Hurston’s depiction of black life in her writing stands in sharp contrast to the harsher views of black life depicted in works by such novelists as Richard Wright, who attacked her writing as “counter revolutionary.” Unlike the work of Wright, who was committed to using his writing to demand social change, Hurston’s writing is, first and foremost, a celebration of being black in America.
Wright was not the only critic, during her lifetime or afterward, to accuse Hurston of political naïveté; it is a charge that deserves consideration. It is true that the reader of Hurston’s work searches in vain for some sensitive portrayal of the true plight of blacks during the Depression, the period during which Hurston wrote most of her best works. Poverty in the Eatonville she portrays is more likely to be the setting for a story or a joke than a cause for concerted political action.
Furthermore, it is equally true that Hurston, who grew up in a nourishing black community, remained a defender of some aspects of racial separatism well after the Civil Rights movement had identified integration as its goal; she even criticized the Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board of Education ruling, which demanded desegregation of public schools. If Hurston thought that blacks should be wary of what integration had to offer, it was because she valued so highly what black culture had to offer and feared the possibility of black culture getting lost in an attempt to homogenize society.
The title of her most successful work of folklore, Mules and Men, might seem to suggest a grim setting of men being treated like beasts of burden. In fact, though, the stories within the book celebrate a bond of cleverness and zest that the people of the South she chronicles share with the folkloric animals about which they tell stories. It is not that Hurston was not a political writer but that the politics of her writing came from a greater appreciation for the culture and values that black Americans had developed than for the culture from which they were often painfully excluded. Furthermore, as becomes clear in some of her essays, such as “How it Feels to Be Colered Me” (reprinted in a collection of Hurston’s essays, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . , 1979, edited by Alice Walker), she understood before many that it was only from a perspective of mutual respect that the black and white races would be able to cooperate.
When Hurston’s literary reputation began to be revived in the 1970’s, it was as much because of an appreciation of her sexual politics by feminist readers as because of her celebrations of black America. Her great novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is as much as anything else an account of main character Janie Crawford’s sexual awakening and search for equality in a relationship. Furthermore, her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, is an often frank (though sometimes guarded) account of a very independent-minded woman’s walk through life.
It is generally true that Hurston’s political vision, which was shaped within an autonomous black community, applies less well to the poor and often racially besieged black communities that existed elsewhere in the South. It is also generally true that the further she got from the realities of Eatonville as the setting for her writing, the less effectively her imagination and craft seemed to serve her. This can be seen especially in Seraph on the Suwannee, her one attempt at centering a novel on mainly white characters. It is the most disappointing of her fictions. The exception to this rule may, with some justification, be said to be Moses, Man of the Mountain, her version of the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt and the founding of Israel; in fact, however, the book is successful precisely because it rewrites the story of Moses as a black fable about the establishment of an autonomous nation after the end of slavery.
The most valuable lesson that can be taken from Hurston’s writing, and her most important recurring theme, is the enormous beauty and power a distinctive voice can have when it has the courage to show itself as its cultural and personal self rather than hiding behind imitations of others.
Mules and Men
First published: 1935
Type of work: Folklore
Hurston returns to her native South to collect folklore.
In writing Mules and Men, Hurston not only found a way to make a crucial bridge between her anthropological and literary ambitions but also created a lasting treasure of stories that captured the authentic voices of southern black storytellers in the late 1920’s. The book is divided into two parts. The first part details her collecting of folklore in Florida, the second part in New Orleans. The order in which the tales are related is ostensibly random, simply the order in which people told them to her, but as her biographer Robert Hemenway points out, and as inspection of the text reveals, the clusters of the stories are, to some extent, thematic.
Though there are a few stories about men and women in the first part of the book, most of the earlier stories deal with the days of slavery and with competition between the races in general. In the tales of slavery, the most common character is John, sometimes called Jack, who is often introduced as “Ole Massa’s” favorite slave, though he inevitably ends up tricking the slave owner somehow or another. John is a consummate trickster figure who, though he will often engage in hard physical labor, always triumphs through the power of his wits, and occasionally, good luck.
