Every Tongue Got to Confess by Zora Neale Hurston

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.

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27 comments

  1. You (Americans) have a wealth of material, between Huston and Woody Guthrie. Have you ever compared them? Do you think Huston was wrong, not to interpose herself (in this collection) between the story teller and the reader?

    • I think that if a work presents itself as a factual account, it should have the author delivering information and observations. Hurston is absent, but doesn’t add observations in this collection.What Hurston’s doing in Mules & Men seems to be collecting stories that make her happy and adding some fiction to make them better. She’s gone both ways.

  2. I’ve always loved those old stories, so I’m glad some of them have been collected here. Stories do tell a lot about a people, and it can be really helpful and informative to learn from them.

  3. I always tend to find with these collections of oral tales or witnessing that a little goes a long way. I recently read a collection of Russian women reminiscing about their experiences during WW2 and found that I was crying our for a tough editor to pull it into shape. Yes, that takes away from the anthropological aspect, but it makes for a more enjoyable read…

    • You know, I’m pretty sure I remember that review (or someone reviewed something similar). I agree that for entertainment it should be shorter, so I feel like this particular Hurston work is more for studying (perhaps for a paper in school) than enjoying yourself. After a while, it all starts to sound the same. The nuance would only matter if I were pulling the tales apart and analyzing them–which I wasn’t.

  4. Interesting review! This sounds like it might be too academic for my tastes, but I did enjoy Mules and Men, which did a nice job of stringing the stories together.

    • Yes! Hurston clearly had a hand in the story in Mules and Men. Which other Hurston works have you read? I think I own all of them now (I went to Eatonville, FL and got them at the Zora Neale Hurston museum), but I haven’t read them all. I’m trying to savor the goodness.

  5. What a wonderful find! This is such an important collection, I wish there were more of these. I think the Indigenous cultures of North America would benefit greatly from similar efforts!

    • Part of me wonders when was the last time I even met an anthropologist in real life. I know it’s a field of study, but have you ever met someone who introduced him/herself as one? Maybe we need more people in this social science field to capture endangered or little-known cultures.

  6. Great review! I need to read Zora Neale Hurston. I haven’t read anything by her yet, and I don’t think I’ll be starting with this one! Some of those stories sound interesting, but this sounds like a book where you can read a story (any of the stories, in order or out of order) and set it down for months and be able to get right back into it!

    • Yes, you are exactly right. Pretty much everyone starts with Their Eyes Were Watching God. Just a head’s up: Hurston writes in dialect, so if English is not your first language or you struggle with dialect, I would recommend listening to the audio book. It’s a beautiful audio book anyway, narrated by the late, great Ruby Dee.

      • Thanks for the advice to listen to the audio book! I keep meaning to try one, and you make a good point about the dialect. It sometimes takes me a bit to get into dialect, but once I’m into it it really brings such a nice rhythm and flow to a book.

        • Ami! Look at your new picture! You’re so lovely!! I do hope you try the Ruby Dee audio book. She’s famous for her role as Ruth in A Raisin in the Sun. It SOUNDS fine, but reading the words as they sound is hard.

          • Aw thanks 🙂 I changed what email my blog stuff goes to, and it removed my gravatar picture so I had to find a new one to use 🙂 You’ve given me so many great audio book recommendations. I really need to try one!

            • Especially if you’re someone who likes to move (walk the dog, walk around a lake, walk to a park–I dunno, I guess I just walk, lol), audiobooks are great. I even like them while washing dishes and riding for a long time in the car.

  7. This sounds really interesting, but not like something I’d want to read from cover to cover. It’s so great that these stories were collected, though. I like the short ones you included!

  8. Solid review. I really appreciate the critical eye you put to Hurston’s works in your reviews. It’s obvious you are passionate about her writing, and you take joy in it, but you recognize that not all books are for all readers. I’ll probably start with Mules and Men before heading to this– not that I want to miss those amazing sounding tall tales, however. How many tall tales are in there?! I could certainly read 500 three line stories. XD

    • Yeah, they’re all pretty short like the ones I included in the review, and there are 500 of them, so the book is about 250-300 pages long. The ones on Mules & Men are longer, but as I mentioned in my comment to Michael, it appears that Hurston had more of a hand in the stories in Mules & Men, as if she were editing or making them better. Some of the tales in Every Tongue don’t even make sense. I know in the bios in the back that many of the people she spoke to were uneducated and illiterate. In such communities, oral stories are especially important, but it’s clear some of them lose the thread if the tale is too long. Thanks for your kind words; you really captured what I was going for in this review. I WISH I had studied Zora’s works for a long paper in grad school, but that’s not the kind of program I was ever in.

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