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Women & Voodoo
August '08

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Rites as Role Playing in Zorah Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse
Shiela Ellen Pardee


          Tell My Horse, Zora Neale Hurston’s account of her anthropological fieldwork in Haiti has been the subject of controversy since before its publication. She first tried to publish it as a scholarly article, “Negro Tales from the Gulf States.” When it was finally accepted by a publisher, however, it was on the strength of her novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine; after accepting the novel, Lippincott agreed to publish her folklore volume as well. Lippincott had also published her earlier folklore volume Mules and Men, but had insisted on a “very readable” (Hoefel 186) work and the addition of an edited version of her 1931 Journal of American Folklore article on Voodoo (Rampersand xxiii). Writing at a time when folklore was both a highly-regarded academic discipline and a focus of popular curiosity, Hurston was able to achieve greater success by tapping into a market that was less academic at the same time that she strove to meet her own standards of scholarship as well as those of her scholarly mentors, Columbia anthropologists Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. Hurston’s emphasis on narrative and subjectivity in her fieldwork coincides with an increased commitment to fiction as a means for preserving Black culture. Rampersand observes that the “power she gained from seeing her life in coherence with the story-telling imagination of country blacks and with the world of conjure and black magic represented by voodoo was placed largely in a different service—self-empoweringly, to facilitate her emergence as a writer of fiction” (xxii). Tell My Horse sold poorly (Hemenway 248), while the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, written during the same time period, was more successful initially, and, after a period of obscurity, has become a literary classic.

          Among scholars today, Hurston is seen as ahead of her time in the way she puts forward her own subjectivity, insisting that collecting “must be done by individuals feeling the material as well as seeing it objectively. In order to feel and appreciate the nuances one must be of the group.” Since the publication of Writing Culture by Clifford and Marcus, anthropologists have been accustomed to acknowledge that a certain amount of narrative shaping inevitably occurs in their writing.  Sandra Dolby-Stahl and other contemporary Hurston scholars have shown that the literary quality of Hurston’s Tell My Horse, which was denigrated when it was published, would be more in line with some current anthropological practices.

          Hurston’s more subjective presentation of her fieldwork reveals her own role-playing as well, including attempts to use or conceal her own power as scholar/interpreter. Including the narrative of the fieldworker’s participation has been called an auto-ethnographic approach, the blending of autobiography with ethnography, and Hemenway and Moses (427) have applied this term to her approach. However, Hurston was usually scrupulous about maintaining the difference between her own voice and roles and the authentic voices of her subjects. In a letter to Boas regarding an assignment on Negro music, she assured him of her care to provide verbatim transcriptions to avoid letting herself “creep in unconsciously” (qtd. in Hoefel 185).

          Hurston avoids one of the prominent trends of anthropological writing in the modernist era: the reduction of whole cultures to one dominant quality, the idea of a culture as “personality writ large” practiced most famously by one of her mentors, Ruth Benedict. The expectation for fieldwork publication was that thick description would be shaped and reduced to a theory which characterized each culture, and that the author’s process of induction and reduction would remain almost invisible in the background, giving the culture under examination a static, timeless quality. In the most notable works of anthropology published during Hurston’s era, the narrative is carefully shaped to emphasize the how each of the different rites or practices of the culture expressed its dominant characteristics. In the most famous example, Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict, three cultures were described in terms of their salient characteristics. The Zuñi were defined by restraint, the Kwakiutl by shame, and the Dobu by hostility. Benedict explicitly compared culture to character, explaining that: “A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action. Within each culture there come into being characteristic purposes not shared by other types of society. In obedience to these purposes, each people further and further consolidates its experience, and in proportion to the urgency of these drives the heterogeneous items of behavior take more and more congruous shape” (Patterns 46).

