Every Tongue Got To Confess--Zora Neale Hurston's First book of Folklore

Harriet Powers, Bible Quilt 1898.  Of Clarke County, Georgia,  Powers was the author of one of this African American story quilt which is currently in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Art.  This work shows a strong folk tradition in African American Visual Art in the 19th century South. The story goes that the wives of faculty at Atlanta University had seen another of Power's Quilts and had commissioned this one.

Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States edited by Carla Kaplan was finally published in 2001 with a brilliantly written foreward by the novelist John Edgar Wideman. The manuscript, which may be considered Hurston's first aborted attempt to compile for publication a collection of African American folklore, is markedly different from her subsequently published and well known volumes Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1937), both of which are distinctly anecdotal and narrative.  Whereas Every Tongue Go to Confess (which was never completed by Hurston, herself, for publication) was composed in 1927 of a series of discreet sections into the following categories--God Tales, Preacher Tales, Devil Tales, Witch and Hant Tales, Heaven Tales, John and Massa Tales, Tall Tales, Neatest Trick Tales, Mistaken Identity Tales, Fool Tales, Woman Tales, School Tales, Miscellaneous Tales, Talking Animal Tales, Animal Tales.  

In each section, the relevant tales are succinctly transcribed with the name of the person who gave the tale.  There are, for instance, in the first section, The God Tales, 12 stories.  

There are at the end of the book three appendices.  The first provides locations and dates, which include Alabama, Florida and Louisiana with specific information about the nature of the locations, such as for instance in the case of Alabama, "Mobile & Suburbs, i.e. Plateau, Magazine Point, Prichard. . . . A locale of sawmills, lumber camps and fishermen, illiterate and barely literate, except some school boys who told me tales." 

The second appendix provides a list of all the tellers of the tales by first and last name, age, education, location and occupation.  For instance, there is Della Lewis, who is described as "An illiterate woman around 70 years old. Born in West Florida. Mother of 11 children by 9 different fathers. Has always lived in Florida. Occupation: Midwife." Altogether there are 122 informants listed. 

The third appendix is devoted to a list of the 482 tales told by Kossula, who was the survivor of the slave ship Chlotilde, who she wrote about several times, not all of which are included in Every Tongue, but some of which I recognize by title from Mules and Men, for instance "Why de Porpoise's Tail is on Crosswise" and "Why the Waves Have White Caps."  

 The manuscript for Every Tongue turned up at the Smithsonian in the papers of William Duncan Strong, an American anthropologist who was a friend of Franz Boas, who trained Hurston in anthropology at Columbia University. Professor Akua Duku Anokye, who helped authenticate the manuscript in 1991, speculates that it may have found its way accidentally into Strong's papers when all the departmental papers were transferred to the National Anthropological Archives in Washington, D.C. In any case it is a fantastic find for anyone who is interested in tracking the evolution of Hurston's folktale collecting practice.  As is documented in her films, her letters and in her biographies, Hurston was as avid a collector of visual art, music, dance, songs and sermons as she was of folktales.  Moreover, it is thought that only a portion of Hurston's folklore collection exists and that much of it was inadvertently destroyed through her impoverished conditions later in her life.  Washington, D.C.

Hurston and Folklore Outline--Bibliography, Etc. (In Progress)

