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.