Mules and Men

This 1935 publication of African-American folklore is groundbreaking—the first compiled by an African-American and not some derisive white male. Instead, Zora Neale Hurston returns to her hometown in Florida to gather stories—lies, as they’re commonly called—and then pokes around various spots in the South, ending up learning Hoodoo (voodoo to us whites) in New Orleans. The whole trip was funded by Mrs. Osgood Mason of NYC, giving Hurston enough runway to gadabout for a year collecting stories.

Lots of Brer Fox/Rabbit/Dawg/Gator stories, along with tales of John (Negro hero) vs Ole Massa. Hurston settles in and is trusted right away by her old townfolk, invited to listen to some lies and take them down. She follows groups to work at the mill as they lie along the way, or to fishing holes spouting lies, etc. None of the tales jump out as being particularly memorable, but there are some great lines:

“Don’t never worry about work. There’s more work in de world than there is anything else. God made de world and de white folks made work.” This spawns a tale about how blacks ended up working so much—God put down two bundles on the road and the white man raced the black man to see who would get there first; the black man arrived first and claimed the big bundle, leaving the small sack for the white man. In the big bundle was a pick, shovel, hoe, axe, and plow. In the small bundle was a pen and ink. “So ever since then de n— been out in de hot sun, usin’ his tools and de white man been sittin’ up figgering’, ought’s a ought, figger’s a figger; all for de white man, none for de n—.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Janie trudges home in a pair of overalls, causing the porch-dwellers’ tongues to wag, how she’d left town all high and mighty with Tea Cake (to marry him), and now she was loping back home alone. Did she retain her money, or had Tea Cake taken that, too? Janie’s friend Pheoby brings her dinner and they sit in the gathering darkness while Janie tells her story. Thrice-married, once to an old man at her grandmother’s insistence to protect her purity, then she ran away from him to marry Joe/Jody who sets out to become mayor of the all-black town and accumulates a fortune, finally to Tea Cake after Joe dies. Tea Cake is the love of her life, “God made it so you spent yo’ ole age first wid somebody else, and saved up yo’ young girl days to spend wid me.” They head to the Everglades to plant and pick beans, gamble, hunt, and have a grand old time. Along comes a hurricane (they watch Indians file east en masse as they flee ahead of the storm, then all the animals make the same hasty retreat). Tea Cake saves Janie from a mad dog perched on a floating cow in the aftermath, he gets bit and a month later dies from her shotgun blast since he’s gone mad and tried to kill/bite her. Tremendous imagery post-hurricane, brought to mind Hurricane Katrina. Pressed into service to bury the dead, the workers were told to bury the whites in coffins and toss the blacks in an open grave covered with quick-lime. When the workers protested that they weren’t sure which race the bodies were, the white men conferred and agreed that they must look at the hair to make a determination. Enjoyable early black feminist work once I got over my aversion to reading dialect.