Subversive Racism and Feminism in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men 

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Zora Neale Hurston’s famous work, Mules and Men (1935), was written at a time of legal segregation between the races in the United States. It represented the contemporary, linguistic and ethnography of the “American Negro.” She herself studied traditional African-American linguistics. Therefore, rather than writing within the tradition of the European or American model for ethnography, Hurston produced her descriptions in terms of a traditional African-American woman. Hurston was able to produce the first book of African-American folklore, but her use of the “minstrel language,” caused many negative reviews of her book. (C. Pierpoint, 3)

Ministerial language refers to the racist and stereotypical behavior and languages of white actors portraying exaggerated versions of African-Americans for the entertainment of mostly white audiences. The use of this type of language in African-American literature was discouraged after the Harlem Renaissance. However, the failure to appreciate the extent to which Mules and Men preserves the very language that other African-American authors at the time wanted to excise. (C. Pierpoint, 3) This may help account for why the work has been so little appreciated other than as the first book of African American folklore.

Equally significant, however, is such a reading of Houston’s text complicates our understanding of the work itself. It also stands as a significant historical resource regarding the use of African-American linguistics of the 1930’s. Hurston is writing an ethnographic and anthropological study of African-Americans in the Deep South and their language of the 1930’s. The way that the African-Americans in Mules and Men spoke was vastly different than how authors like Hughes and others like him spoke. It would not have been accurate for African-American mostly laborers and others telling folktales to have spoken in erudite language. African-Americans of the time including many of the so-called Talented Tenth considered it vital that Black culture be presented in the most flattering light possible. (Gillespie, 20) This is why this book was controversial at the time, Hurston was preserving the slave folktales in the

During her career and life, she was sometimes accused by fellow African-American of being the one who played into and encouraged white stereotypes. Her book Mules and Men was the first of many times that Hurston angered her own community by her writing. However, Hurston’s own commitment to preserving African-American folktales can be seen in the unpopular stance that she took after the famous Brown V Board of Education decision, which outlawed the practice of racial segregation in American schools. Hurston spoke out against the idea of black and white children going to school together, she saw it a Communist plot. In her article she uses mules and a white mare to prove her point about desegregation.

She said, “Since the days of the never-to-be-sufficiently deplored Reconstruction, there has been current the belief that there is no great[er] delight to Negroes than physical association with whites. The doctrine of the white mare. Those familiar with the habits of mules are aware that any mule, if not restrained, will automatically follow a white mare. Dishonest mule-traders made money out of this knowledge in the old days. Lead a white mare along a country road and slyly open the gate and the mules in the lot would run out and follow this mare….It is clear that they have taken the old notion to heart and acted upon it.

It is a cunning opening of the barnyard gate wit[h] the white mare ambling past. We are expected to hasten pell-mell after her.’ (Hurston, Orlando Sentinel) If one reads into what she is saying throughout her entire Orlando Sentinel editorial, Hurston has a deep fear of African-Americans losing their distinct cultural identity, while “chasing the White Mare.” What is not spoke about but is alluded to as the folktales in her book, Mules and Men, she is afraid that if African-Americans do not attend their own schools, that they will lose what is culturally different about them. She wants African-Americans to be like Native Americans, to preserve their identity. (Hurston, Orlando Sentinel)

Especially, such reading grants her the agency to define herself and to use the resources of her own cultural tradition to represent and critique what she understood from her own situation and that of her own people. Such reading raises questions about the possibilities of critique and resistance, their nature, and their limitations, as these process interests with textual hybridity. To what degree is social criticism when inscribed in a tradition of language use and textuality other than that of the dominant culture, likely to be noticed, acknowledged, or affirmed by either the majority or the minority culture?

First, Mules and Men demonstrates ethnicity but more precisely it is related to “Ethnographies’ of Communication”. As a black woman, it was a necessary antidote to the white-authors representation that at the time all existed. In this regard, Mules and Men give us” data” to support such analysis as those presented in Hurston’s well-known essay “ Characteristic of Negro Expression.” Here, Hurston suggested that she is more than a passive secretary. While Mules and Men depicts the humorous, exotic, and cultural side of the African-Americans in the rural South, Hurston presents a complex analysis of race and gender of Black life. Here, part of the reason Hurston takes an indirect path from her dependence on white peoples who managed to get considerable control over their work. The struggle between Hurston and Franz Boas in her research indicates his control over her fieldwork at that time.

In addition to that she was focus on her research, but they treated her as a helper or informant rather than a researcher in her own right. Hurston had her personal view in Mules and Men to express. When she looked through her culture, she always found that the folktales she heard that we’re not amazing stories or relics of slavery, but the living practices, scheme, used in her day for dealing with inequalities. Also, Hurston faced the dilemma of how to show her analysis in a way that bypasses the censoring eye of her mentors and the cruel reader. Hurston adopted a strategy of masking social conflict and critical commentary with humor.