My maternal Grandmother and Grandfather, Willie and Andrew, both from Florida, Palatka and Tampa respectively, born in the early 1900s not too long after Hurston, both of whom I got to know and who spoke with a map of the South on their tongues and who taught me to recognize unlettered wisdom when I heard it.
These days there are many more ways than there once were to access various outlines, bibliographies, accounts and even analyses of African American folk culture-- from the storytelling practices, sermons and prayers to the music of gospel, work songs, blues, jazz and spirituals-- even as large and prestigious populations, black or white, continue to regard such work as useless, irrelevant, shallow and meaningless. One of the ways in which "folk culture" is dismissed and made incomprehensible is by the usual habit of denying that it has a history. In this formulation rap, hip hop and reggae are given precisely equivalent weight in an ahistorical template to blues, gospel, jazz and spirituals, all of which are seen as flat. Folk culture has no histories, no progressions, no series of developments because it was largely practiced and innovated by people who did not write histories or critical analyses or accounts of what they were doing. Therefore in a dominant culture in which the written is prized above all, African American folk culture lacks discernible depth.  
    Indeed, all those who attempted to analyze or historicize folk culture (among the texts in this tradition would be Blues People by Leroi Jones aka Amiri Baraka, to which this blog is dedicated) could not help but lose some essential  and definitive aspects of what which they were describing in the translation.  This is the nature of cultural preservation in writing of things that originate in the oral tradition, and many aspects of culture that we take for granted originated in oral forms but we rarely acknowledge this or take it into account. Indeed, I suppose the success of cultural preservation is measured by the degree to which an item in its inventory is no longer linked to its oral history.  Examples upon which we heavily rely would be The Bible, European fairy tales, Homer's Odyssey and the Iliad and there are many more.  We recognize these texts solely in their written forms, which allow us to access some portion of concepts and narratives that are centuries old.  However, invariably, some aspects of its origins in the oral traditions of the culture that bore them is lost. We Western people who become a society in which we rely upon that lost as a defining feature of excellence. As such a historical African American oral tradition cannot be recognized or incorporated, except to the degree that it can be disassociated from its roots among what Hurston called "the folk further down." 
    When I went to teach for two years at Cornell University (2005-2008) in African American Studies, my first experience of teaching at an Ivy League institution, I came to deliver the message of the wisdom of unlettered blacks to the cultural and educational elite only to find that I, myself, did not have the cultural authority to deliver it, that I had zero credibility.  That indeed, Hurston's own lack of credentials within the academy (despite her years as an undergraduate at Barnard without which I doubt we would even know her name even now), coupled with my own lack of credibility (no Ivy League degrees at all) gave me no power at all to convey importance on this topic, or on any other.  I learned from this a little bit about why people study the things they study in the academy, that is in order to convey upon themselves the authority to speak and be heard. 
    In any case, long before I fully understood this radical invisibility on my own part, which I had already diagnosed in my second book Invisibility Blues (1990), toward the beginning of my time at Cornell (actually I presented this material there for the first time) I constructed this preliminary outline of folk culture in order to describe to others the place of Hurston's Mules and Men in the context of African American culture, and its use in her fiction, plays and folklore.

 Folk Culture of African Americans

I. Religion

A.   Voodoo

1.     Haitian

a.     Music

b.    Services

c.     Beliefs and Practices

d.    Spirit Possession

e.     Dancing

2. Louisiana and U.S.

B. Christianity

1.     Baptist

a.     Music (Bernice Johnson Reagon)

*Traditional Spirituals—Congregational Singing

*Concert Spirituals

*Gospel Hymns

Say Amen, Somebody! (1982) Dir: George T. Nierenberg. With Thomas Dorsey, Sallie Martin, Willie May Ford Smith, the O’Neal twins.

*Instrumentation—Organ, Etc.

Berneice Johnson Reagan, ed. Wade in the Water: Vol 2: Congregational Singing: Nineteenth Century Roots. Smithsonian Folkways CD.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition. Bison Books. ISBN 0-8032-3913-0.

ML3187.R3187 2001.

The Story of Gospel Music: The Power in The Voice. BBC Video. VHS

The Gospel Tradition: The Roots and The Branches, Vol 1., Columbia/Sony Music 1991.

Willie Johnson,  The Complete Blind Willie Johnnson.”

Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. Limelight: 6th Edition, 2002.

---.  We'll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African-American Gospel Composers. DC: Smithsonian Press, 1992.

*Prayer Bands

b.    Sermon (C.F. Franklin, Alan Lomax)

*Liturgical or anchored by scriptural reference

*Chanting, Singing and Moaning

*Call and Response

  c. Services—this remains rather vague in her descriptions.

2.     Sanctified—Evangelical (clearly her heart was with this church, not the other)

a. Music

*Prayer Bands

THE QUILTS OF GEE'S BEND--VHS, produced and directed by Matt Arnett & Vanessa Vadim, A Tinwood Media Production, 2002, including footage from 1941, photographs by Arthur Rothstein for the Federal Security Administration and Music from HOW WE GOT OVER: SACRED SONGS OF GEE'S BEND, 1941 &2002 CD Tinwood Media.

 b. Sermon

*Liturgical or anchored by scriptural reference

*Chanting, Singing and Moaning

Alan Lomax Collection, Lay My Burden Down

*Call and Response

c. Service

*Spirit Possession


*Ring Shouts

*Other Practices and Beliefs

II. Secular—This portion of folklore, in some ways the most mysterious, includes a series of stories that are orally performed before an audience of one’s peers, and among whom the stories are already well known.   The mystery lies in where and how they begun, during slavery, after slavery and if so, why and how did the tellers arrive at the various narrative formats.  Such practices are thought to have largely prevailed into the 20th century in a rural and remote setting where electricity, juke-boxes, television and radio would have been less of an option as regular entertainment. 

