Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Mules and Men and Messiahs: Continuity in Yoruba Divination Verses and African American Folktales

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Mules and Men and Messiahs: Continuity in Yoruba Divination Verses and African American Folktales

Article excerpt

Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men reveals that African Americans were able to revise, restructure, and reformulate African orature to fit their social, political, and spiritual needs. This study examines the transformation of Yoruba ese Ifá (Ifá divination verses) into folktales and analyzes the similarities and divergences in the content and characters of the orature. This essay highlights the subtle ways that African Americans politicized and revolutionized the ese Ifá to protect the verses' wisdom and facilitate their proliferation. The revised ese Ifá, disguised as innocuous folktales, were central to the formation of the African American worldview because they reminded dislocated Africans that divinity was not restricted to an invisible entity or controlled by a select few but was both an inheritance and an imperative essential for liberation and self-actualization.

zora neale hurston's Mules and Men is perhaps the richest testament to African cultural and spiritual continuity in America, and it offers fascinating examples of overt and covert Africana divinity in action. In fact, Mules and Men is a manual for making ways out of no way and can be considered a trickster's bible. Rich with humor, sarcasm, and life lessons in love, pain, and power, Mules and Men is as enigmatic, entertaining, and encoded as its author and architect, because as sure as Hurston was devoted to reflecting and protecting the full and unvarnished brilliance of African America, she also understood that bold truths can lead to destruction. Consequently, Hurston, like her forebears, shielded her text and its sub- and meta-texts with the downy mattresses and pillows of protection that she called "featherbed resistance" (Hurston [1935] 1990:2). Hurston was so adroit at protecting and resurrecting Africana divinity and divine methodologies in and through her art that, to many, she is a literal and literary Deity.

In many respects, Mules and Men could be considered Hurston's masterwork. It is a seamless melding of autobiography and biography, fact and fiction, and the individual and the communal. Indeed, when reading the book, it is difficult to determine where the "folks" end and the "tales"-those that are, in fact, fiction-begin. Mules and Men is also significant because it records the ways Africana people retained the wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of their ancestors and Gods. Not only were the Middle Passage and brutal racist oppression not capable of destroying African continuity in America, but the heinous subjugation and cruelty that the United States of America doled out to Africans resulted in a marvelous phenomenon: holistic African spiritual systems and ways of knowing and doing underwent a sociocultural revolution.

Many African American folktales are of African origin, and Harold Courlander, William Bascom, and Melville Herskovits, among others, have traced the antecedents in their work.1 Not merely fodder for academic studies, ancient and historical Africana orature is revivified in popular culture because of both its entertainment and educational value.2 Although they are often dismissed as hyperbole, jokingly called lies, and erroneously described as folktales, many oral texts are revisions of actual events. Most important to this disquisition, several of the folktales recorded in Mules and Men are actually deftrevisions of ese Ifá (Ifá divination verses). While there are other African as well as Native American and European sources for other examples of African American orature, the folktales from Mules and Men that I analyze below have clear antecedents in Yoruba ese Ifá. By examining the progenitor in relation to the progeny, we can perhaps better understand the power, continuity, production, and proliferation of Africana verbal arts. For although many dismissed them as cultural blank slates, the community members who shared their gifts of orature in Mules and Men were remembering3 to themselves-individually and communally-their inherent divinity while simultaneously shielding their cosmological and cultural foundations with broad smiles, loud laughter, and luxurious protective feather beds. …

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