the capacity of self-rule and democratic order from below are there.

Hurston’s visit to the maroon community of Accompong is important in her general interpretation of the Caribbean. It is an example of black self-rule going back to the seventeenth century, an experiment centuries longer lasting than the United States.

Here was the oldest settlement of freedmen in the Western world, no doubt. Men who had thrown off the bands of slavery by their own courage and ingenuity. The courage and daring of the Maroons strike like a purple beam across the history of Jamaica. And yet as I stood there looking into the sea beyond Black river from the mountains of St. Catherine, and looking at the thatched huts close at hand, I could not help remembering that a whole civilization and the mightiest nation on earth had grown up on the mainland since the first runaway slave had taken refuge in these mountains. They were here before the Pilgrims landed on the bleak shores of Massachusetts. Now, Massachusetts had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Accompong had remained itself. (294)

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As a self-contained, society with a tradition of self-rule they are a constant reminder of the alternatives that existed to empire and capitalism. In contrast, Haiti is for Hurston an example of the crushing burden of empire on societies.

When Hurston arrived in Haiti for her field work, the memory of the recent US intervention was strong among the people she talked to. What may have been—from the US perspective—a passive phase in foreign policy, was for Haitians a reminder of the betrayal of the revolution. Hurston and her sources are unequivocal in their blame on both external manipulation and the failure of the Haitian elite to do something with their “democracy.” She compares the opportunistic elite in Haiti, prone to ideological and rhetorical flourish, to the black “race leaders” in the United States, who Hurston sees as being displaced by the “doers,” a more silent class but more influential in improving conditions.

Much of this “doing” that Hurston likes so much is reflected in the religious traditions in the Caribbean. It developed very much into a counter-culture, complete with its own social hierarchy and traditions. For every opportunistic political leader, there were dozens of “clans” that run function quite well, empowered by the tradition of voodoo. Hurston points out that structurally, these communities have much in common with the male-dominated African clan. She even entered into a harsh verbal confrontation with a man who debated her about the merits of gender equality. Yet, within voodoo there was a place for women to be active. She talks about a Madame Etienne who had a strong foundation of power and influence in Archahaie.

Zombies come across almost as an extension of the greater political narrative of Haiti as Hurston sees it. By turning free people into thralls, the houngan (those voodoo spiritual leaders) betray the victory of the revolution, turning self-rule into dependency. It is a revival of the master-slave relationship. The fact that such practices are signs of evil and resisted by most (there are elaborate burial rights used to prevent being turned into zombies), is a parallel to the hostility that most Haitians felt toward the opportunities government.

Although it is not a pretty picture at all time at the grassroots of Jamaican and Haitian society, Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse is detailing the unending tension between empire and self-rule. The signs seem to point to the endurance of self-rule, cultivated through counter-cultures, secret societies, deviant religious practices, and various other transgressions. I was reminded often of Bryan Palmer’s book Cultures of Darkness which looks at these secret societies as a necessary component of capitalism.

Zora Neale Hurston: “Mules and Men” (1935): Part Two, Hoodoo

Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion. It has its thousands of secret adherents. It adapts itself like Christianity to its locale, reclaiming some of its borrowed characteristics to itself. Such as fire-worship as signified in the Christian church by the altar and the candles. And the belief in the power of water to sanctify as in baptism. Belief in magic is older than writing. So nobody knows how it started. (176)

There is a story retold by Zora Neale Hurston at the end of Part One of Mules and Men. It is about a man named High Walker who could raise the bones in the graveyard to life, but only for a moment. He needed only to command the bones to “shake yo’self.” Another man asks the devil to take his soul so he could die. He is sick of the world as it is. He dried up and left only bones behind. High Walker came across these bones and asks them to shake. The bones do not shake but it does talk to High Walker telling him to beware and that he will join them soon. High Walker finds a white man and tells him about the talking skull. When the skull does not reply to High Walker in the presence of a white man, the white man kills High Walker by slicing off his head. Later the skull tells High Walker that he told him that to watch out. The white man runs off when he seen the bones shake on their own. They proclaim victory having seized High Walker’s bones.

This story is sits in the book just before Hurston makes the transition to discussing hoodoo. It suggests a few things about this African-American religion. The struggle over the boundary between life and death, the power of the devil, the unknowability of the nuances of the religion to white people, and its playfulness. Hurston tells us that hoodoo is a part of the suppressed and underground tradition of black people in America, as much a part of their tradition as the folk stories. By including this in Mules and Men she is posing a challenge. You cannot just accept the stories—even incorporate them into mainstream American culture through public education—without taking the entire package. Although I guess she knows few will. Brer Rabbit will always have a place in American folklore. I am less sure about voodoo (at least not as something most people will praise and speak of casually with their children). Perhaps what make is more frightening is that it is not capable of being assimilated. It is part of a culture of resistance in active revolt and as such not possibly co-opted.

Hurston tries to find the origin of hoodoo in general use of magic in all cultures, suggesting its roots even as far back as the mythical figures of the Old Testament. She clearly wants to tell us that the line between Christianity and voodoo is not very far. Moses in her view was a glorified conjure doctor. Yet, she quickly gets to her main point which is the application of hoodoo in the contemporary United States, especially New Orleans, where she experimented in various hoodoo ceremonies and rituals as well as telling stories about practitioners and consumers of hoodoo. People sought out voodoo for dramatic life-changing needs such as finding a mate and for more mundane things like medical treatment. I find it interesting that this religion fills in where Jim Crow segregation likely made access to physicians more difficult. One “member of a disappearing school of folk magic” used hoodoo to provide legal services, including criminal defense.