          Both Benedict and Boas recognized the limitations of this method.  Boas pointed out in his introduction to Patterns of Culture what Benedict herself acknowledged (223-29): that she focused on “extreme cases” and that “not every culture is characterized by a dominant character.” Yet he supports the idea of attempting to generalize broadly about the dominating “genius” or “configuration” that controls individual and group behavior in a given culture, adding that “it seems probable that the more intimate our knowledge of the cultural drives that actuate the behavior of the individual, the more we shall find that certain controls of emotion, certain ideals of conduct, prevail . . .” (xvii).

          Hurston’s work, on the other hand, gives the impression that her more intimate knowledge exposed more variation, not only in behavior, but also in ideals. The focus of Hurston’s narrative shaping was the individual story or event, including her own participation in it; the culture is represented dramatically. Even before venturing outside the United States, Hurston had been led by her anthropology and folklore studies to “see narrative and its performance, not formal theology, as the guiding principle of African-American religious life” (Cronin 2). Hurston’s fieldwork on Voodoo, according to a review by her contemporary C. G. Woodson, is “presented as mystery, weirdness, comedy and tragedy.” In Hurston’s work, Voodoo rites are described in terms of roles played by individuals in a dynamic culture, and cultural conflict, rather than cultural homogeneity, is stressed.

          Several varieties of conflict represented in Tell My Horse have been the focus of critical discussion. Citing work by Carby and Johnson, Leigh Ann Duck demonstrates how the work illustrates a conflict in folklore scholarship. “Because she insisted on the vitality of distinctly African American cultural forms while emphasizing also their flexibility and continuing alteration, Hurston has been both criticized for promulgating essentialist notions of race and celebrated for challenging them” (129). According to Ifeoma C. K. Nwankwo, Hurston’s Caribbean fieldwork publications enact one of Hurston’s internal struggles as well: the “tension between her desire to represent her (black) community and to find her own voice” (50). She also explores the tension between the scholarly and the religious in the text (64-65). Perhaps most prominent among discussions of the work, however, is the reflection of conflicts in Haitian society.

          In Patterns of Culture, Benedict speculated that the “intimate and understanding study of a genuinely disoriented culture would be of extraordinary interest” (226), and Hurston’s work may considered as such a sympathetic and deep study. Some writers have emphasized the contradictory nature of Haitian society with its divisive currents of Christianity, African religion, colonial conflict, and race consciousness. Hurston’s fieldwork certainly occurred at a time of increased disorientation for Haitian culture. An American occupation had recently ended, and a new law had just been written increasing the penalty for Voodoo practices but including an official loophole for “popular” dances, a move interpreted by some as a government “wink” at the inextricable traditions and practices of Voodoo in Haitian culture (Ramsey 11). Attitudes towards Voodoo at the time were schizophrenic, consisting of a two-faced adaptation of different roles for different situations, even by government officials. As Hurston put it: “voodoo has more enemies in public and more friends in private than anything else in Haiti” (Tell My Horse 92).

          Hurston’s dramatization of this conflict sets her work apart from representations of Voodoo by her contemporaries, especially the popular travelogue Voodoo Fire in Haiti by Austrian Richard A. Loederer. This widely-circulated 1935 publication, a Literary Guild offering in the U. S., was so lurid that it was described in disgust by one reviewer as “the extreme limit of this genre” (H. P. Davis, qtd. in Ramsey 11). His accounts of Voodoo “rituals” were so blatantly derivative that Haitian intellectual Jean Price-Mars derided them as representing a kind of “plagiarism . . . by writers who have not even had the opportunity to observe them” (Ramsey 11). Kate Ramsey argues that Loederer’s book and similar previous publications provoked sufficient anxiety about Haiti’s reputation to contribute to the Vincent government’s decision to double the minimum prison sentence for ceremonies, rites, dances, and meetings where animal sacrifices or other acts “liable to foster superstitious beliefs harmful to the good name of the country” were performed (11).