Much of the value of the story is seen to lie in the particular performance and manner of telling, which is viewed as a competitive activity, even cause for exchanging sharp criticisms, such as the dozens in which outrageous things are said about the mother of one’s opposition.  Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men does an excellent job of providing an extensive sample of such stories and also setting the scene for situations in which the stories would be swapped one after the other, as in a contest to see who could tell the best one. The stories, according to Hurston, were known as “lies,” in recognition of their fictitious and phantomsgorical nature.

   In general, the stories take a humorous and cynical approach to often serious matters, such as slavery, the way God made the earth, the shenanigans of the Devil, various forms of menial labor, the relationships between men and women.  Also, I think there is a sense in which these narratives are actually the epistemological backbone of all other forms of folkloric performance both dance and musical.

MULES AND MEN. Philadelphia: JB Lippincott, 1935. Reprinted with foreward by Arnold Rampersad, New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

TELL MY HORSE. Philadelphia: JB Lippincott, 1938. Reprinted with a foreward by Ishmael Reed, New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

Pamela Bordelon, Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston: From the Federal Writers’ Project. Norton 1999.

A.  Stories

            *Slavery Stories: John and the Master, especially

            *Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox—Animal Tales

            *Race Stories—How we became black

            *Stories about Heaven—particularly its racial composition

            *White Folks Stories---particularly the strange things they do

            *Devil and God—both amusingly personified

            *Bible Stories—humorous, ironic renditions of scriptural tales.

            *Flood or Water Stories—Noah’s may come up.

            *Preacher Stories—lots about the potential for absurd callings or mistaken calls to preach.          

     B. Legends

     C.  Work Songs—In Prisons, Outside of Prisons

Prison Songs: Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm, 1947-1948 Volume 1: Murderous Home and Volume II: Don’tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling? The Alan Lomax Collection,

     D.  The Blues—Instrumentation



*Other Instruments—Harmonicas, etc.

E. The Blues—Singers

Charles Keil. Urban Blues.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

James Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. Oxford UP, 1992

Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. Verso, 1998.

Pete Daniel. Deep'n As It Comes: The 1927 Mississippi Flood. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

David Evans, "The Origins of Blues and Its Relationship to African Music." In Images de L'africaine de l'antiquite au XXe siecle, edited by Daniel Droixhe and Kalus H. Kiefer, pp. 129-41. Frankfurth; Peter Lang, 1987.

W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues; An Autobiography of of W.C. Handy, edited by Arna Bontemp, 1955. Reprint: New York: Da Capo Press, 1985

W.E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.

Dena Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. Urbana: University of Ill Press, 1970.

Selections from DEVIL GOT MY WOMAN, 1966, Vestapol 13049 DVD in which Alan Lomax simulated the atmosphere of a local jook joint during the Newport Blues Festival, held in tandem with the Jazz Festival in 1966. It was at one of these festivals at which Bob Dylan inaugurated the use of electronic amplification with his folk music. Much more to be said about this some of it in the Autobiography of George Wein, published in the past five years, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival.


There were many black women blues singers and instrumentalists but they are rarely commented upon or written about for reasons passing understanding. I guess they don't fit in with some of the most popular stereotypes about the blues.

Selections from THE AMERICAN FOLK BLUES FESTIVAL, VOLUME III: Big Mama Thornton, HOUND DOG (1965) Big Mama Thornton has numerous recordings, many of which I have in my collection, but she is grossly under-documented and is awaiting further analysis and commentary; Koko Taylor & Little Walter, WANG DANG DOODLE (1967). Koko Taylor is also a revelation, about whom I know even less.

                        1. Rural—Regional

Alan Lomax, The Land Where The Blues Began. The New Press, 1993.

The Land Where The Blues Began. CD 1993.



                        2. Urban



F. Jazz

            1. Instrumentation

            2. Singers

G. Children’s Songs

            1. Lyrics

            2. Music

H. Games

Bessie Jones, Put Your Hands on Your Hips and Let Your Backbone Slip”  Rounder CD C11587

I.  Other Music—Country, Zydeco?

1. Children’s Songs

2. Storytelling

3.  Games


Seraph on the Suwanee (1948).

Spunk: The Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston. Turtle Island 1985.

Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. With Langston Hughes, 1997.


Cheryl Wall, ed. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Casebook. Oxford UP 2000.

Robert W. Croft, A Zora Neale Hurston Companion. University of Florida Press, ISBN 0-8130-2793-4.

Carla Kaplan, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Doubleday 2003.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: a Biography / Urbana: University of IllinoisPress, 1980.

My Name is Zora!