Image from original edition. Hurston in a hoodoo ritual.

Image from original edition. Hurston in a hoodoo ritual.

Looking at this we are almost forced to go back to this question I looked at in some early posts (“McTeague”) about the role of professionalization in a free society. The question is, by whose standards is this conjure doctor lawyer unsuitable? The law’s standard, of course. But whose interest is served by seeing the formal written law as the only possible standard for resolving conflicts in society. I do not want to aggrandize this practicioner too much. Many of the spells he cast seemed to have the purpose of obstructing justice (silencing witnesses and such), but at a more basic level we understand that the reason lawyers have power to interpret the law and most of the rest of us do not, is that they have a piece of paper backed by the legal authority of the state. I am still not sure how we can find alternatives to professions (even Bakunin seems to accept some professionalization in his theory of authority), but I suppose they should be more free and more reflective of people’s diverse traditions and values.

The end of Mules and Men consists of some fairly extensive appendices, with a glossary, some songs lyrics with musical scores, and methods for casting various hoodoo spells (many of them cures for illnesses, but some are more interesting things like love potions).

In short, Mules and Men is a great book. Hurston did a great service in recording African American folklore traditions at a particular moment in time, but she also gives us good reasons to see this tradition as part of the broader narrative of black working class resistance. Her inclusion of hoodoo is a powerful reminder that we cannot bracket these traditions when we study them.

 

Zora Neale Hurston: “Mules and Men” (1935): Part One

Mules and Men is a beautiful work by the later Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, consisting of her ethnographic work in Northern Florida, near a sawmill town. Her contribution in this work consists mostly of collecting a significant amount of African-American folklore, but by combinging the folklore and stories with the stories, dialog, and interactions of the people who gave the stories, she enriched the narrative and shows how these stories (many of which now have a permanent place in Americana) emerged from social relations. She collected these stories beginning in 1928, but would not see them published until 1935. She was thus, not collecting these tales as part of the Works Progress Administration projects to collect oral histories of former slaves. Her original funding was private.

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Hurston’s introduction reveals some important background about why she thought it was so important to preserve these stories. Much of this may be obvious to us now. She realized that she was talking about collecting the cultural heritage of an exploited people who were told repeatability that their voice was not important to the nation. When she introduced her project, her subjects asked her with disbelief, why would anyone want to read about those “lies” (which is the term they used for this folklore). As Hurston writes: “The best source [of folklore] is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest. They are the most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by. And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive.” (10) She also cuts right to what she sees as the major motif in the lore she documented: the ability to outsmart superiors and the fluid nature of social relations. This, naturally, is not really an accurate description of race relations in early 20th century America or life in slavery (where many of these stories emerged), but it suggests a deep attitude of resistance and a value that challenged the hypocritical hierarchies in American democracy. She summarizes: “I thought about the tales I had heard as a child. How even the Bible was made over to suit our vivid imagination. How the devil always outsmarted God and how that over-noble hero Jack or John—not John Henry, who occupies the same place in Negro folk-lore that Casey Jones does in white lore and if anything is more recent—outsmarted the devil. Brer Fox, Brer Deer, Brer ‘Gator, Brer Dawg, Brer Rabbit, Ole Massa and his wife were walking the earth like natural men way back in the days when God himself was on the ground and men could talk with him.” (10–11) The fact that she has to introduce John Henry directly suggests how internalized this folklore became to Americans since the 1930s.

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As James Scott suggests in The Art of Not Being Governed, there is a great power in oral cultures, an advantage that literate cultures do not have. It is actually suggested in the quote in the last paragraph. Literature cultures, Scott suggests, are bound by the texts they create. Members of literate cultures are blinkered by what they wrote down, often centuries earlier. Sure, they can reinterpret, but oral cultures are much freer to adapt texts to the new conditions. For many of the stories we read in Mules and Men, their direct use as a mental survival strategy in slavery is clear. Masters are mocked, their oppression and violence explained, and the people at the bottom of the system are able to prove their worth and turn the tables. One may even suspect that the ruling class in the old South was foolish to prevent slaves from reading, because by keeping most of them illiterate, they forced them to create their own narratives of Christianity, a much more liberating narrative.

The fact that the narrative is contested is not even that important, because it becomes the fuel for social interactions. Hurston narrators a humorous (but apparently serious) disagreement about why alligators look the way they do. We are given three different stories, each building off the last as story tellers try to improve on the last speaker. This series began earlier with discussions about other animals. Story telling (and adapting or improving on stories) was a part of community building. This is missing in cultures that share stories through the ages through books. (Yes, the library really is to quiet sometimes.)

There are many stories that can be enjoyed in this volume (around 70). There are several important motifs I came across in the book. Since these stories are liquid there is not a single analysis of any one theme, so I will not attempt to provide it here. There are some tensions pointing in certain ways but many of these have variations. The most important theme running through most of the stories has to do with shifting the nature of hierarchy. Someone on the top of a natural or artificial hierarchy is undone by someone below them. Whether it is a slave outsmarting a slave owner, a woman getting the best of a man, or even men fooling God, we find that these stories challenge social divisions, class, and caste. As a corollary to these we are often presented with bosses or masters as manipulative, corrupt, foolish, or naive. This turns the tables on the hierarchy in another way. Often this narrative is replayed in the animal kingdom.

Mules and Men should be more widely read and appreciated. I suspect that most people know Zora Neale Hurston for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and never get the chance to come across this beautiful work. In the second half of my coverage of this Mules and Men, I will talk about what she has to say about voodoo in the second part of the book and perhaps come back to some of the folklore.