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)


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.


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)


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?

Charles Brockden Brown: “Wieland; Or, the Transformation” (1798)

The horrors of war would always impend over them, till Germany were seized and divided by Austrian and Prussian tyrants; an event which he strongly suspects was at no great distance. But setting these considerations aside, was it laudable to grasp at wealth and power even when they were within our reach? Were not these the two great sources of depravity? What security had he, that in this change of place and condition, he should not degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary? Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred. (36)


Another unfortunate gap in this blog is now over. This one is due to my summer travels. Now, I am back in Taiwan and ready to write, beginning with the first American gothic novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was not only the first American gothic writer, he was the first professional novelist of the young American republic. A little context on this may be useful.

Early colonial society in British North America quickly became both diverse and quite different from England. This was due to the unique conditions, varied economies, and diverse ecologies of mainland North America. Some of the basic examples of this are planation slavery in Virginia and the Puritan town in New England. Over the course of the first half of the eighteenth century, as the colonies developed, they retained some of this uniqueness but became more alike and also more culturally tied to England. The evidence for this is in architecture, furniture, the books colonists read, and fashions. In short, the American educated elite created simulacra of English society, often on a smaller scale. Look at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The American Revolution revealed the limits of this trans-Atlantic culture. Although independence was won politically and militarily, American culture was still tied to England. The early republican period was concerned not only with establishing the political foundations of American government, but also with establishing cultural independence. The most well-known example of this was Emerson’s call for a distinctive American culture, but the efforts preceded his declaration by decades. The quote above, from the early parts of Wieland show Charles Brockden Brown engaged in an effort to establish—in the written word—what made America different from Europe. Overall, despite the fact that Brown was importing the gothic tradition to America—he was clearly influenced by William Godwin, something even more apparent in Arthur Mervyn—he struggled to make it fresh and American. In this work, it comes across most clearly in the trans-Atlantic geography of the novel. Characters move across a wider canvas. (I am suddenly thinking of Lovecraft’s writing which was both intensely local but at times global in scale.)


Wieland is narrated by Clara Wieland and follows her life on a farm with her brother Theodore. Theodore Wieland married Catherine Pleyel. They maintain a close friendship with Catherine’s brother Henry. They live a quiet life of filled with conversation and intellectual fulfillment. Again, expressing a American sentiment, the Wielands are not wealth estates holders. They have a humble background, complicated by their father’s oddities and bizarre death. He was a follower of a strange religion, which he attempted to deliver to the Indians. He died suddenly of spontaneous combustion. This left the Wielands as orphans. When Theodore is given the chance of claiming an inheritance in Europe he refuses, choosing the more simple life. So, unlike in much of British gothic writing, we are not looking at the elite. However, in sentiment, custom, and morality the narrator Clara reveals a level of humble virtue that was so much a part of the early American ideal.

Their life is disrupted by the arrival of Carwin. He is physically mysterious and the details of his past are only revealed in fragments. Clara comes to know that he is wanted in Europe for robbery, but escaped to America. She is—it seems—attracted to Carwin despite the threat he poses to her virtue. Clara often claimed she felt he was a risk to her life as well, but the subtext is much more sexualized it seems to me. With his arrival Clara—and more importantly Theodore—start to hear voices. Many of these are produced by Carwin who has the ability to throw his voice, a skill he mastered and uses for his own benefit. Pleyel, who is preparing to marry Clara, overhears a conversation suggesting Clara had a sexual relationship with Carwin. Pleyel leaves after confronting her on this. Clara denies having this conversation. It was created by Carwin, who had his own designs on Clara. Later, Theodore killed Catherine and his children, claiming that he was ordered to by voices he has heard. Clara immediately blames Carwin for creating these voices. Carwin confronts Clara, confessing his malevolent uses of his ability, but denies ordering Theodore to kill anyone. Carwin saves Clara’s life from Theodore who escaped from jail. At the end, Clara leaves America for Europe, following Pleyel.

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

In order to interpret this, I want to go right to the question of human freedom. In the opening parts of the novel, America is presented as a land of equality and freedom. It gives opportunity to orphans and allowed social mobility. Nevertheless, we find our characters quite trapped. Clara is trapped by the sexual politics of the time, expectations of virtue, and general pertinence. Theodore, it turns out, is trapped by a madness that seems to run in the family. Perhaps his father’s religious delusions were rooted in the same madness that caused him to kill his family. Pleyel is much like Clara in his fidelity to social expectations. Carwin is the free agent that disrupts this system. As a consequence he may have driven Theodore over the edge with his use of his ability to create ominous voices. If we look closer, many of the chains that the characters feel are rooted in the Old World. Theodore’s inheritance threatens to transform him into an aristocrat. Carwin himself escaped from Europe and survives on remittances from Europe. Theodore’s philosophy, which is often tinged with fatalism, comes from books imported from Germany. We are presented with a type of chaos caused by the social and political disruptions of the American Revolution. Clara and Theodore seem to us like the United States, orphaned and set on their own, but traumatized by Old World burdens. Theodore reflects the madness of slavery, religious zealotry, and other more schizophrenic aspects to American life. Clara is filled with properness and virtue (what early American republicans thought Europe lacked) but ends up settled in Europe after coming to face with a certain madness of the frontier life. The death of her sister-in-law forced the break. “But now, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank.” (141)

