Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston (1938)

Tell my horse Zora Neale Hurston cover

Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston (1938), is based on her firsthand research of Voodoo practices in Haiti and Jamaica. The esteemed twentieth century author is best known for the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God; what’s less known about about her is that she was a trained anthropologist.

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 for storytelling and abiding interest in black cultures of the American South and Caribbean.

Zora delves into research with a Guggenheim fellowship

In 1936, Zora received a Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed her to delve even more deeply into her research. She traveled to Jamaica and Haiti to collect stories and collecting material on African rituals and voodoo.

Her research resulted in two nonfiction collections about the culture and language of the peoples she researched — Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, the subject of this post.

While in the two island nations in the late thirties, Zora participated as an initiate, not just an observer. Tell My Horse looks into the mysteries of Voodoo and paints a unique portrait of its rituals, beliefs, ceremonies, customs, and superstitions.

The following 1938 review of Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston critiques her research on the culture and practice of voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica. Despite his issue with her language, the reviewer acknowledges her unique insider account to the study; a true strength consistent throughout her anthropological career.

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Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston

See also: Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
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“Author Calls Voodoo Harmless in a Study of Haiti and Jamaica”

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 post-humous 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.

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Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston

Tell My Horse on Amazon
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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.

— Reece Stuart, Jr., Des Moines Register, November 13, 1938

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