          Loederer focused on sensational dichotomies from the beginning chapter. He found two black doctors travelling on his ship, returning to Haiti to practice.  He was “astonished at their elegance and education,” but even more fascinated by the way their “primitive urge” to respond to music, “quivering ecstatically” when music was played (4). His first reported description of Voodoo was from an elderly English traveler, who called it “horrible” (10), a “curse” (12), “degrading” (15), and “demoniacal” (16). He insisted that ritual cannibalism was practiced, with its victims including children and American marines who had wandered off during their occupation of Haiti (17).

          The Haitian government’s attempts to clean up the image of Voodoo and repackage it as folklore (Ramsey) resulted in an official splitting off of anything unwholesome from association with Voodoo. Hurston uses a curiously divided account to illustrate the secrecy and official response to ritual sacrifice in “Sect Rouge,” her chapter on Haitian secret societies. She begins with a narrative of her own growing suspicions supported with generous portions of dialogue from those whose seemingly irrational fears alerted her and those who provided “official” explanations. Notably, the two are dramatized in a narrative of her encounter with a servant who tells her he fears his newborn baby will be stolen and eaten: “First they make him die, then they take him from the grave” (214). Hurston tells an “upper class” visiting Haitian the story, and he finds an excuse to confront the servant in secrecy, but is overheard by Hurston “calling Joseph every kind of a stupid miscreant” and “saying that since Joseph had been so foolish as to tell a foreigner, who might go off and say bad things about Haiti . . . he was going to see that the Garde d’Haiti gave him a good beating with a coco-macaque” (214). Later, the official attempt to insulate Voodoo from rumors of sacrificial practices was illustrated again in the form of a conversation with a “well-known” physician, who admits the practices exist but explains that the secret societies such as the Sect Rouge who eat human flesh have “nothing to do with Voodoo worship” (220). He adds, “And now, if you are friendly to Haiti as you say you are, you must speak the truth to the world. Many white writers who have passed a short time here have heard these things mentioned, and knowing nothing of the Voodoo religion except the Congo dances, they conclude that the two things are the same. That gives a wrong impression to the world and makes Haiti a subject for slander” (221).

          Following her curiosity takes Hurston in two different directions. The path of personal experience results in witnessing nothing more depraved than the sacrifice of a dog. Her companion on that occasion, a man who was knowledgeable about local voodoo explained: “They do not make a voodoo service at all. Mondongue [to whom the service was dedicated] is not a loa of voodoo. They do not always content themselves with a dog, I am afraid” (223).

          The other path is reading an account of the Mondongues sect. After quoting a paragraph by L. E. Moreau de St. Mery which is clearly historical, Hurston moves to free indirect discourse, relating an account of what seems to be a past meeting of the sect to procure sacrificial victims. The line is blurred between past and present and between what is observed and what is known through reading. In contrast to the greater part of the chapter, where the identities of the speakers were distinctly preserved, the identity of the speaker and the context of the story at the end are obscured. After clearly presenting a sense of mystery and conflict through dialogue, she gives the appearance of secret knowledge with a de-familiarized historical account. Hurston appears to lose her own voice very dramatically at the end of a chapter full of fear and threats, “where [t]here is swift punishment for the adept who talks” (230). Hurston has actively sought the role of adept since her study of Voodoo began in New Orleans, and she has studied with a variety of teachers. In this chapter, the dilemma of her dual roles is also enacted. Beginning with the vocalization of her own curiosity and continuing through the dramatization of her education, she ends by folding her own account of the Sect Rouge back into hazy history and myth.

          In addition to dramatizing her own multiple roles ranging from student to scholar, Hurston presents the rites of Voodoo itself as an enactment of roles individuals wish to play. Often, this involves using magic to usurp power denied to the individual by the reality of the status of Haitians in relation to the dominant white culture. Three kinds of role-playing often appear in her presentation: wish-fulfillment, appropriation of power, and revenge.