The persona she creates is crucial to her project. By presenting herself as a lovable “Darky”. One who thanks “white folks” for allowing her to collect the folklore and who praises the magnanimity of her patron Mrs. Mason, she appears as narrator with no racial complaints or even awareness. Pouring the charm as a “charm of a lovable personality” commented on by Boas in his preface, and by reviewers. Hurston paints herself as an Uncle Remus figure pleased to entertain this white world with her tales. Making no controversial statements and, in fact, offering little explicit analysis, she plays an extremely nonthreatening role: lovable, entertaining, and intellectually mute.

Hurston prompts us in Mules and the Men; however, that black humor is multi-faced, reflecting a various range of emotions. Her laugh has a hundred meanings. It may mean amusement, anger, grief, curiosity, simple pleasure or any other of the known undefined emotions. While Hurston makes these comments to satisfy the reader that they are the truth in Mules and Men that she begins them into a Black world, her remarks provide an interesting comment on her strategy in the work. She often uses the word “Feather-bed tactics” in her performance of Black folktales’, placing her “Lovable Personality” and the simple, humorous stories of her informants as a “play toy” in the hands of her white folks.

Hemenway proposes in his introduction, Hurston’s “cultural messages”’ in Mules and The Men” are coded ones. Hurston embeds her tales in situations that highlight the function of black folklore. Her mode of presentation in Mules and Men is thus crucial, As Boas notes in this preface of the book it was a novel one. With this Hurston is also able to convey her message without asking permission or offending her mentors. While Boas rather simply praises this aspect of Mules and the Men, his correspondence with Hurston reveals her trials in getting him to write the preface. Fully aware of what his stamp of approval would mean for her work’s acceptance. Hurston’s strategy of deferential humility, of course, worked. She was able to publish her work with this crucial contextual material and to get Boas’s approval in the preface.

In this novel Mules and Men, Hurston created a work scene to make appoint of white domination and control of the black peoples’ lives. Telling tales all the way, they walk the long distance to the mill, only to be summarily dismissed by the mill boss. Like mules, the men are moved from one work location to another. Frustrated by this brutal situation, the men often use traditional tales in this section to taunt white supremacy and to reclaim their humanity. All men deal with frustration, anger when the foreman announces that they must report to the mill through another series of exaggeration tales about mean men, which is initiated by one man’s comment. The tales that follow details one straw boss “so mean that when the boiler burst and blew some of the men up in the air, he docked them for the time, they were off the job.” (Hurston, 69.)

Significantly, her stories about the Slavery days are most common. Many times focusing on the figure John, these tales tell the slave’s strategies for dealing with apparent powerlessness. While a Black man may pray in private for God “to kill” all the white people, a different approach is required. (Hurston, 89) Hurston most explicitly shows the strategic necessity of indirect defiance in the tale. One told about the function as a model for these men is surviving in their oppression. Unable to openly defy their bosses, they too “talk by the big gate” in the tales they narrate, reliving the slave’s psychic victory. Hurston reinforces the contemporary subversive import of these tales. As she suggests in her essay, which she analyzes the dynamic of these stories. Hurston also demonstrates that John did not die, but retired with his secret smile into the south. When black people needed help dealing with oppression, they looked back to the slave past and this was done in the character of John.

While the tales seem to poke fun at the African-American through a series of racist stereotypes, John is a more complex character. While running away to freedom is highest in his mind, he begins with a short grip on morality. In the tale the “Deer Hunting story” at the end of chapter four, allows John choice. If one does not read into it, the story might appear as a racist story of the black man’s stupidity. This happens when “Massa” instructs his slave to shoot the deer after when he scares him up. However, when the deer runs by, the slave does not shoot at it and does nothing. When he was confronted by “Massa,” the slave said he had seen no deer. “All he has seen was a white man come along here with a pack of chairs on his head, and tripped my hat to him, and waited for the deer.” This story is comedic in the way that the slave responds by saying he didn’t see any deer just a white man with chairs on his head. The slave is indicating his wit to the master, which the slave master takes as stupidity.

Although the large number of stories lampooning whites and showing the superior wit of blacks depict the sawmill workers emotionally resisting their masters. Hurston is careful not to simply romanticize black response to white oppression. As she demonstrates, the conflict between the desire to see oneself as a human and pressure to accept white definition of oneself as mule is an intense one. She highlights the struggle several times in the men’s conversations between tales, casting Jim Allen as the center mouthpiece of the white psychological control. In contrast to men like Jim Presley, who argues for the virtue of laziness, while Jim Allen urges the men to hurry to work. The conflicting reaction of black people to white power, clever defiance, or defeated acceptance, which these conversations embody, is also reflected in the tales told in this. Significantly, in addition to John’s stories, the section of Mules and Men set in the work context of Polk county. Through her careful attention to context, Hourston suggests that these states constitute another black response to oppose.

Even John cannot totally erase the reminder of oppression. Facing the reality of the mill, some men tell self- degrading tales, “From Pine to Pine Mr. Pinkney”. The story of an escaped slave, Jack, caught because another slave helps the master. The tale ends with a depressing reminder of the men’s own slavery symbolized by the mill, “ So they caught Jack and put hundreds of lashes with his back and told him to get back to work” (Hurston, 89). As the men sit outside the mill in the heat, conscious that they too are getting caught by the boss, waiting for a figurative hundred lashes on their backs, they tell another tale about the Black man who avoided the work through laziness in a broader and harsher economic context. When the white man turned back, this Black man would flop down and go to sleep. The white man, however, gets the last laugh when the Black man comes to take his pay and is refused his pay, because of “his lack of work.”

