Mules and Men is a treasury of black America's folklore as collected by a famous storyteller and anthropologist who grew up hearing the songs and sermons, sayings and tall tales that have formed an oral history of the South since the time of slavery. Returning to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, to gather material, Zora Neale Hurston recalls "a hilarious night with a pinch of everything social mixed with the storytelling." Set intimately within the social context of black life, the stories, "big old lies," songs, Vodou customs, and superstitions recorded in these pages capture the imagination and bring back to life the humor and wisdom that is the unique heritage of African Americans.
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But Zora seems to have a huge mission to capture the folk tales and tall tales that these men (mostly men) have to offer as they try their best to outdo one another in their lying contests. They explain everything Biblical to animal and tell stories of how the slave in past times outsmarted his master. They explain relationships between man and woman, man and the devil, man and God, and the way the world is to them. It's sometimes fascinating, and at other times quite amusing to hear how the woodpecker got his funny head, for instance. The men are creative and entertaining and Zora sucks it all in to try to document it. It's important to document the community at this time and how they pass down these stories amongst themselves. It's almost like just as an important past time as a dance or African gambling games to get them through their days and they relish in being able to tell the stories. There is also quite a bit about songs that were popularly sung. Though the men seem rather sexist, their personalities are depicted very vividly and, perhaps because Zora uses their dialect in print and writes out words as they would have said them, they are easy to picture with characters almost too big for the page.
What really threw me off reading this book was actually the hoodoo accounts of ways in which Zora joined and became a part of this community to learn about the ways of black magic in killing someone, banishing someone from your house, making someone go through extreme pain, making someone love you more, and making a whole court case go your favor. Zora tells accounts of gathering materials and following through on the wishes of the community who want all of these things to take place and gather up the funds to help see their desires to fruition. Zora shares a sort of closure to most of these cases that the person really did die or that the hoodoo actually worked and, though this whole section seemed so dark and bizarre to me, I found myself wondering if perhaps there was some actual truth to Hoodoo's effectiveness, which surprised me in and of itself. And, the very thought that Zora made these specific concoctions published for everyone also gives me the heebie jeebies...just in case you were wondering about how to banish a loved one or something like that. Hopefully, you weren't.
So this work is important as a historical document and it is an interesting one as well. I'm glad it exists and am sad poor Zora suffered in her later life and it didn't seem like she was nearly as appreciated for being both a great writer as well as a female writer and an African American female writer as she should have been while she was alive. Hopefully, her spirit is happy now.more