Zora Neale Hurston’s collection Every Tongue Got to Confess is advertised as over 500 “Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States.” In the late 1920s, Hurston traveled to states like Florida and Georgia to speak with people in a variety of occupations: sawmill hand, domestic, midwife, phosphate miner, school girl/boy. Others are deemed “mayor of town,” “bum and roustabout,” “bootlegger and jailbird,” and “housewife, when out of jail.” The folk tales are broken into the common categories: God, the Devil, talking animals, John and his Master, mistaken identity, school tales, etc. Again, Hurston has donned her anthropologist hat instead of her fiction writer hat. The title comes from one short folk tale:
De preacher was up preaching and he said: “Every tongue got to confess; everybody got to stand in judgment for thyself; every tub got to stand on its own bottom.” One little [tiny] woman in de amen corner said: “Lordy, make my bottom wider.”
What makes Every Tongue Got to Confess different from Hurston’s other folk tale collections, such as Mules and Men, is that Hurston is completely absent. Readers wouldn’t even know she wrote the stories down if her name weren’t on the cover. In some schools of anthropology, the anthropologist should be absent and only observe, which I also discussed in my Mules and Men review. Also different, the folks Hurston spoke with are credited in an appendix (age, occupation, marital status, where they’re from). Many are listed as “illiterate” or “barely literate.” In such communities, oral story telling replaces written stories — and everyone has dozens of oral stories to share! There is a wealth of knowledge, and Hurston knew it when she proposed to her thesis director that she head to the Gulf states and get these stories.
Further removing herself, Hurston appears to leave the stories unedited, capturing a truer version of her subject. Then again, I had to skim a few of the folk tales — just the ones that wander and don’t seem to have a lesson or joke, which a well-crafted folk tale will have. I’m sure Carla Kaplan, who edited and wrote the introduction to the folk tales, or John Edgar Wideman, who wrote the forward, could confirm how much the stories have been changed, but one flaw with re-published Hurston works is overabundance of voices, making the “extra information” tedious — and sometimes full of spoilers. I skipped all superfluous additions to Every Tongue Got to Confess.
One of the best types of stories Hurston captures that doesn’t need any editing are the “Tall Tales.” Each is super short — for example:
I know a man was so hungry that he salted and peppered himself and swallowed himself and left nothing but his shadow.
And often they are funny:
What is the hardest wind you ever seen? I seen wind so hard till it blowed a man’s nose off his face and onto the back of his neck and every time he sneeze, blow his hat off.
Overall, though, Every Tongue Got to Confess would serves best as an academic text for individuals studying folk tales of the 1920s, which is part of why it took me so long to finish this Hurston work. It can be easy to put down. Or it surprises you — it’s a mixed bag. Mules and Men has similar but better written folk tales, which just suggests that Hurston edited those and added her own “flavor.” Her ethics as an anthropologist were always in question.