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.

 

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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.