Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

In October of 1929, the American financial markets collapsed. By Christmas of 1929, the Great Depression had begun, and by the time Mule Bone was written two years later, the United States was solidly in the grip of a huge financial depression that affected almost everyone. The years after World War I had been prosperous for citizens of the United States. Employment was up, and the need for newly developed products had created a successful economy. For the first time, credit became an accepted way to buy durable goods. When people lacked enough money to buy something, they borrowed against future earnings. Demand for goods increased; jobs increased, and unemployment was down. When the market collapsed, jobs were cut, and there was no way to meet the demands of creditors. In a short time, the United States’ economy collapsed. Banks closed and a lifetime of savings disappeared.

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In the rural South, credit to buy automobiles or household goods never approached the levels it did in the larger cities to the North. Instead, credit was more often just as it appeared in Mule Bone; small country stores extended short lines of credit to steady customers. In a period when cash was often short, people’s existence might be determined by the line of credit at a town grocery. This avenue for food was not available in many other American locations. Hunger was a serious problem. Many people lacked even the minimal food required to maintain nutrition. The United States’ birthrate declined during the Depression because a lack of basic nourishment could not sustain life.

The hardships increased for blacks, many of whom had moved to northern cities from the rural South. Racism was never worse than it was during the Depression when jobs became scarce. Blacks were just more competition for already limited job opportunities. Blacks were not the only victims of discrimination in a shrinking job market, however. All racial minorities, such as Hispanics and Native Americans, found that jobs were reserved for white males. Even women, who had traditionally found work as domestics, discovered little opportunity for employment. To add to the already dismal picture, a severe drought in the southeastern United States created a dust bowl of once fertile farm land and added even more poverty and hunger to an already dismal picture.

Blacks had always been outsiders in the rural South, and little had really changed since the end of the Civil War. Although black men had joined the army and navy to fight overseas, they returned to the United States after World War I to find a life that was as segregated as it had been before the war. Blacks had been told that they were fighting for liberty and democracy, but they found little of either. Racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan reached a level of new strength in the years after the war, and lynchings and violence against blacks increased.

How serious this racism was became evident in the Scottsboro case when nine black youths were convicted of raping two white women on a freight train in Alabama. In a case that involved questionable evidence, a lack of defense representation, jury problems, and which resulted in multiple trials and appeals, the defendants were finally all convicted and sent to jail, where they served a total of 130 years. Blacks not only had to combat the hunger and poverty of the Great Depression, they had to fight virulent racism just to survive.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

Authors usually write with an audience in mind. Hughes and Hurston intended Mule Bone as a vehicle to bring southern black comedy to a larger audience. The two authors saw it as a way to keep alive black vernacular English and the rural folktales of southern blacks.

(The entire section contains 1638 words.)

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