          The title of the volume refers to the “mounting” of a subject by the god Guedé, who “does and says the things that the peasants would like to do and say.”  Hurston calls him “hilarious” and “full of the stuff of burlesque,” a god both dramatic and divisive. Having observed that “Gods always behave like the people who make them” (232), she elaborates on the spirit that inspired this native Haitian (not African) deity. “The people who created Guedé needed a god of derision. They needed a spirit which could burlesque the society that crushed him, so Guedé eats roasted peanuts and parched corn like his devotees. He delights in an old coat and pants and a torn old hat. So dressed and fed, he bites with sarcasm and slashes with ridicule the class that despises him” (233). His form of possession is to “mount” a subject like a rider mounts a horse; presumably, anything said or done by the “horse” is Guedé’s doing, not the subject's. Guedé specializes in humbling and ridiculing the pompous, prominent, and well-heeled (234), and the temptation to Haiti’s poor of being able to do this with impunity is so transparently obvious that those “mounted” are tested with a face full of raw rum and hot pepper to determine the authenticity of their possession. Hurston emphasizes the dramatic and wish-fulfillment aspects of the tradition, concluding that “a great deal of the Guedé ‘mounts’ have something to say and lack the courage to say it except under the cover of Brave Guedé” (235). Even though Hurston demonstrates in this case that a ritual expresses a Haitian personality trait, she avoids essentialism by including a historical and sociological account of Guedé’s origins which illustrate that he belongs to a segment of Haitian society and does not represent the national character (236-37). She also includes a detail that reveals the involvement of the loa in intergroup conflict, relating the use of the “horse” to persecute a Lesbian in the community (235-36).

          Some divisions in the community that are reflected in Voodoo practices may be expressions of slavery-era anxieties; for example, the “Ba Moun” (give man) ceremony in which individuals give friends or family members over to an evil loa in exchange for power. Those given over die quickly thereafter from a cause that appears natural. Their souls are stolen during the process and are used to bring them back from the dead to work as laborers. The desire for more power causes the ordinary person to give over one loved one after another until only his own soul remains to be collected. The relation between the forced exploitation of the dead zombies and living slaves seems obvious, and it is made more explicit by Hurston’s use of the hypothetical case of a plantation owner seeking Zombie laborers from a Bocor, an evil practitioner who conducts the “Ba Moun” ceremony and steals the soul of the given individual (192). Not only does this desire for power corrupt the individual seeking it, the practice of Voodoo for this evil purpose brings about a transformation in the houngan, or Voodoo practitioner, as well. Hurston points out that “it is not always easy to tell just who is a houngan and who is a bocor. Often the two offices occupy the same man at different times.” Hurston demonstrates that good and evil, victim and victimizer are primarily situational and interchangeable in this related set of rites and beliefs.

          A third dominant source of role-playing portrayed in Hurston’s work is the use of Voodoo to equalize power and bring about justice through revenge, but to describe the purest act of poetic justice requires Hurston to transform sociological reality and proscribed roles into a performance of magical retaliation. In her chapter “Women in the Caribbean,” Hurston deplores the inferior role of women in Haiti which “is further complicated by class and color ratings.” After comparing women to donkeys because of the way men use them as beasts of burden, she gives examples of used and abandoned women. A prominent example from Jamaica involves “a pretty girl but definitely brown” who is seduced by a mulatto who has no intentions of marrying her. Eventually he manages to lure her into his car and rapes her on the night before he is to be married to someone of higher social standing and lighter color. After brutally using her and disabusing her of his intentions, he not only goes through with his own marriage, but also later prevents the woman he raped from marrying by telling her fiancé that she was not a virgin. Although Voodoo revenge rites are described in other situations in Tell My Horse, no vengeance is exacted and no justice is found in this account. The victimized woman is described as “still around Kingston drinking too much and generally being careless of herself” (79).

