Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston (1935)

Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston

Mules and Men is a 1935 ethnographical collection by Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most celebrated of Harlem Renaissance authors.

It’s well known that Zora was an incredible storyteller, evidenced by novels like Their Eyes Were Watching God, and short stories, but she was an accomplished anthropologist as well.

Zora was the first black student at Barnard College, the women’s college connected with Columbia. She studied with the noted anthropologist Franz Boas, who recognized her talent and abiding interest in the black cultures of the American South and Caribbean. Boas urged her to pursue more research, something that Zora loved to do.

Mules and Men is a compilation of stories that Zora collected on two trips — one in Florida, including Eatonville (the town in which she was raised) and Polk County, and the other in New Orleans.

In Florida she documented some seventy folktales, while in New Orleans, she documented voodoo traditions and other stories.  In her inimitable style, Zora described how she delved into the field of ethnography:

“When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism. From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.”

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Every tongue got to confess

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Every Tongue Got to Confess
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Preface contributed by Franz Boas

Boas has often been called “the father of American anthropology” and he had utmost respect for Zora’s work in the field. In the preface he contributed to Mules and Men, he wrote:

“Ever since the time of Uncle Remus, Negro folklore has exerted a strong attraction upon the imagination of the American public. Negro tales, songs and sayings without end, as well as descriptions of Negro magic and voodoo, have appeared but in all of them the intimate setting in the social life of the Negro has been given very inadequately.

It is the great merit of Miss Hurston’s work that she entered into the homely life of the southern Negro as one of them and was fully accepted as such by the companions of her childhood … Miss Hurston has been equally successful in gaining the confidence of the voodoo doctors and she gives us much that throws a new light upon the much discussed voodoo beliefs and practices.

… To the student of cultural history the material presented is valuable not only by giving the Negro’s reaction to everyday events, to his emotional life, his humor and passions, but it throws into relief also the peculiar amalgamation of African and European tradition which is so important for understanding historically the character of American Negro life, with its strong African background in the West Indies, the importance of which diminishes with increasing distance from the South.”

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Zora Neale Hurston

Zora as a student at Barnard College
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1935 reviews of Mules and Men 

These two 1935 reviews of Mules and Men suggest that her account of folklore and race are important to the full picture of American history. Studying voodoo and recalling folk stories through personal adventures and dialogue among practicing community members, Zora presents traditions that white people are rarely exposed to. Please note, these reviews are written in the vernacular and with the implicit biases of their era.


From the original review in the Des Moines Register (November, 1938): Critics who dragged out their superlatives for Miss Hurston’s Mules and Men will have less difficulty restraining their enthusiasm over this book, her report on a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship’s study of the peoples of Haiti and Jamaica, and their lore.

Hurston had been wholly dissatisfied with Seabury’s Magic Island yarns, as sensationalized and written for dilettantes of the esoteric. She was not wholly satisfied with Dr. Melville J. Herskovits’ report in “Life in a Haitian Valley,” especially in its incomplete treatment of voodoo.

She had advantages for research in this field enjoyed by neither of those authors. It is a pity, therefore, that her real talents produced a work so badly — even carelessly — performed!

She pays practically no attention to grammar or sentence structure. And she seems to have added a subtitle, “Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica,” to embrace those chapters where she departs widely from her primary subject.

Hands-on researcher participates in rituals

Yet with all its literary faults, Tell My Horse does some real delving, whether solemn anthropologists accept its findings or not. Miss Hurston did get “inside” the curious island cults. She saw their rituals — even participated in them.

She saw and photographed those grisly near-humans, the zombies, the once-living and once-dead and finally physically, but not mentally alive creatures, snatched from the grace for posthumous slavery.

It is notable that the only zombie she ever saw happened to be non-typical in that it could speak. Death-simulating drugs are  her explanation of the zombies.

She considers voodoo a harmless cult

She champions voodoo, or at least defends it, and chides the Haitian leaders for their refusal to do the same. They “know quite well and acknowledge privately,” she says, “that voodoo is a harmless pagan cult that sacrifices domestic animals at its worst. The same animals that are killed and eaten every day in most of the civilized countries of the world.”