PBS Home Video, American playhouse (Television program) VHS

Zora in Florida. [electronic resource] / edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel. Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, c1991.

Zora in Florida edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel.  Orlando: University of Central Florida Press. ISBN 0-8130-1061-6. 

Speak, so you can speak again : the life of Zora Neale Hurston compiled by Lucy Anne Hurston and the estate of Zora Neale Hurston, Doubleday, c2004.w/cd.


Cd tracks 1-11 Zora Neale Hurston interviewed by Mary Margaret McBride on WEAF Radio, January 25, 1943; tracks 12-25 folk songs collected by Hurston for the WPA and the Library of Congress in Jacksonville, Florida on June 18, 1939.

“Let’s Shake It,” “Dat Old Black Gal,” “Shove It Over,” “Mule on the Mount,” games of “Georgia Skin” and “Let the Deal Go Down,” “Uncle Bud, Ever Been Down, “Halimuhfack,” “Tampa,” “Po’Gal,” “Mama Don’t Want No Peas, No Rice,” “Crow Dance,” “Wake Up, Jacob,” “Oh, Mr. Brown.”

Zora Neale Hurston: Recordings, Manuscripts, and Ephmera in the Archive of Folk Culture and Other Divisions of the Library of Congress. Compiled by Laura K. Crawley and Joseph C. Hickerson


Alan Dundes, editor. Mother Wit: From the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpetation of Afro-American Folklore. University of Mississippi 1995.

William J. Faulkner, The Days When the Animals Talked: Black American Folktales & How They Came to Be. Africa World Press, 1993.

Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, eds. Book of Negro Folklore, Dodd Mead, 1958.

The Journal of American Folk-Lore.

Bruce Jackson, editor. The Negro and His Folklore in 19th Century Periodicals. University of Texas, 1967.

   ----. ed. Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons. Cambridge; Harvard UP, 1972.

Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes. Step It Down; Games, Plays, Songs and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Harold Courlander.  A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. Crown Publishers, 1972.

Joel Chandler Harris. Uncle Remus Stories and Other Folklore (various collections). 1880s through 1920.

Richard Dorson. American Folktales. Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett, 1956.

Alan Dundes, ed. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973.

Melville Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1941; revised edition 1958.


Bruce Jackson, ed. The Negro and His Folklore in 19th Century Periodicals.  University of Texas Press, 1967.

Morris Turner III, America’s Black Towns and Settlements: A Historical Reference

Guide. Volume One 1998.

Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices. Thunder Mouth Press, 1941.

Hortense Powdermaker, After Freedom, 1939.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Illustrated Souls of Black Folk edited by Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr. Annotated, Illustrated, Documentary Edition. Paradigm Publishers 2005.

Robert Baron, African in the Americas: Melville J. Herskovit’s Folkloristic and Anthropologic Scholarship, 1923-1941, 2 volumes.  Dissertation 1994.


Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1852.

--- The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1853.

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Is Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices. Oxford UP 1993

Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus Tales.

James Weldon Johnson: Writings. Library of America 2002.

Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays. Library of America 2002

Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Heart of Happy Hollow: Stories. ISBN 0-7679-1981-5 Dodd Mead

Paul Laurence Dunbar, When Malindy Sings. Illustrated with Photographs by the Hampton Institute Camera Club. Dodd Mead 1903

Lida Keck Wiggins, The Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Kraus Reprint 1971

In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar edited by Herbert Woodward Martin & Ronald Primeau. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2002.

   --- Sport of the Gods, 1901.

   ---.  The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Toni Braxton, editor. University of Virginia Press Dodd Mead 1913. 1993

Dubose Heyward, Porgy 1933

Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life, 1933.

NOVELS AND STORIES. Edited and with notes by Cheryl Wall. New York:

Library of America, 1995.

THE SANCTIFIED CHURCH. Foreward by Toni Cade Bambara. Berkeley, Calif: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981.

SPUNK: THE SELECTED SHORT STORIES OF ZORA NEALE HURSTON. Berkeley, Calif: Turtle Island Foundation, 1985.

There are as well many unanthologized articles, stories and plays, including at least three novels, one of which was about King Herod, that have been completely lost.  Her later articles and interviews were the most controversial,

such as "The 'Pet Negro' System" first published in AMERICAN MERCURY 55 (July 1942) and then condensed in NEGRO DIGEST 1(June 1943), pp. 47-49 and her negative review of Richard Wright's UNCLE TOM'S CHILDREN in SATURDAY REVIEW, April 2, 1938, p. 32.

