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.

Lafcadio Hearn, “Youma: The Story of a West-Indian Slave” (1890): The Color Line and Slave Resistance in the West Indies

In Youma, Lafcadio Hearn is exploring the affect of the color-line on the sustaining and collapse of West Indian slavery.  The legacy of slavery, particularly the complex racial history of the island and the struggle over what to do with whites who remained, was a focus of much of Hearn’s writings on the Caribbean.  He was concerned that the hostility over slavery would lead to an end to the vibrant mult-racial culture in the islands.  Through this short novel, Hearn shows us how deeply intimate the black and white world were intertwined under slavery.  Through this, he is able to pose a question that remains relevant to us today.  How is it possible to resist a system the system which is responsible for our entire identity and life, even if that system is objectively odious.  As we search for (and often fail to find) alternatives to the banality of late capitalism, it is useful to remember how hard the search for alternatives has been for people in the past.

Youma begins with a short essay on the figure of the da, in the colonial French West Indies.  “For the Creole child had two mothers: the aristocratic white mother who have him birth’ the dark bond-mother who gave him all care,– who nursed him, bathed him, taught him to speak the soft and musical speech of slaves, took him out of her arms to show him the beautiful tropic world, told him wonderful folk-stories of evenings, lulled him to sleep, attended to his every possible want by day or by night.” (545)  These nurses would often raise children for more than one generation, and while “childish,” the das were one of the most important members of the white, slave-owning family in the Caribbean colonies.

One historical note on Martinique.  While Saint-Domingue saw the end of slavery through a violent revolution, for a time, abolition was imposed on the entire French empire.  This did not affect Martinique because of the arrival of the British.  In addition, while Saint-Domingue got its independence and could enforce abolition, Martinique remained (after some back and forth with Britain) in the French empire, which turned back some of the most radical experiments of the Revolution, including the extension of the “rights of man” to slaves.  Like in Haiti, however, slavery would end as the result of a slave uprising, it just took half a century longer.  The context of Youma is this slave revolt.

Youma “was a pet slave” and was raised with the white children.  The death of her childhood playmate Aimee, proves to the reader that Youma was emotionally affiliated with the white ruling class.  Alongside Hearn’s description of Youman’s experience of slavery, you are introduced to the rest of the plantation.  Hearn describes a culture of work and play.  It is a nostalgic account but not without its own brutal realities.  For example, Hearn shows how at the end of everyday the slaves had to kneel before the overseers and recite a prayer.

The plot centers on Youma’s courtship marriage to Gabriel, a field slave from another plantation.  The tension between her loyalties is immediately put on display.  “The commandeur [Gabriel] was certainly one of the finest physical men of his race, — young, industrious, intelligent; but he would make a rough mate indeed for a girl brought up as Youma had been.  She was also a slave, without education; but she had received a domestic training that gave her a marked superiority above her class, and she had moral qualities more delicate by far then those of Gabriel . . . Above all, she has been the companion of Aimee’s childhood, and afterwards her friend rather than her servant.” (572)  Despite these reservations, Youma and Gabriel marry.

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It is not long before Gabriel hatches a plan to escape the island with his wife.  Despite his solid plans and clear vision for the future (“He spoke of his love for her, — of the life they might live together, — of liberty and he imagined it, — of their children who would be free”), Youma is unable to abandon the “child of Madame Desrivieres.”  Youma turns her back on her husband’s plan.

What makes the third act of this novel interesting is that is forces a resolution to this dilemma.  Clearly Youma cannot instigate it (being trapped by her loyalty to her owners).  Instead, the leadership that forces the resolution comes from the people who had spend the entire novel in the background, the rank and file plantation slaves.  The final pages of the novel are a brilliant description of the disorder, the violence, the fires, and vengeance of the revolt.  What the mob forces, of course, is the acceptance of Enlightenment principles of equality and justice.  “Yet the Governor knew the city was at the mercy of a negro mob,–knew the white population in peril of massacre.  The order seemed incredible to those who read it with their eyes; — it remains one of the stupefying facts of French colonial history, — one of the many, not of the few, which appear to justify the white Creole’s undying hate of Republicanism.” (607)  At the very least, this is a possible response to those who think the revolt, or the mob action, is incapable of affecting change toward greater freedom.

Image is from Haiti, I believe, but it shows the vengeance Hearn tries to express in the final pages.

Image is from Haiti, I believe, but it shows the vengeance Hearn tries to express in the final pages.

Lafcadio Hearn, “Martinique Sketches” (1890)

The second part of Lafcadio Hearn’s Two Years in the French West Indies is made up of fourteen beautiful essays on different aspects of life in Martinique, where Hearn spent most of this time while in the Antilles.  To continue with my observation from his “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics,” Hearn is not at all interested in what we would normally speak of as the tourist sites.  Most of the “Martinique Sketches” look at small slices of life, different classes of workers, local legends, or microhistory.  I also could not help but notice Hearn’s clear fascination with all sorts of women of Martinique.  Rarely is he not enthralled with a beautiful woman, or entire classes of beautiful women. He also continues his investigation of the complicated color line in the Caribbean, fearfully looking forward to a day when the islands will become much less diverse due to emerging racism and nationalism.