If she had brought to her accounts of the folk mysteries, the same degree of specification she employed in her chapter on curry goat, the preparation of young girls for marriage, Miss Hurston would probably have said the last word on voodoo.

As it is, there should still be an opening for another Guggenheim fellowship in that field.

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From the original review by John Selby in the Pennsylvania Wilkes-Barre Record, October 1935:  Those of us who were reared among Negroes sense, with exasperating finality, the underlying mysticism of the race. But very few of us, because we are white, really break through the crust and learn what it all is about.

Zora Neale Hurston, whose Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a book among hundreds, is a Negro and apparently lacks the sad feeling of contempt which seizes a good many of her race when confronted with Negroes who have had fewer “advantages” than herself. She still can mix with them, be accepted without too much reservation, and what is far more to the point, can see and remember the things thus opened to her.

She is the perfect writer, then, to make a study of Negro folklore and folk practice. She has written Mules and Men from her own knowledge and experience. The book is divided into two equally important parts, one of which retells a great number of folk tales, the other of which is the most intelligent discussion of voodoo (the Negroes call it “hoodoo”) this department has seen.

The folk section contains the fabled John Henry and a host of heroes and demons and such that are more interesting than John Henry. There is no good to be had from listing the stories; it is more important to say what Miss Hurston herself points out — that the tellers themselves recognize the stories as fables. Whites often have the odd idea that the opposite is the case.

Miss Hurston went to sources for her hoodoo material. Marie Leveau of New Orleans is dead, but Turner, her nephew, is alive and practicing. Such practices! Miss Hurston tells of him and his rituals, of many others and their rituals.

She has seen what she describes — unlike certain returned “adventures” from Haiti and such places. The story is a grand one; nobody can pretend to understand the United States without knowing it.

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Tell my horse Zora Neale Hurston cover

See also: Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston
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Views from contemporary scholars

Mules and Men may have disappeared from academic consciousness for some decades, but it has re-emerged as an excellent text in the fields of ethnography and race theory. Here are two excerpts:

In “Conflict and Resistance in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men” Susan Meisenhelder, in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 109, No. 433 (Summer, 1996) wrote:

“While Mules and Men seems (and was, in fact, read by most of her contemporary reviewers as) a straightforward depiction of the humor and “exoticism” of African American folk culture, Zora Neale Hurston carefully arranged her folktales and meticulously delineated the contexts in which they were narrated to reveal complex relationships between race and gender in Black life.

Underscoring the traditional subversive role of African American folklore, she highlights the continuing role folktales play in Black people’s struggles with economic and racial oppression.

Hurston also details the function of folklore in conflicts between Black men and Black women, showing both how men use folktales to reinforce and legitimate oppression of women and how women use them to fight against a subservient role and to assert their power.”

In “Multiple Mediations in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men” Graciela Hernández (University of Michigan) wrote:

Mules and Men is a precedent-setting study of folklore in the African-American communities of Eatonville and Polk County, Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana, in which Zora Neale Hurston attempts to represent her fieldwork experiences in writing. I

n this work, Hurston uniquely records a variety of slave tales, songs and conversations by interspersing these cultural forms with the ethnographic narrative …”

“Zora Neale Hurston’s most powerful contribution to anthropology could be her ability to allow the spy-glass to fall aside, revealing the struggle for power that takes place between the ethnographer and the subject in which both vie to define the field and the possibility of representation.”

This extensive analysis is highly recommended for those who’d like to delve deeper into this work.

Quotes from Mules and Men

“Many a man thinks he is making something when he’s only changing things around.”

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“It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world.”

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“Mouths don’t empty themselves unless ears are sympathetic and knowing.”

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“One woman had killed five when I left that turpentine still where she lived. The sheriff was thinking of calling on her and scolding her severely.” (from Folklore, Chapter 4)

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More about Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston

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