Zora Neale Hurston journeyed through the American Gulf States for an anthropological study funded by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy philanthropist. Mules and Men, Hurston’s first major anthropological text, emerged as the published result of this late-1920s study. But much more of Hurston’s collected folklore from this period was published posthumously in 2001 in Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States.
Every Tongue Got to Confess features nearly 500 folktales, ranging in length from one sentence to a few pages. Together, this bittersweet, often hilarious collection weaves a vibrant tapestry of African-American life in the rural South, covertly revealing attitudes about faith, love, family, slavery, race, and community in the process.
Suggested Course Use
Hurston’s collection, written in the Southern black vernacular of the 1920s, has been used in narrative theory, ethnography, African-American literature, and women’s literature courses. It is often used in conjunction with books like Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman (and Other Tales), in order to examine the complicated concept of “oral literature,” and the process of translation, and thereby interpretation, that must occur in any adaptation from the oral to the written form.
Aside from examining what is gained and lost in this interpretation, any examination of Hurston’s work must also examine its political implications, especially when referring to the continuing conflicts between black and white Americans. Euro-American culture has traditionally validated only written works as “literature,” therefore casting African “orature” as unfit and unworthy. In light of this, many intriguing questions for your students will arise:
• Is working within the European-framework of written literature debasing African oral tradition by suggesting that stories must be written in order to be valued?
• Or, are Hurston’s written folktales spreading these stories to a wider audience, celebrating them in the process?
• Alternatively, in writing these stories down in the black vernacular, is Hurston compelling those of European backgrounds to become complicit in the oral tradition as well, as reading the vernacular is easiest when the words are sounded out and pronounced out loud?
American Folklore and Folklife: University of Hawaii