On the other hand, she wrote many invaluable articles and essays, such as "Three Days Among Maroons." Review of JOURNEY TO ACCOMPONG by Katherine Dunham, NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE WEEKLY BOOK REVIEW, January 12, 1947, p. 5.

It is difficult to believe that one person can be so wonderful and so awful at the same time but Hurston is definitely a case of that.  Her final reasons for doing and saying things remain a mystery to most of us.

But you can see by the illustrious list of black writers and intellectuals who have aligned themselves with her work that many many smart people remain in awe of her gifts as writer, playwright, anthropologist and folklorist.


There's quite a lot at this point but in my estimation, the irreplaceable work, which has completely re-shaped my analysis is Valerie Boyd's WRAPPED IN RAINBOWS: THE LIFE OF ZORA NEALE HURSTON. Scribner's 2003 and Carla Kaplan's ZORA NEALE HURSTON: A LIFE IN LETTERS. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Zora Neale Hurston and Folklore, Part II


These notes continue remarks written a few years back to accompany the reading of Hurston's Mules and Men. Thinking about Gee's Bend, Alabama, Son House and Big Mama Thornton.

     It is very important that we try to understand how it is that a population is able to survive and even prosper in limited ways under a fascist regime or even conditions of terrorism. The situation in the South for African Americans from the turn-of-the-century, at least in some locations, meets the criteria for terrorism or fascism in my own mind. 
    In looking at the work that Hurston and other “folklorists” tried to do in setting down and preserving various evidence of African American folk cultures at the turn of the century through the 40s and 50s, I am assuming that culture is the appropriate word to use in describing almost everything that these people tried to do to make themselves comfortable or happy, other than that which was directly compelled by the forces that controlled their economic lives.
    I am also assuming that culture, to the degree that it was controlled by the dominant group of plantation owners, Klansmen, police or vigilantes, etc., would be hegemonic, that is a complex and not easily detectible hybrid incorporating social, political and economic control into a repertoire which may include some ultimately contradictory and ambivalent emotional responses to that population officially either held in contempt or ostracized.
      There is no way in the world that Hurston could have traveled alone down the back roads of the South as much as she did without understanding exactly what she was dealing with in this regard.  Indeed, she left us amble documentary evidence of her various strategies for dealing with and manipulating the dominant Jim Crow culture when it attempted to stand in her way.  
      So successful was she and other cultural workers, folklorists, performers etc. at maintaining a subversive kind of control over the dominant culture that it becomes fascinating to consider the degree to which the dominant classes (plantation owners, work supervisors, even prison guards and wardens on occasion) actually made no attempt whatsoever to alter or suppress subterranean cultural expression among peasants and/or the urban working class, and may have even encouraged such cultural expression, claimed it as their own, seen it as reassuring or in some cases, imitated it.  This is what was happening with a great many white musicians by the time Elvis Presley came along in Tupelo, Mississippi, one of the centers of musical culture in the 50s. 
    Again, the process of imitation isn’t a simple one in that white musicians brought cultural remnants to the table as well.  It is just that the folk cultures of blacks and whites in certain regions of the South were so thoroughly mixed over an extended period of time and over the course of several generations of activity that it would be difficult if not impossible to say for sure about the root derivation of each feature, whether it was more reminiscent of African or European precursors.  Not that these cultures were racially integrated but only that the performers in each culture may have had slightly more mobility than the rest of the population.
       Hurston was interested in substantiating irrefutable evidence of humanity, to counter racial superiority claims of whites.  To her, it seems clear upon reading Valerie Boyd’s biography, Wrapped in a  Rainbow, human meant African or African Diasporic.  It is also clear that she thought of manifestations of African Diasporic influences as signs of cultural genius, although I haven’t found any place where she explains why she considers this to be the case.  It appears as though she simply assumed that it was axiomatic that if African American culture derived substantially from African cultural retentions despite the onslaught of the Middle Passage, slavery and Jim Crow, it was because that culture was artistically and aesthetically of superlative quality.  Come to think of it, once you put it like that, maybe such an assumption can be seen as self-evident, that a culture that could survive such an onslaught would have to be in some sense “superior.”  Certainly, superior I think, to whatever it was that Europeans and Africans had left behind in the old country.
    I’ll say this: I think that African American culture had a resilience and capacity for preserving self-regard, community, vitality, health and self-love despite oppression that few cultures have been shown to exhibit.
      Hurston thought these elements of genius were most evident in live performance.  If she had had access to more film, she might have chosen that medium more.  There are a number of films of her research.  I have thus far found only one that I can show (one of which I showed in class this week) although they are probably all at the Library of Congress, and perhaps even accessible online by now (need to check that).  Indeed, Hurston again and again insisted that performance was the preferable way in which to experience these folkloric materials.  She repeatedly formed performance groups and mounted performances wherever she went.  Right up until the end, she was still hoping to take Broadway by storm.  And indeed, it appears wherever her dancers and singers and musicians got a chance to perform their repertoire, there was universal admiration and approval.  But somehow nobody ever loved it enough to put any substantial money into it, or the people who did love it, didn’t have the money. 
    But it is important that the kind of thing that Hurston wanted to share with the world wasn’t so far from the overall cultural context of African Americans doing musical and dance performance on the theatrical stage on Broadway, off Broadway, in their own theatres regionally, in Europe, in the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands, internationally, and on the so-called chitlin circuit.  I wouldn’t be surprised if their tours included some locations on the continent of Africa as well, although I haven’t found any confirmation of that yet because black performers were some seriously nomadic, roaming folk.

