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.

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