This is essentially a nonfiction account of Zora Hurston’s own trip to Eatonville, Florida, taken in order to collect African-American folktales. Her own adventures in Eatonville are occasionally interrupted by fables and songs collected from the people she meets in her travels. The second section of Mules and Men is a record of her trip to New Orleans to do field study on the practice of hoodoo. Zora records her experience as an apprentice to several hoodoo doctors and as a hoodoo consultant.
However, in addition to the story, the book may also be used for its collection of folk stories. The glossary at the end of the book and the appendices filled with old folk songs and hoodoo recipes make this book very useful as a textbook for African-American folklore, in addition to its value as a work of art.
Estimated Reading Time
Mules and Men, 247 pages long, is divided into two sections, not including the glossary and appendices at the end. The first section is devoted to various folktales and can be read from beginning to end in about 6-8 hours, depending on the reader. Given the book’s unique narrative style, teachers using the book in a classroom setting might choose to focus on a specific folktale or song as an example of African-American folklore.
The second section is devoted to Zora Neale Hurston’s study of hoodoo in New Orleans. It is smaller than the first section and more self-contained as a narrative, and can be read in 2-4 hours, depending on the reader.
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...
(The entire section is 1,092 words.)