Hurston and African American Folklore

Victims of Peonage in Alabama around the time of Hurston's birth
This essay was written a few years back in connection with my Zora Neale Hurston Course, which I have taught a few times, but which I am herein recommending to students in African American Literature: 1930s through 1960s as a supplement to their reading of Mules and Men. Also, in regard to the picture above, although it probably dates from around the turn-of-the-century, such chain gang labor crews in the South were among the last reliable sources of African American folk culture up through the 1960s--work songs, in particular as written about by Lawrence Levine and recorded by Bruce Jackson and Alan Lomax.  I believe Leadbelly was first discovered in such a setting:  

"Like many writers, Hurston had been an avid collector of songs and stories since she was a child. Born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, her parents soon moved the family to the black town of Eatonville, Florida where the African American oral tradition was alive and well in churches and at home, as well as on the porch of Joe Stark’s store.

After her mother’s untimely death, Hurston was forced to claim to be anywhere from ten to twenty years younger than she was in order to get the higher education she was determined to receive.  While taking anthropology in the mid 1920s as an undergraduate at Barnard under the famous anthropologist Franz Boas, she discovered that collecting the stories of unlettered folk was also what anthropologists did. Quite naturally enthralled, she would continue to function as an anthropologist, an ethnographer of the African Diaspora throughout the Caribbean and the U.S., and a folklorist for the rest of her life.

What she loved to do, which was to mingle among the ordinary poor folk, particularly in rural areas, particularly far from home, she now referred to as fieldwork, and she would prefer to be in the field rather than anywhere else.  In fact, she died there in an old folks home penniless and sick.

But before the end came, it was Hurston’s habit to collect not only their stories but their peculiar non-verbal mannerisms, their tendencies to repeat and to inflect their speech with a variety of rhythms, their songs, their prayers, their spells and incantations, their sermons, their rhetorical devices in all manner of social situations.  She referred to much of this under the generic label of “lies.”  She interwove what she heard and saw seamlessly into her field notes, her autobiographical writings, her fiction and plays.  It should come as no surprise therefore that much of what she told us about her own life turned out to be a work of ethnographic fiction. 

Each of the books she wrote—and there were quite a few—bore traces of her lives, the one she made up and the one she actually had lived, as well as all the people and things she had seen. But the point of this class isn’t to catch Hurston in a lie, or pin her down to a single autobiographical account, although that might be one of the things we will spend our time doing.  The point of the course, I hope, will be to achieve an ear for comparative approaches to the storytelling traditions she documented and which have participated fully in the formation of African American identity, African Diasporic identity and American identity. 

You will learn to recognize some of the various genres of tales--- John and Massa tales, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear tales, witch tales, hoodoo tales, myriad retellings and recyling of narratives from the Old Testament, Devil tales, Witch Tales, prayers, spells, sermons, songs of various types—secular and sacred, work songs, blues. More than you will learn to define them, you will, I hope, learn to distinguish one type from the other, to acquire a certain fluency of comprehension making it possible for you to see the philosophical under-girdings of these practices; or, in other words, the substance of what these people who told these stories were really trying to get told: the incommensurable, the ineffable and the unknown of their own adult lives.  

The class will proceed in circular routes, doubling back and forth from beginning to end and back again because comprehending Hurston’s massive opus is kind of like jumping doubledutch.  It can only be grappled with in the doing.  It has much to do with  rhythm and very little to do with conventional notions of progress, change and individual genius.

Hurston was afraid that these people who told these stories and lived this life would die out without a trace, as she surely knew many civilizations and cultures had done before.  She went to great pains to distinguish rural from urban blacks, Floridians from Carribeans, so on and so forth.  At least in this country, she was quite right about these people dying out and not being replaced.  If such people are still with us, they are awfully quiet about it. 

