Reclaiming Our Stories

An analysis of Zora Neale Hurston’s "Mules and Men"

by Rickey K. Hood

I was excited recently about a book I had discovered, Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men. I began sharing my find with the students at the High School were I work and was amazed at the disinterest and disrespect the students showed the stories. They called it ‘slave talk’ and felt distant from it. Through careful examination of the language in the book and their own making themselves aware of their own vernacular, the students found common ground in their use of language, expression and inflection discovering they were closer to ‘slave talk’ than they thought. After reading the stories, the students learned they liked the folk tales, and with some effort reclaimed part of their lost heritage. This was my experience with this small group of young black students with the book Mules and Men, but unfortunately such attitudes are the norm in the African-American community. How then can we as a culture reclaim the rich history of our folklore, how can we not be ashamed of the vernacular of our ancestors, and who are we as a people without these stories as part of our history? The work of Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men can serve as a bridge of reconciliation between the past and ourselves.

Franz Boas who wrote the preface for Mules and Men stated, concerning the culture of African-Americans, “Ever since the time of Uncle Remus, Negro Folk Lore has exerted a strong attraction upon the imagination of the American public. Negro tales, songs and sayings without end, as well as descriptions of Negro magic and hoodoo, have appeared; but in all of them the intimate setting in the social life of the Negro has been given very inadequately”. Hurston, through her work as an anthropologist, was able to bring to light the life and ways of a people at the turn of the 20th Century and include their stories into the American tapestry. We must understand that or heritage is more than African, it is African-American. A dual heritage. W. E. B. Du Bois called it a double consciences, yet Hurston did not see herself this way, a victim caught tragically between two worlds, Black and White. Instead, she draped black folk culture about herself li ke a fabulous robe. The folk tales of our grand parents and great grand parents should run through the black family. Such tales that has passed through my family are, “Every time the sun shines when it rains, the Devil is beatin’ his wife” and “every time there is a storm with load thunder, God is doin’ His work”. We, as their children, should take the time to learn these old folk tales as part of our family history.

African-Americans consider themselves far removed from the vernacular of their Grand parents and are embarrassed to hear them speak broken English. The Question is, why? Even though African-American dialect has evolved since the turn of the last century and has merged closer to the Euro-centric norm, this does not mean that Black culture and speech has stopped being distant. For example, ‘The’ is still pronounced ‘Dee’ or ‘Dah’, ‘With’ is pronounced ‘Wif’, ‘Door’ is ‘Doo’, and ‘Store’ is ‘Stowe’ and many other distentions. This came about when Africans was forced to learn English the best they knew how and developed a sub-language in the process. Dialect is a language still spoken today by millions of African-Americans and their children. Black American youth today have not come to terms with what Miss Hurston had realized, “that one must effect a genuine reconciliation between oneself and one’s past”. Until black youth recognizes the link between their present culture and their past there will always be a gap in their understanding of black development, history, and themselves.

Growing cultures should and must embrace their past. Booker T. Washington said, “Of my ancestry I know almost nothing…. In the days of slavery not very much attention was given to family history and family records-that is, black family records”. Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans and other groups find solitude, comfort and unity from their historical past. Teaching their children the language, the dress and the stories of their family and cultural past is necessary for a distant people to exist. African-American families must do the same or we will be guilty of cultural genocide, the extermination of an entire culture from a race of people; and without a culture what is a people? Stories preserved in Mules and Men like, “Why Negroes are black”, “Why women always take advantage of men”, and “How the church came to be split up” appear insignificant, but they show how we as a people created our own myths, and every culture need its own myths.

Multicultural studies should become the standard in public schools. Schools at this time are too Euro-centic and White American writers oriented. It is a shame that black and white students know so little about the literary accomplishments of black authors (with the excepting of February, black history month). Zora Neale Hurston and her unique recording of African-American folklore in her book Mules and Men should be shared and studied the same as Huckleberry Finn and Romeo and Juliet. Through such studies, black students can start to take pride in their history instead of being ashamed, and help them to see their unique black heritage truly as a part of the American whole.

Reclaiming Our Stories by Rickey K. Hood

© Copyright 2001. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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