What I am trying to suggest is that the major theme of Wieland is separation and the division between the Old World and the New. Brown is uncertain quite where that takes him or what to do with it. Unlike a more vulgar work like The Contrast, which places American virtue and European hypocrisy in stark terms. In Brown’s Wieland the divisions are confused, chaotic, and traumatic. This makes it a more realistic tale.                                                                                                       

Zora Neale Hurston: Selected Articles

Glee clubs and concert singers put on their tuxedoes , bow prettily to the audience, get the pitch and burst into magnificent song—but not Negro song. The real Negro singer cares nothing about pitch. The first notes just burst out and the rest of the church join in—fired by the same inner urge. Every man trying to express himself through song. Every man for himself. Hence the harmony and disharmony, the shifting keys and broken time that make up the spiritual. (870–871)

This volume of Zora Neale Hurston’s non-fiction writing ends with a series of articles published over the course of her career, beginning in the 1920s and ending with what may be her final public word, criticizing what she saw as the presumption of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. Most of the articles collected here deal in one way or another with Hurston’s studies in folklore or are autobiographical. The highlights for me were defiantly some of her writings for Negro: An Anthology and some of the folk lore she collected for the Florida Writers’ Project (a subset, I guess, of the Works Progress Administration).

The selections open with “The Eatonville Anthology,” which is a set of vignettes about life in Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville Florida. In this, Hurston made an attempt to get at the rich texture of this small town. Although it was an all-black small town, it has an incredible diversity. From this we can understand her often-stated hostility toward the idea of “racial consciousness.” We also see that even if it is sustaining a mainstream set of values, a small town seems to need rebellious elements to survive. The best example of this here is Daisy Taylor, the “town vamp.” When she left for Orlando, an environment she could more likely hide herself, we think that Eatonville lost a great deal of vibrancy.

Her writings for Negro: An Anthology, edited by Nancy Cunard and published in 1934, are an attempt to lay out the elements of African American culture with a degree of scientific objectivity lacking in Mules and Men. It is simply a great introduction into black folklore, cultural icons (Mother Catherine, Uncle Monday), and motifs. It also has one of the most succinct explanations of the place of the Devil in black folklore. Also read this for the introduction to the “jook” or the “Negro bawdy house.”

Hurston’s work on folklore for the Florida Writers’ Project is no less significant, coming after she had already completed Mules and Men and Tell My Horse. She provides a mature and useful definition of folklore. She sees art as the discovery of the truth that already exists in folklore. It is worth quoting at length. From my perspective as a left libertarian, I appreciate this because it helps us respect the canon while also realizing that it is important to decenter it. The canon is the realization of the truths of a culture, not the true expression in itself. We sometimes see artists as the vanguard, but maybe we need to see them more like a scientist analyzing the facts of culture.

Every generation or so some individual with extra keen perception grasps something of the obvious about us and hitches the human race forward slightely by a new “law.” For instance, millionso f things had been falling on and about men for thousands fo years before the falling apple hit Newton on the head and made him see the attraction of the earth for all unsupported objects heavier than air. So we have the law of gravity. In the same way, art is a discovery in itself. Seen in detail it is a series of discoveries, perhaps intended in the first instance to stave off boredom. In a long view, art is the setting up of monuments to the ordinary things about us, in a moment and in time. [. . .] Folklore is the arts of the people before they find out that there is any such thing as art, and they make it out of whatever they find at hand. (876)

In later details, Hurston explains that the relative underdevelopment of black art in America (in her opinion anyway) was due to the silence enforced on generations by slavery.

One article that should be brought up is “Crazy for this Democracy,” written in 1945. As my last point highlighted, Hurston censored her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) after the US entered World War II. She removed much of her criticism of US imperialism, specifically her claims that Japan was merely copying the US imperial practice in the Pacific. By 1945 she was no longer able to sit on her hands on this issue and published a devastating critique of US. He fed into the language of the “Double V” movement, which consisted of the belief that the battle against fascism in Europe was deeply connected to the battle against Jim Crow. What makes the document unique and important is that Hurston places the struggle against Jim Crow in a global context. This essay should be read more often as an example of African-American global consciousness in the 20th century.

