An offspring of the first African American migration from the South to North and Northwest, the Harlem Renaissance spanned roughly twenty five years (1910-1935). With literature, art, and music as the primary vehicle, the epoch was characterized by racial pride and desire to “uplift” the race (Bean, 1991). Proof of humanity, the demand for equality, perseverance, belief in self and ability, teamwork – the corresponding counter-balance racist circumstances – permeated the ideological core of this movement/ era.
The Harlem Renaissance birthed many iconic African Americans figures with Zora Neale Hurston being among the cadre. Hurston’s literary repertoire comprised four novels, fifty plus short stories and plays as well essays with her 1935 short story “Mules and Men” and novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) as her magnum opus.
An ardent folklorist of African American culture, her studies in anthropology and ethnography exude her work. Hurston’s extensive travels throughout the American South and Caribbean furthered her folkloric scope/lens. So called unrefined speech patterns or dialect permeate her work.
Use of such idiomatic dialect as well as lack of political and even racial focus placed her at odds with Renaissance contemporaries and intelligentsia such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Hughes, etc. who felt it was stereo-typical and fueled racist fodder. The conflict was only indicative of the dualistic nature of the era in terms of depiction of the African American experience in the United States and the Diaspora.
A travelogue – whether in the form of documentary, film, literature, or journal – describes a journey. Chronicling her ethnographic journey in Haiti and Jamaica is Hurton’s 1938 travelogue Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica.
Opinion divided among literary critics and devotees, Tell My Horse is deemed her worst and most insignificant work or a fascinating guide and invaluable resource depicting Jamaican and Haitian culture, in particular the mysteries and horrors of voodoo. The fascination element is intensified because Hurston provides a vivid and authentic depiction in part due to not being a mere observer but rather a participant/initiate.
Irony intertwined with allegory and incoherency characterizes the underlining message/theme and aura of the work. In the first chapter, Hurston provides a list of thought provoking and witty proverbs in which the surface meaning has an encoded dormant meaning. For example, the proverb “Rockatone at ribber bottom no know sun hot” Hurston translates as “The person in easy circumstances cannot appreciate the sufferings of the poor (Hurston, 9).”
The proverbs and her interpretations have a duel purpose – they illustrate irony, humor, and most importantly the richness of the Jamaican philosophic culture and are Hurston’s self-reflexive commentary on her narrative. The title itself supports the narrative strategy in terms of the double voice nature. Tell My Horse (‘Parlay cheval ou’ in French) is a popular form of figurative speech in Haiti.
The Horse symbolizes the voice of powerless speaking without repercussion. “Under the whip and guidance of the spirit-rider, the ‘horse’ does and says many things that he or she would never have uttered unbidden…. That phrase ‘Parlay cheval ou’ [tell my horse] is in daily, hourly use in Haiti and no doubt it is used as a blind for self-expression (Mikell, 221).” The narrative style is indicative of a pervading and coexisting dichotomy – freedom and constraint, self expression and vulnerability, the powerful and the powerless.
Tragically Hurston died in obscurity and poverty. Much acclaim/focus on her work, however, has surfaced in the past thirty years. Capturing the pure simplicities of African American life and the Diaspora, Zora Neale Hurton’s literary contribution leaves an indelible mark on African American literature and the literary world as a whole.
Bean, Annemarie. A Sourcebook on African-American Performance: Plays, People, Movements. London: Routledge, 1999.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Tell My Horse. 1938. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Mikell, Gwendolyn. “When Horses Talk: Reflections on Zora Neale Hurston’s Haitian Anthropology.” Phylon 43.3 (1982): 218-30.
Wall, Cheryl A. The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford University Press, 2001.