Academic journal article Western Folklore

Roger Runs Amok: The Mule and the Folk

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Roger Runs Amok: The Mule and the Folk

Article excerpt

Within the thickly populated scholarship of Roger D. Abrahams, no animal lifts its head more frequently than the mule. Or so I thought when I first conceived of this essay. Having now reviewed an Abrahams bestiary that ranges from the armadillo to the tortoise, I am not so sure. Still, in the middle of the alphabet and in the middle of the fray, the mule makes itself noticed.

As so often in my scholarly life, I was remembering a brief conversation with Roger that provided a representative anecdote for my own thinking about the world. By then we had had many conversations, and I'll recount this one later. From my earliest days as a graduate student, however, I was caught by Roger's rhetorical approach to folklore. Especially important to me has been his sense that people have to work with the expressive resources they've got. One essay in particular struck me: "Man as Animal: The Stereotype in Culture," published as a preprint by the Folklore Institute in 1976.

In this paper, Roger describes what he calls deep stereotyping. Denying the basic humanity of its object, deep stereotyping makes itself unanswerable by rational argument. Rather, if the target is to achieve any kind of recognition from the other, it must claim and transvalue the stereotype, even in resistance. The paper's exemplar for this kind of stereotyping is the well-known association in the American South between the mule and the African American. Both were bred for labor, domesticated by force, beaten for rebellion while continuing to rebel, and regarded as dangerous hybrids. This common history finds direct expression in language: consider the term mulatto for a person of mixed race and the considerable overlap between mule names and slave names in plantation property registers (Puckett 1973:171-72). The analogy is ubiquitous in African American tales, songs, and proverbs and remains a commonplace of African American literature, most famously in Zora Neale Hurston's 1935 Mules and Men, which explores the limited spaces of personhood for black people in the Jim Crow south.

My own field area, Catalonia, might seem culturally remote from the Atlantic plantations and their aftermath as studied by Roger. But mules are economically and symbolically central from the Pyrenees to the Ebro, just as they are from Missouri to Alabama; there is even a historical link between the mules of the two regions. In this paper I will rapidly trace some corporeal and discursive migrations of this useful but troublesome animal from the Mediterranean to the Mississippi and back again. Bom of human intervention but resisting domestication, the mule encapsulates all the paradoxes of what we call folk.

Let's start with the empirical animal: the offspring of a male jackass and a female horse. As Brian Stross reminds us, it is the exemplar of what zoologists call hybrid vigor: "large, hardy, vigorous, and strong, able to withstand hardships and working conditions too severe for other pack and draft animals" (Stross 1999:257).

Charles Darwin wrote of his experience traveling by mule troop through the Andean Cordillera, "The mule always appears to me a most surprising animal. That a hybrid should possess more reason, memory, obstinacy, social affection, powers of muscular endurance, and length of life, than either of its parents, seems to indicate that art has here outdone nature." (1989 [1839] 243). At the same time, like the donkey it is less docile than horses or oxen, and may suddenly refuse to cooperate or even run amok. Stubbornness and a propensity to kick are proverbial attributes of the animal wherever it is found.


Roger's Caribbean work identifies a dialectic between the house and the street, talking sweet and talking bad, the domesticated world of the family and the unruly one of men out on their own. The latter is encapsulated on the the island of St. Vincent by the Donkey Band that comes out for Carnival: "The group is ordered around one person dressed as a donkey and another who follows and beats him. …

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