Her 1955 letter to the Orlando Sentinel, “Court Order Can’t Make Races Mix,” is her response to Brown v. Board of Education. She was not saying that Jim Crow is defensible (see “Crazy for this Democracy”), nor was she saying that integration was not an admirable goal. Her criticism of the decision was that it exposed a hypocrisy among black leaders. She correctly points out that a major trend in black life since Reconstruction was the movement toward self-rule. We see that in the Union Leagues, towns like Hurston’s own Eatonville, and—Hurston points out—in black educational institutions. She feared that a subtext to the decision was that black teachers could not teach black students. Forced court order integration seemed to undermine these efforts in her view. This would be fine if it was not for the rhetoric of racial consciousness (which she attacked at length in her autobiography). As she summarizes: “Thems my sentiments and I am sticking by them. Growth from within. Ethical and cultural desegregation. It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association. That old white mare business can go racking on down the road for all I care.” (958) I do not know much about how the black nationalists responded to school desegregation, but I suspect they may have agreed with Hurston here. I would only add that Hurston’s own education was based on “ethical and cultural desegregation” but formally tied to all-black institutions.

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)


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)


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.


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.


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.


Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part Two

Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact, that there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousands of miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private seas, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone. (578)

The chapters in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or, Life in the Woods, following the indispensable introductory chapter “Economy,” consider different aspects of Thoreau’s economic, social, and philosophical life. They all flow from “Economy” and can be read in really any order once that initial chapter has been mastered. Oft-repeated, in many different ways, is his claim that most of the accoutrements of modern living are unnecessary—or even hostile—to living a good and reflective (he might say a “philosophical”) life. A handful of the chapters will be of special interest to people interested in nature writing, since they are focused on the local environment near Thoreau’s home at Walden pond. No chapter, even the ones devoted to nature, are indifferent to the social. Although he lived alone, he was never far enough away from society. Despite his choice to live alone, in the woods, Thoreau seems to have longed for human encounters and the authentic solidarity that came from interacting with neighbors. He has, however, utter disgust for the hierarchy and presumption that shapes so many human experiences. In his view, solidarity and community must be based on individual autonomy. Without it, you travel inexorably down the path to hierarchy.


The joint chapters “Solitude” and “Visitors” consider the nature of loneliness and society. He finds most social interactions worthless compared to a more spiritual connection. It bears mentioning that most of the lonely people are surrounded by others all the time and Thoreau, living alone, claims to have been rarely lonely surrounded by nature and never far from potential visitors and conversation.

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable, and tat we need not come to open war. We meet at the post office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think we thus lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications. Consider the girls in a factory,—never alone, hardly in their dreams. (430)

Perhaps this is the introvert’s perspective on social life. Looking around, I see plenty of people who seem to relish the constant companionship of others (otherwise explain the constant texting and Facebook updating). Are those who do not see a contradiction between withdrawing from the banality of society and yet longing for some rich company in the minority?

The chapter “Higher Laws” is of particular interest to me for it takes on the question of the morality of eating meat. He suggests that eating meat (as with hunting) is something that exists in the larval state of humanity. (That is his metaphor.) “We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.” (492) The argument, fully developed, is that when people takes the time to understand their neighbors they will less likely be desiring to exploit and harm them. He then goes onto a discussion of other appetites and how they do not satisfy him, but we can develop his argument in another way and suggest that is it not also true that capitalism and its values exist in the larval stages of modernity. Thrust from our communities only recently, we are still like the young boy who first picks up his rifle, when we interact with our neighbors. Thoreau overcomes the desire to eat meat as he comes to understand the animals he shares his world with. In the same way, actually building communities and solidarity is the key to destroying the violence of capitalism. An interesting suggestion in this chapter is that self-sufficiency demands solidarity and simplicity in life. Someone who cooks their own food, washes their own dishes, and builds their own home will naturally accept a bit more simplicity than one who relies on others to do that job for them.

I am sure many readers of Walden find the type of he lives appealing, but has anyone read this account with a bit of disgust. Are most enthusiastic readers of Walden deceiving themselves? Deep down, do they really think such a life is possible for themselves? I have not uncommonly heard people proclaim the virtues of a simple life, yet maintain massive wardrobes. I am sure every “hoarder” can read a book like Walden and see its wisdom. Why is the gap between thought and action so far in this respect? Perhaps they will equivocate and say: “Well, that was possible in nineteenth century New England, but not now.” Was Thoreau any better prepared for two years in the woods than anyone living today? Perhaps, but it did not sound like anything he did was beyond the capacity of someone with a bit of common sense.

I think we should set aside the critique of “lifestylism” and take Thoreau seriously as a systemic critique of industrial capitalism and a model of an alternative. He clearly desired a future written with a new set of rules. In this way, he remains a politically important voice as we engage in creative imagining of the future.

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness [sic]. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean. We think that we can change our clothes only. It is said that the British Empire is very large and respectable, and that the United States are a first-rate power. We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind. Who knows what sort of seventeenth-year locust will next come out of the ground? The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine. (587)