          However, justice is found in a similar situation in Hurston’s short story “Black Death,” which remained unpublished until 1995. Although set in Eatonville, the story features the practice of Voodoo by a “Negro hoodoo man” who “can kill any person indicated and paid for without ever leaving his house or even seeing his victim” (202). He has used his power for good and ill, played different roles, including selling his soul to the devil. “Life and death are in his hands—he sometimes kills” (203).When approached by the mother of an innocent woman who had been seduced and then had her reputation trashed by a married man, he let the mother have the satisfaction of playing the avenger’s role: “How do yuh wants kill ‘im? By water, by sharp edge, or a bullet?” After she chooses the bullet, the hoodoo man provides the magic mirror which enables her to aim at the perfect moment. As he was making love to a chamber-maid and telling her about “the Conquest of Docia, how she loved him, pursued him, knelt down and kissed his feet, begging him to marry her”—all false—“suddenly he stood up very straight, clasped his hand over his heart, grew rigid, and fell dead” from symptoms of heart failure and “what looked like a powder burn” over his heart.

          While Hurston was juggling the dual roles of houngan’s apprentice and scholarly observer, during the time that she was dramatizing roles played by ordinary people using the extraordinary methods of Voodoo, she found her own voice, her own sense of justice, and her own sure magic in fiction.

Ah Bo Bo!


Works Cited

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. 1934. Boston: Houghton Miflin, 1961.

- - - . “Religion.”  Boas, Franz. General Anthropology. Washington, D. C.: D. C. Heath and Company, 1938: 627-65.

Boas, Franz. General Anthropology. Washington, D. C.: D. C. Heath and Company, 1938.

- - -. “Introduction.” Patterns of Culture. 1934. Boston: Houghton Miflin, 1961.

Clifford, James and George E. Marcus, eds. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: U California P, 1986.

Cronin, Gloria L. “Introduction: Going to the Far Horizon.” Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston. Gloria L. Cronin, ed. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.

Dolby-Stahl, Sandra. “Literary Objective: Hurston’s Use of Personal Narrative in Mules and Men.” Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston. Gloria L. Cronin, ed. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.

Duck, Leigh Anne."Rebirth of a Nation": Hurston in Haiti. Journal of American Folklore. 117.464 (Spring 2004):127-146.

Hemenway, Robert. 1977. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hoefel, Roseanne. “Different by Degree: Ella Cara Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, and Franz Boas Contend with Race and Ethnicity.” American Indian Quarterly. 25.2 (Spring 2001): 181-202.

Hurston, Zora Neale.  Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Ed. Carla Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

-   -  - .  “Black Death.” The Complete Stories. Harper Collins, 1995. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996 (202-08).

-     -   - . Tell My Horse. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1938.

Loederer, Richard A. Voodoo Fire in Haiti. Trans. Desmond Ivo Vesey.  New York: Literary Guild, 1935.

Meisenhelder, Susan. “Conflict and Resistance in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men. Journal of American Folklore. 109.433 (Summer, 1996): 267-288. Accessed Jstor, Kent Library, Cape Girardeau, MO, May 21, 2008.

Moses, Yolanda T. Review of Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics, Irma McClaurin, ed. Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 427-31.

Nwankwo, Ifeoma C. K. “Insider and Outsider, Black and American: Rethinking Zora Neale Hurston’s Caribbean Ethnography.” Radical History Review 87 (2003): 49-77. Project Muse. Kent Library, Southeast Missouri State University, July 5, 2008.

Rampersand, Arnold. “Foreward.” Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Ramsey, Kate. “Without One Ritual Note: Folklore Performance and the Haitian State, 1935-1946.” Radical History Review 84 (Fall 2002): 7-42.

Woodson, C. G. [Review of Tell My Horse]. Reprinted from Journal of Negro History 24.1 (January 1939):116-18 in Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria L. Cronin, ed. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.







Shiela Ellen Pardee graduated from the University of Delaware in 2000 and her current position is Instructor of English at Southeast Missouri State University. Her research interest is in literature and anthropology, and she shares a love of traveling with her husband.

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