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Southern Tales, Tall and 'Down-home'

EVERY TONGUE GOT TO CONFESS: Negro Folktales from the Gulf States, by Zora Neale Hurston, Foreword by John Edgar Wideman, Edited and with an introduction by Carla Kaplan, HarperCollins. 320 pp., $25

January 06, 2002|JULIUS LESTER

Since her lonely death in 1960, Zora Neale Hurston has risen to be enshrined in the literary pantheon. Her novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (1937) holds a deservedly prominent place in the African American and feminist literary canon and is taught widely at colleges and universities across the country. So widely, in fact, that it is of considerable interest that an unpublished manuscript of Hurston's has now come to light.

The manuscript of "Every Tongue Got to Confess" languished for 30 years in "a basement storage room at Columbia University," explains the volume's editor Carla Kaplan, and for another 20 years at the Smithsonian. The book's great value for us today is in the way it returns us to Hurston's literary and academic roots as a folklorist and anthropologist and to the people and material which inspired and enriched her fiction.

From her birth in 1891 in Notasulga, Ala., and childhood in Eatonville, Fla., the first incorporated black town in the United States, Hurston grew up valuing the music and rhythms of black speech as well as the folk tales and songs that would be central in her writing career.

Hurston entered Howard University in 1920 and, within a year, had a story published in the school's literary magazine. In 1925 a story was published by Opportunity, a New York black literary magazine important in that coalescing of writers and artists that would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston moved to New York and soon became friends with Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps and the artist Aaron Douglas, among others. (I minored in art at Fisk University in the late 1950s where Douglas was chairman of the art department. He remembered Hurston with fondness and would chuckle recalling her flamboyance and her ability to amuse everyone with her "down-home" stories.)

Her interest in "down-home" stories led to the study of anthropology at Barnard College with the eminent Franz Boas, and to field trips across the South and the Caribbean. During her lifetime, two books of tales and lore were published: "Mules and Men" (1935) and "Tell My Horse" (1938). The latter is a study of Haitian and Jamaican voodoo. The more important book is "Mules and Men," a pioneering work of black tales and voodoo: It is not merely a compendium of tales because it also places the tales in their social and cultural context. The reader experiences the community from which the tales emanated as well as the roles the tales played in the life of the community.

In "Every Tongue Got to Confess" we are presented with the raw material from which Hurston created "Mules and Men." That includes such wonderful classics as "Why the Porpoise has his Tail on Crosswise," "How the Lion Met the King of the World," "Why the Waves Have Whitecaps" and the monumental "How Jack Beat the Devil." Thecollection contains variants of these and many other tales already found in "Mules and Men."

Hurston wanted "Every Tongue Got to Confess" to be different. "I am leaving the story material almost untouched," she wrote in a letter to Hughes and quoted by Kaplan. "I have only tampered with it where the storyteller was not clear. I know it is going to read different, but that is the glory of the thing, don't you think?"

But none of the material here can match that in "Mules and Men" for precision of telling, rhythm, imagery and enjoyment. "Every Tongue Got to Confess" contains more jokes than traditional tales, the difference being not only the shorter length of jokes and their emphasis on a punch line but also that folk tales have a complexity and depth that reverberates after the laughter dies. Missing from this volume is the almost epic dimension of the best tales in "Mules and Men."

However, folk tales, even jokes, are always valuable because one of the best ways to understand a people and the challenges they have faced is to study their stories. In this collection we learn much about the attitudes of Southern black rural life in the 1920s. There is the tale about the preacher who goes to heaven and learns that God has a "big blackboard" and, as the angel John reads aloud your sins from "de Big Book," you have to write them down. According to the storyteller, "my uncle died 'bout twenty years ago an' went on up. He wuz uh big preacher an' everybody said he sho wuz gointer git uh good seat on de right hand side, right up tuh de throne. But last week somebody died an' went up an' met my uncle on de way back to do earth tuh git some more chalk." Ministers never fare well in black folk tales.

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