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Each of the sketches begins with a creole term for a place, a legend, a class of people, or other phenomenon.  They all stand on their own, are all beautifully written, and endlessly fascinating.  Hearn draws us into another America, just a short steam-ship voyage from the emerging empire of the United States.  Instead of a fascination with the new, we find a deep appreciation for the past (including mythical legends).  Instead of an obsession with work, Hearn notices an almost universal striving for play.  I could not help but feel great sorrow for something that must have been abolished with the rise of global capitalism – the ability to experience a (truly) different way of life simply by traveling.  I will briefly describe each of these fourteen sketches to give you an idea of the rich diversity of themes and topics.

“Les Porteuses”:  This sketch explores the lives of the women transportation workers on the island.  These women can skillfully carry items on their head.  these women are always present in Martinique and are central to the economic functioning of the island, although they are highly exploited, making barely enough to survive.  Their ability to survive impressed Hearn as did the clear skill, which is taught to them at a very young age.

“La Grande Anse”: Grand Anse is a cosmopolitan town on the opposite side of the island from St. Pierre.  It is a “sleepy” and “swarthy” port city that, like “les porteuse” is essential to the trade of the island.  It is also, Hearn cannot help but notice, home to some beautiful people.  Indeed, it was stories about their beauty that convinced him to visit the city. 

“Un Revenant”: This is a journalistic discovery, and retelling of, a piece of Martinique folklore.  We are struck by the necessity of a deep historical memory for the survival and understanding of folklore.  Hearn has to build up the story piece by piece.  It reveals the interracial culture of the island and the deep legacy of slavery in the minds of the people of Martinique.  The story also intertwines with the emergence of Christianity in the Caribbean, evidence of which surrounds Hearn.  He is deeply moved again by the loss that will come with the growing racial divide in the Caribbean.  “The White Fathers have no place here now; and the Black Fathers, too, have been driven from the land, leaving only as a memory of them the perfect and ponderous architecture of the Perinnelle plantation-buildings.” (322)

St. Pierre

St. Pierre

“La Guiablesse”: This essay explores the experience of night in Martinique.  Night shows the duality of the traditions in the islands between the Christian realm and the realm of ghosts and “zombis.”  He then tells the story of one of the island’s many ghosts.

“La Verette”: This is a massive essay that takes you from a celebration of Carnival, in Hearn’s mind an extraordinary urban event.  As scholars of the Carnival phenomenon have already discussed, it was a time for playing with the boundaries between legitimate and transgressive traditions.  The essay moves into a moving description of a smallpox epidemic moving through the same city of St. Pierre.  The move from the procession of the Carnival to the procession of coffins is very striking. 

“Les Blanchisseuses”: These are the washerwomen, another element of the Martinique working class.  They are really entrepreneurial, carving out a good income for themselves through haggling and negotiation.  They also have a unique and intimate relationship with the river, being the first to be aware of – and the first to be endangered by – flooding.

“La Pelee”: This sketch is a natural and human history of “La Montagne,” the largest mountain of Martinique and a former volcano.  Its centrality to the scenery and the mind of the people of the island is a central point of this sketch. 

“Ti Canotie”: These are the boat people, often young men or boys, who use canoes to scavenge along the river floor, looking for coins or other lost goods.  They follow steamships, eager to take from them what the passengers thrown off the side.  Another element of the diverse motley crew of working people documented in this text.  His examination of the margins of the working class experience is one of the most powerful parts of this splendid book.

“La Fille de Couleur”: This chapter is Hearn’s celebration of the dress, lives and beauty of Martinique’s bi-racial women.  It is also a historical survey of the origins of the biracial population, legal efforts to suppress interracial sex, and how the image of reality of biracial women has changed.  A simply wonderful introduction to the complex racial history of the island. As always Hearn wants to celebrate the racial diversity of the island.

“Bete-Ni-Pie”: About the insect life of the island, much of it strange and in Hearns mind ominous. 

“Ma Bonne”: About food, dining customs and another woman Hearn is infatuated with Cyrillia.

“Pa combine, che”: This is an attempt to understand the experience of climatic acculturation and the relationship between the mind and beliefs of the people of Martinique in relationship to the climate.  The climate, Hearn asserts, changes you.  “Serious reading, vigorous thinking, become impossible.” (505–506)

“Ye”:  Another window into the folklore of the island, through the story of Ye and the Devil. 

“Lys”: In his final sketch, Hearn documents his departure from Martinique.

I still think Two Years in the French West Indies is a very un-American travelogue due to its celebration of the anti-work ethos of the island (and its addictive nature for newcomers), the various aspects of the diverse and marginalized working class, Hearn’s real effort to become like the people he lived with.  I find very little evidence that Hearn saw his place in Martinique as that of a tourist or an observer.  This was the work of someone who had made a real effort to assimilate into the Martinique society and contribute to its fascinating diversity – not a crude multiculturalism that Jim Crow was enforcing in the United States, but a society with many influences and broad solidarities. 

Creole Worker