I think perhaps the closest we can get is with some of the verbal repertoire coming out of hiphop and world music throughout the African Diaspora. Apparently, what seems to chase the oral tradition away is the all-consuming passion we have these days for electronic media.  On the other hand, that we live in such a time is not all bad since it is thanks to the innovations of electronics that we are able finally to recreate in the academy much of what Hurston and others were able to record of the cultural lives of our forebears.

We find it necessary to study what another generation might have regarded as the simple ways of simple folk. Now these folk and their simple ways have all but vanished from our midst. Therefore, it is important that we gather up the rhythms, the humor and knowledge they left to us before it becomes impossible for us to locate and comprehend it. The culture of the folk is not endlessly comprehensible, nor is it timeless. In its own time, it may function as a brand of popular culture for its practitioners but as the years go by and conditions change, the logic of such cultures become obscure, to our endless misfortune I believe since this is the way of transmitting painlessly from generation to generation some of the basic lessons of human co-existence and personality. Once the current cohort has lost verbal access to the vernacular of the people who produced that folk culture, it may become impossible to translate it into written texts, which have fundamentally different roots and ways of being.

As important as Hurston was as a novelist and an anthropologist, her most important contributions were to the collecting and preservation of African
American folklore and to a wide range of attempts to bring the performance of Afro-American folklore--music, songs, sermons and dance--to the American stage.  Although many commentators have insisted that the key to Afro-American culture is the dichotomization of sacred and secular music,
and that the blues was dismissed by most blacks as the devil's music, there was no such dichotomy in Hurston's work. Moreover, I suspect that the rigor of this dichotomy had much to do with class stratification and elitism.  Hurston, for all her political shortcomings, was no elitist. Nonetheless, throughout her writing, the African American preoccupation with the Bible and with the values and procedures of Christianity is everywhere.

Hurston's other religious preoccupation besides black Christianity is with Voodoo of the African American variety and the Caribbean variety as practiced in Jamaica, Haiti and the Virgin Islands.  The first application she made for a Guggenheim was for a project she wanted to do in Nigeria showing the links between the Yoruba religion and African Diasporic forms of voodoo.  Her application was rejected thanks in part to unfriendly recommendations by Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas, both of whom she adored. As far as we know, it never would have occured to her that either of them were actually blocking her progress toward a Ph.D. and research in West Africa. 

Also, Hurston's work on stage with folklore, as well as the recordings and films she made with Alan Lomax and others have not yet become commercially available as are all her books (which were all out of print when she died) but she knew and worked with many of the prominent folklorists of her time and was widely respected and well known, I would imagine, in the music field in the black South.  Of course, racial segregation and Jim Crow played a large role in religious practice and the collecting of folklore and folk music, given the period during which Hurston operated and the period of the great popularity of folkloric societies throughout the U.S."


Black Feminism and the Civil Rights Movement--2nd Week


Intertitle from D.W. Griffith's THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) representative of the racial values of the U.S. at the time
In last Monday’s class Black Feminism and Civil Rights Movement class at CCNY, because of the snow storm that resulted in the absence of half the class, I chose to show the first installment of Eyes on the Prize and ask that we try to play close attention to the presentation of women in it, at all levels, instead of going on with the discussion of Part I of When and Where I Enter. 

Eyes on the Prize:

Part 1 of Eyes on the Prize focuses on three major events of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s: the Supreme Court Brown v. Bd of Education decision, which had as its stated goal to end school segregation; the lynching of Emmett Till and the trial that followed near Money, Mississippi where it occurred, in which the perpetrators who later told their whole story to a magazine were found not guilty by an all white jury; and the successful Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott set off by Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white person, resulting in her arrest.  

Thulani Davis argues in the preface to Maurice Berger's For All the World to See that the sight of Emmett Tills horribly deformed corpse in the pages of Jet Magazine helped to revolutionize a generation of black teenagers.  Meanwhile at the time of Till's murder, in 1955, I was 3 and could not have seen the pictures. Subsequently I heard about but did not actually see the body until watching Eyes on the Prize in 1987 when I was already 35, had written and published Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, which was in part about the Civil Rights Movement.  Eyes on the Prize and the riches of scholarship on the Civil Rights Movement that has followed, including Paula Giddings' book, have changed my life.  Below are listed helpful supplementary readings and recordings.

Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. Penguin Books 1988.
Eyes on the Prize—America’s Civil Movement, 1954-1985: A Study Guide to the Television Series. Written by Facing History and Ourselves. Blackside 2006.
Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South edited by William H. Chafe, Raymond Gavins, and Robert Korstad et al. 2 Hour CDs and Volume. The New Press. Executed by Center for Documentary Studies for the Behind the Veil Project, in which students from Duke University interviewed survivors of Jim Crow in the South about their first hand experiences.

Famous lynching photograph

In the class at the Graduate Center, an enthusiastic and diverse group got into an animated discussion of matters related to the first part of When and Where I Enter.  What sticks in my mind is the discussion we got into about when slavery ended, and what life was like in the South after slavery, since this is also the period on which Gidding's scholarship in Part I is focused.  It has often been my experience that this history, of that time after slavery and before the modern Civil Rights Movement, or let's say perhaps before WWI, can be very vague in the average well educated person's mind.  There are so many general truisms which promote this understanding--in fact, all our salvation narratives, that Abraham Lincoln saved the slaves, that Martin Luther King saved the South and black people from racism and segregation, and son.

Actually our conversation shortly connected us to portrayals of black life in current films, such as The Butler, and the early history of the protagonist, The White House Butler, in which his mother was openly abused (played by Mariah Carey) and his father murdered for daring to intervene, despite the fact that they were no longer slaves, and slavery was officially over.  And yet their treatment, and the acceptance of it, for instance, by the matriarch of the master family, (played by Vanessa Redgrave), who announces during the burial of the father that the protagonist will now be taught to be a house nigger, suggests very slave-like conditions. Viewers are invited to regard the situation in which this family is living in any manner they like. There is subsequently no explanation of what we saw, except perhaps that his mother had been driven insane by the death of her husband and the rape of her "master," (employer?) But there was little sanctity of marriage during slavery. The kind of murder scene that took place seems to me likely more characteristic of extra-legal situations to be found in the rural pockets of the South where die-hard Confederates and their children basically made their own laws, and conducted themselves toward blacks with murder and terrifying sadism.

Everything about this scene lends itself to the typical American mainstream media blurring of historical memory in regard to U.S. culpability for slavery, the sabotaging of Reconstruction and the support of Jim Crow backlash, in the north and the south, in the cities and the rural areas, that followed African American efforts to be free.  On the other hand, The Butler, which was directed by Lee Daniels (who also directed Precious) was not, in fact, nominated for anything, despite at the very least Oprah Winfrey's standout performance as The Butler's wife.

The activism that African American women were engaged in, written about in When and Where I Enter, particularly their participation in a campaign against lynching and to ameliorate conditions of segregation and poverty among black women generally, illustrates the vast variations in conditions and specific situations during the period from the time of the Emancipation Proclamation through the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s.  For some unknown reason (I hate to think its a conspiracy), Hollywood movies invariably tend to portray black folks as passively waiting on the mercy of the Lord (12 Years a Slave is a particularly egregious example of that), whereas any adequate history of the periods involved will show that white violence was, in fact, a response to the constant efforts on the part of African Americans to define and extend upon their freedoms.

Nonetheless, in some areas of the country,  and under great duress as well as protest, African Americans were sometimes submitted to slave like conditions as documented in a variety of sources, listed below. There was, for instance, a documentary film about this history, Slavery by Another Name, by Sam Pollard on PBS last year. 

You Tube Channel Resources:

DC Emanicipation Act by US National Archives, Lincoln signed April 16, 1862, compensating owners by the U.S. Treasury Department

20th Century Slavery--http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1CD98D65419BA112

Series of Interviews and Videos by Antonette Harrell, who seems to have begun her work by doing family genealogy in Mississippi and stumbled upon the evidence of the continuation of slavery in the very poor communities of the rural South. As she tells it, if you’ve ever wondered how such third world conditions and poverty can persist in the United States, these are the places in which slavery didn’t die when it was supposed to, and continued into the 1960s so that some of these people are only recently free and some can still remember being slaves.  These stories are extraordinary. There is lots of documentation of these stories in books and videos that I will list, but Harrell’s videos and programs are substantial proof of how the current consequences of such conditions. I believe these people may be over-represented in our prison population as well.  It has never been a level playing field.

Pete Daniel, The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969. University of Illinois (1972) 1990.
Richard Wormser, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. Companion book to PBS Special of the same name. California Newsreel. 4 Parts (1865-1954).
Douglas A. Blackmon, The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Doubleday 2008.
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration Random House 2010.
David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard University Press 2001.

Photo of Blacks in the South--LC FSA

This next week we will go on to talk about Part II of When and Where I Enter, in which Mary McLeod Bethune plays a major role in the period between the wars.