Mules and Men Syllabus

Mules and Men is a treasury of black America’s folklore as collected by Zora Neale Hurston, the 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, Voodoo customs, and superstitions recorded in Mules and Men capture the imagination and bring back to life the humor and wisdom that is the unique heritage of African Americans—and throws into relief the amalgamation of African and European tradition which is key to understanding African-American history and culture.

Suggested Course Use

For those who want students to understand the most important concepts, beliefs, and practices in African cultures and philosophy, Mules and Men provides deep insight into its continuing influence on African-American culture and literature. Anchoring the syllabus with a text such as Perspectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History and Representation edited by Roy Richard Grinker, Stephen C. Lubkemann, and Christopher B. Steiner will give students an introduction to the diverse cultures of Africa and a history of the interpretations of those cultures. With traditional folktales woven into the novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart can be used to familiarize students with traditional African (Nigerian/Igbo) philosophy and the essential values of the Igbo. Students should take note that these folktales disappear from the narrative with the arrival of the Christian missionaries. More recent African views can be explored in Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure—which addresses a critical issue—the collision of Islamic African values and Western culture. 

Next, with Zora Neale Hurston and Mules and Men as their guide, students can explore the culture and literature of the African diaspora as they journey into the rural African-American towns of the South in the 1930s.  As they hear “the big old lies” that capture the humor and wisdom that is the unique heritage of African Americans, Zora Neale Hurston invites students to the parties, front porches, jooks, and into the lives of the storytellers. They’ll even learn a few Voodoo spells along the way. And, since this is a wonderful oral tradition—you might want your students to listen to the audio edition, which is read by Ruby Dee.

To end on a contemporary note, the stories in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck take place in Nigeria and American as they explore the ties that bind men and women, parents and children, Africa and the United States.

Example Syllabus
African-American Writers: Spelman College
The Art & Science of Storytelling: University of Nevada – Reno
Reading “Black Love”: University of Southern California