Sometimes John’s triumphs are smaller than at others—sometimes he merely survives—but at times, when he has been attacked brutally or viciously, his revenge is brutal indeed, as in “Ah’ll Beatcher Makin’ Money,” in which he tricks Massa into killing his own grandmother, then into being drowned. John shows his proudest, most dignified, side in the story Hurston calls “Member Youse a Nigger,” in which he works extra hard for a year to arrange a banner crop for his master, on the condition that he be freed at the end of the year. Ole Massa does indeed keep his side of the bargain but shows his true self when, as John leaves, he keeps calling to him, “Member John, youse a nigger.” John replies to him after every call but keeps walking until he gets to Canada.
Many of the other stories are talking animal stories, similar to the ones Joel Chandler Harris had collected in his Uncle Remus stories some years earlier. In many of these, the animals are clever stand-ins for blacks and whites, such as the story “What the Rabbit Learned,” in which Brer Rabbit knows enough to keep away from Brer Dog, despite Brer Dog’s protestations that dogs have all agreed to be friends with rabbits. Perhaps the most important of these stories is the story “The Talking Mule,” in which an old mule called Bill, after years of doing plowing for the man who owns him, one day speaks up and refuses, which so startles the old man that he runs away as fast as he can. The encoded message, preaching resistance to oppression, could not be clearer.
Part 2 of Mules and Men has an entirely different feel to it. In part 1, it is clear that Hurston is collecting stories with which she is often already familiar, in an area that, though she occasionally stands out as citified, she basically considers to be home. Part 2, however, takes her to New Orleans, where she sets about collecting the lore of Hoodoo, which she argues is a suppressed religion. Whereas in the first part, Hurston herself is often as important as the stories she is collecting, in the second part, she removes herself more to the background, usually playing the role of student to the people she writes about.
Part 2 is written as series of profiles of individual Hoodoo doctors. Luke Turner, one such doctor, tells Hurston the legend of Marie Leveau, a famous nineteenth century Hoodoo doctor; Anatol Pierre is a Catholic who also claims to have learned from Leveau. Dr. Duke is a root doctor, who uses herbs and roots he gathers from the swamps. Hurston is very careful about detailing the initiation ceremonies that different doctors make her undergo as well as the elaborate rituals they use to get rid of people, to get people back, and even to kill them. With Kitty Brown, the last Hoodoo doctor profiled, Hurston herself participates in a ritual to cause the death of a man who left one of Kitty Brown’s clients. When the man begins, several days later, to feel a pain in his chest, he returns to the woman he left, who quickly has the curse canceled. It becomes very plain in these stories that Hurston takes these rituals seriously indeed.
One of the complaints some reviewers had about Mules and Men was its general reluctance to show the economic realities of the southern blacks about which Hurston was writing. To some extent, this seems to have been the result of a deliberate choice by Hurston to emphasize the qualities she most cherished. The South that Hurston records in this volume of folklore is one fiercely alive with humor, irony, and mystery.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
First published: 1937
Type of work: Novel
A black woman’s life becomes a personal odyssey in search of personal values.
Janie Crawford, the main character of Hurston’s most important novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is the granddaughter of a slave woman, Nanny, who was raped by her owner, and the daughter of a woman who was raped by her schoolteacher. It is against the heritage of this racial and sexual violence that Janie tries to find a personally fulfilling life. The novel begins with Janie returning to Eatonville after the death of her third husband, Tea Cake Woods. Janie sits with her old friend, Pheoby, to tell her story, and the bulk of the novel, although narrated in the third-person voice, is the story Janie tells.
Her story begins when Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, spies her enjoying her first romantic kiss. Realizing that Janie, at the age of sixteen, is almost a woman and that Nanny herself will not be around much longer to take care of her, Nanny...
(The entire section is 4227 words.)