Book Review: Tell My Horse
Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston is an interesting read first published by Lippincott back in 1938. For the most part, it is a detailed account of Hurston’s anthropological fieldwork in the two countries, Haiti and Jamaica, between 1936 and 1937. Tell My Horse comprises of three sections: the first is about the land of Jamaica; the second presents different personalities and politics of Haiti; while the third talks about voodoo and magic as practiced in Haiti. Interestingly, hers is a firsthand account of how voodoo is part and parcel of the cultures (Hurston 92). She shows all these with the help of illustrations, photos and drawings. The book also includes eerie recipes for different types of poison, song lyrics, and several political outlines.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, but the family later moved to Florida where she would spend a large part of her childhood. Remembered as the first ever black woman anthropologist, Hurston was an alumna of Barnard College as well as Columbia University. She wrote folklore, short stories and novels such as Mules & Men, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and not forgetting Tell My Horse. As a devoted anthropologist and folklorist, all of her works depict folklore, specifically from the mythical rural South. She was also a good singer, best known for her rendition of the song Crow Dance, which details the story about an African buzzard that often swoops down to eat its prey and then fly away. She died in 1960 at a place called Fort Pierce in Florida.
As mentioned above, part of Tell My Horse offers a historical review regarding certain huge events that transpired in the history of Jamaica and Haiti. Her stories on this appears like a fascinating portrait and travelogue of religious traditions, peasant cultures, and political conditions. The author describes the politics, life and religions of people in Haiti more than Jamaica. Nonetheless, the time she spent in Jamaica offers insight on issues to do with race relations. According to her, the mulatto and black divide was present in Jamaica just as it was present in Haiti. Hurston also describes Jamaica’s belief in the culture of duppies, Maroons’ traditions in Accompong, as well as the hunting and feasting of a giant boar the followed.
Besides the beliefs and traditions, the author also offers examples of race or color barrier between the mulattoes and blacks of Jamaica. The mulattoes are still black, however, they are an elite separate group because they wield political power, white contacts and access to knowledge. Just like Haiti and other parts of Caribbean Islands, the mulattoes have anti-black prejudice thus cannot intermarry with blacks from the lower classes. The hold on to power by the mulattoes has been going on for a long time.
The author also dedicates part of her book to talk about US imperialism in the land of Haiti. Apparently, the Haitian politics can be described as full of deception and lying techniques to substantiate the status quo. The way the author analyses this topic depicts the deeply rooted economic and political woes caused by mulatto elites and blacks, which set the stage for an American invasion. Indeed, such an invasion was deemed preferable to the status quo. Hurston speaks to one Haitian intellectual who goes ahead to lie regarding Haitian history and in the process overlook the main issues that led to the American invasion (Hurston 220-1). This covers approximately a third of the book, nonetheless, it is less fascinating that what comes next. The rest of the chapters include Hurston’s personal account of the experiences she underwent as a recruit to the voodoo faith.
According to Hurston, Haiti is a place full of zombie folklore. Any Haitian can tell a story or two regarding past or recent raisings of people from the dead. People take in these stories differently. The more affluent part of the society may pass off such stories as mere myth but the majority of the poor take voodoo and zombie folklore more seriously. They present this as real events that happen on the ground. The author’s account of Voodoo acknowledge some of the bizarre and supernatural events and ritual that are linked to voodoo, zombies for instance. The author goes to the extent of taking a picture of one Zombie discovered in a hospital (Hurston 195). To this extend, the author is nonskeptical regarding the power of the voodoo, she offers a chilling and unbiased account of these practices, rituals and beliefs because she was part of them.
She discusses some of these rituals, like the bokors’ practice, who turn their victims into zombies. The author offers details of how these people follow certain receipts to compose drugs, poison or remedies that are from Haitian secret societies, who specialize in the performance of evil rights to turn their victims into zombies or practice cannibalism. Hurston also discusses how to evoke the loas, as well as the music and dances associated with the loas. Some of the descriptions feature popular loas of the Rada and Petro Voodoo rites that originate from various parts of Africa (Hurston 42-3).
There are several terms from Conrad Kottak’s book Anthropology: Appreciating Human Diversity, which I found to be exemplified by specific examples in Hurston’s Tell My Horse. The first term, ritual refers to stylized, stereotyped and repetitive behaviors done in special and often sacred places at particular times (Kottak 194). Some of the rituals described by Hurston to help understand this term include those done by Mother Saul and Brother Levi in their Jamaican cults, for instance, chanting and singing. The second term, magic refers to supernatural techniques meant to attain specific objectives (Kottak 193). Hurston gives details of how Haitian secret societies follow certain receipts to compose drugs, poison or remedies that are part of magic to turn their victims into zombies or practice cannibalism.
The third term, animism is the belief in spiritual beings (Kottak 191). This term is expounded by some of the beliefs mentioned by Hurston, for instance the loas and their association with the zombies. These people belief in the fact that the dead can rise up from their graves. The fourth term, stratification refers to the creation of different social strata in terms of access to prestige, wealth and power (Kottak 131). This term makes sense especially from the Hurston’s example of the racial divide between the mulattoes and blacks in Jamaica. The mulattoes are an elite separate group who wield political power, white contacts and access to knowledge. They look down on the poor blacks and cannot even intermarry. The last term, ethnocentrism is defined as viewing one’s culture as higher to others (Kottak 137). The same example of the mulattoes expounds on this term. The mulattoes see their own as superior to the black Jamaicans and thus cannot mingle with them.
To conclude, Hurston’s Tell My Horse offers a thrilling account of the Voodoo practice in Haiti. She describes the origins of Voodoo, its practices and theology behind it, thus dispelling the myths that characterize voodoo as superstition. The way Hurston described the flaws of Jamaican and Haitian societies with regards to gender and race is also essential towards understanding the present economic and political conditions of the Caribbean islands. Indeed, the real experiences of the author and the pictures to support offer a significant look into some of the world’s most dismissed religious belief and political systems.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. Philadelphia : Lippincott, 1938. Print.
Kottak, Conrad. Anthropology: Appreciating Human Diversity. McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.