While these stories reveal harsh economic realities, it also deals the power of white supremacy over Blackness, and the divisiveness of oppression. Hurston refuses to let these stories stand as the last word. By embedding them in the context of John stories and by ending the section with tales like “Fortune Teller” and “How the Black People got their freedom” which focus on the Black men winning on the white supremacy, she emphasizes the power of African-Americans to resist the psychological oppression, even in the face of racist definitions and economic exploitation.

Significantly, she ends this section with a “Member Youse A Nigger,” the story of a slave who, instead of outwardly defying the white definition, simply dons the mask of subservience as he steps toward freedom. Such stories graphically demonstrate to the African Americans hearing them the psychic freedom that can be enjoyed even as they are defined by whites as mules. As Hurston suggests in “High John de Conquer”, the spiritual freedom depicted and experienced in hearing these stories is extremely important. While the mill and its definition of “Black men” still await them, such stories allow the workers to enter the mill toughened up from the most devastating effects of spiritual enslavement.

When the workers from Polk Country finally do get their day off, to go fishing they narrate the tales differently from those they heard at work. In the midst of this relative freedom, the men tell not John tales, but light-hearted fish tales, exaggeration stories that demonstrate their delight in verbal play for its own sake. They also engage in the traditional verbal contest. (Hurston, 94) The delight in these tales and the laughter they make are psychologically quite different from the enthusiastic response to the earlier John tales. Hurston also places in this fishing context tales that reveal a freed imagination tackling profound philosophical issues. These stories of “How everything started” also demonstrate a different kind of Black cultural creativity that flourishes outside the range of white supremacy.

The effects of freedom over white supremacy on the storytelling imagination of Black people are also evident in chapter ten when Hurston goes to Mulberry, Pierce, and Lakeland. In her “Between-Story business” Hurston contrasts this environment with the oppressive one at the sawmill camps. When whites are on the periphery, the storytellers focus on the tales that evoke “blow-out laughs” and on “skeery lies” about supernatural experiences. Black figures focused on in this include ones of mythic proportions and strength like Big Sixteen as well as Voodoo doctors like High Walker who had supernatural powers and Raw Head, “A man that was more than a man” with the cosmic power of Moses. Out of range of white control, in a world, as characterized by Nanny, “where do Black man is in power”. Black people feel their power not just to understand the cosmos but to control it.

The battle between Blacks and whites is not the only one waged in Mules and Men. Paying equal attention to power struggles between Black men and women, Hurston repeatedly underscores not only how men oppress women but also how women fight against their subservient role, in ways both direct and subversive ways. While sexism is many men’s comments and behavior is often imbalances and conflicts.

The conflict between men’s and women’s interests is highlighted in Gold’s retort. In the male-female battle out of which it grows, it more accurately demonstrates the women’s use of folktales to elevate their status. Reversing the numbers and the roles here, showing men eager for marriage. Shug paints the men in her tale delivering on their promises, performing heroic labors and even “female” tasks to prove their love. Men, on the other hand, use folktales to counter women’s assertions of equality and to reinforce the status quo.

Three tales told at the end of chapter seven. One, the son who went to college, “Sis- Snail”, “Why the waves have whitecaps”, narrated in the context of heated arguments between men and women, become charged with gender-specific meaning. Joe’s appeal to the men does not go unheeded, for they immediately launch into a series of stories told specifically to denigrate women. Jim Allen introduces first telling comments. The context of the tale highlights it as a parable about male oppression of women. Echoing the same kind of sexual innuendo seen in the song about Ella Wall who “rocks her rider/ From wall to wall, the inside meaning of this story of a man riding a cow to came her is a thirsty veiled male commentary on the sexual and emotional dynamics of relationships between man and woman. The son has the original insight on how to cure this cow of kicking. (Hurston, 127-129).

Mules and Men are originally written about the Black sufferance. It also has the full aspects of racism. Many authors emerged during the Harlem Renaissance period, Hurston portrayed the Black people as a victim of oppression of white supremacy and racist attitude. She often presented how much she took in her people’ folk culture. This portrayal was undoubtedly influenced by her upbringing in Eatonville, where she learned the opportunities that were present to all the blacks within her community.

Art that grew from like Mules and Men because a collective esthetic desire has transformed Black people’s identification as a mule – an overworked beast of burden into a symbol of their struggles. The title meant that the Black people were treated as mules, and the human Mules and Men. Here the identification itself defines the negative impact of that symbolism: slave equals mule. It has some similarity between the mule’s situation and a slave and then identified mulish traits with African-Americans. Also in that time, mules were bought and sold by Massa just as slaves were.

Cite this paper

Subversive Racism and Feminism in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men . (2021, Nov 22). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/subversive-racism-and-feminism-in-zora-neale-hurstons-mules-and-men/

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