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 well 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.


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 material on 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.


Critical reception

In Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, Robert E. Hemenway encapsulates the initial critical reception of Tell My Horse:

“Although reviewers were generally kind, the book’s reception did not overwhelm. In Opportunity, Alain Locke referred to its ‘piquant thrills’ and it ‘anthropological gossip.’

Anthropologists point out that Hurston’s findings did not square with previous scholarship … Newspapers and magazines praised the book but had questions about its curious mix of subject and style. The New Yorker found it ‘disorganized but interesting.’ 

The Saturday Review called it ‘a curious mixture of remembrance, travelogue, sensationalism, and anthropology. The remembrances are vivid, the travelogue tedious, the sensationalism reminiscent of Seabrook, and the anthropology a melange of misinterpretation and exceedingly good folklore.'”

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Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston

See also: Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
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Quotes from Tell My Horse

“You cannot avoid hearing drums in Haiti.”

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“I fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for them to have been inside a church listening to a man urging them to ‘contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,’ which is just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing. It is very much better for them to climb the rocks in their bare clean feet and meet Him face to face in their search for the eternal in beauty.”

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“Perhaps it is natural for the god of the poor to be akin to the god of the dead, for there is something about poverty that smells of death”

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“A thing is mighty big when time and distance cannot shrink it.”

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“Once Africans could all fly because they never ate salt. Many of them were brought to Jamaica to be slaves, but they never were slaves. They flew back to Africa. Those who ate salt had to stay in Jamaica and be slaves, because they were too heavy to fly.”

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