What a shame that this book had to wait so many years to find a publisher. But we finally have Cudjo Lewis story. In her beautiful foreword, Alice Walker writes that “I’m not sure there was ever a harder story to read than this…” I agree. The story is unique in many ways: Cudjo, whose real name was Kossola, tells a story that includes his life in Africa and his life during the “Middle Passage” voyage to the United States after the slave trade was banned. Most histories don’t include life in Africa or on the slave ship.
His story is dear because he wanted to tell it and because Hurston was a skilled anthropologist and knew how to collect stories. The story is dear because you can feel its truth in your bones; Hurston did not intrude herself or her perspectives into the narrative. And then, too, Curjo speaks in his own English dialect and that adds great depth and reality to the tale. We hear that Hurston couldn’t publish the book when she wrote it because the publishers wanted her to get rid of the dialect. I didn’t find it to be a problem even though a fair number of Amazon reader reviews say the dialect was hard to read. No, it wasn’t.
Cudjo has some traditional tales of his own to tell. These appear an appendix so that they won’t disrupt his story about being captured by blacks, placed in a barracoon (slave house), sold to whites, and then having to endure many days at sea before ending up at a plantation where he was expected to work. The experience seems incomprehensible to him. So, too, is the fact that once he’s set free, he has no money and no land, so where is he supposed to go?
Deborah G. Plant has done a fine job editing the material and writing an afterword and a glossary that place Cudjo’s story in perspective. Readers have a choice because the editor’s comments were placed in this separate section rather than being distributed throughout the narrative as lengthy and jarring footnotes. As such, you can read the story and then look at the added material–or simply read the story as a lover of Hurston’s works and/or oral history.
Cudjo’s story is filled with great loss, great wisdom, and–strange as it may seem–more humor than anger for a man torn away from the country of his birth and forced to live and work and endure a hard existence in a country where he was never whole again.
It’s a sad commentary on biased people that the majority of Zora Neale Hurston’s writings for President Roosevelt’s Federal Writing Project for Florida never made it into the Florida guide. Politics and racism kept a lot of her work out of the public eye for a long time even thought she was one of the state’s best collectors of folklore. She saw better than most, I think, the value of old stories as they relate to a place.
By now, her expunged FWP writings have surfaced in a variety of places. Fortunately, most of them–such as Kristin G. Congon’s Uncle Monday and Other Florida Tales–credit Hurston with collecting these folktales in 1938 (or earlier). I mention Uncle Monday in my novel Eulalie and Washerwoman.
Go Gator and Muddy the Water, while an old book that grew out of Pamela Bordelon’s doctoral dissertation has been around for almost twenty years, it includes Hurston’s stories along with some meaningful commentary. It remains an excellent resource, and Bordelon’s essay offers helpful perspective.
Most readers remember Hurston as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and/or her posthumous novel Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo released in May. Both novels are masterpieces, I think. However, her range and her contribution to our understanding of our past is larger than these novels and can be found in her work as a collector of folklore.
I have found great inspiration and enjoyment from her stories.
I like history and folklore and frequently mention them in my books as part of what makes up the place where my story is set. Since history and folklore are tied to real people and what those people believe, the interesting tidbits we use need to be treated with respect.
I’m currently reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, a folkloric study of Jamaica and Haiti based on her trip there in the 1930s. Early on, she talks to a man whom she refers to as Brother Levi. What Brother Levi has to say about the meaning of the word “Christmas”might sound sacrilegious to some people. That’s fine, because if an author were to mention this story in a book, s/he would be doing so not as gospel or a religious tract, but to establish a strong ambiance for the location.
The writer doesn’t necessarily paraphrase a story like this. S/he has a character mention it or mention the days when Brother Levi was a strong influence on local culture and beliefs, or perhaps includes it in a narrative overview of the country’s beliefs that newcomers are unaware of and might come across over time.
Brother Levi: “We hold a candle march after Joseph. Joseph came from the cave where Christ was born in the manger with a candle. He was walking before Mary and her baby. You know Christ was not born in the manger. Mary and Joseph were too afraid for that. He was born in a cave and He never came out until He was six months old. The three wise men see the star but they can’t find him because He is hid in the cave. When they can’t find him after six months, they make a magic ceremony and the angel come tell Joseph the men wanted to see him. That day was called ‘Christ must day’ because it means ‘Christ must find today,’ so we have Christ-mas day, but the majority of people are ignorant. They think him born that day.”
I have no plans to write about Voodoo in Jamaica. But if I were setting a novel there, I would find this snippet a delightful way of setting the stage, of showing an alternative point of view. I love reading folklore for what it is, but I take note of things that might one day become part of the depth of place I’m always trying to establish when I write.
What do you do when it’s time to downsize your personal library? I suppose you can sell some of the books on eBay or Amazon, but most buyers at these outlets won’t pay more than a few pennies over shipping costs. That’s certainly not the fate most of us want for the older editions of niche books and classics.
A Facebook friend of mine used her intuition plus a healthy dose of reality based on the subjects I’ve discussed on my blogs about the research I’d been doing for two folk magic novels. She sent me a message telling me she was thinning out her library and thought she had a book that needed to be in mine. Would I take it in. It was an adoption, I thought even though I’d have to wait and see what it was.
Of course, when it comes to adopting pets, we seldom say we’ll adopt a pet without knowing what it is; nobody wants to be contemplating a regal cat or a playful puppy and have a tiger snake or an alligator show up. But, knowing S___, I didn’t think I’d end up with anything like those living books in the Harry Potter series that have teeth and are always angry when the wrong person tries to read them.
Her intuition was spot on. She sent me the 1938 original edition of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, an anthropological study of Voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica blurbed by Carl Sandburg, no less, with words like “bold,” “beautiful,” “priceless,” and “unforgettable.” The New York Times said of it, “Strikingly dramatic, yet simple and unrestrained…an unusual and intensely interesting book richly packed with strange information.”
I’ve read a lot of Hurston’s work from her novel Their Eyes We Watching God to her news coverage of the unfairly conducted 1952 Florida murder trial of Ruby McCollum to stories and books like Mules and Men collected while she was gathering hoodoo and other Florida folklore for the Works Progress Administration’s (1935-1943) Federal Writers Project. But Tell My Horse wasn’t in my library until yesterday afternoon at 4 p.m. when the mail arrived.
I know little about Voodoo (a religion), having mostly researched hoodoo (folk magic) except when I’ve stumbled across accounts out of New Orleans about notables such as Marie Laveau. So, I will enjoy reading this study about a related subject from one of my favorite authors; I’ll treasure the book and my highly intuitive Facebook friend who gifted it to me. I don’t know how long she had the book. When I told her Tell My Horse arrived, she said, “I knew you’d give it a good home. It languished with a friend of mine who was an antiquarian bookseller, until I found it in a dusty corner. I came to her through the experimental film of Maya Daren who was allowed to film and participate in voodoo rituals as Hurston did in her medium. It is a great relief to find her a place to thrive.”
S___, the book won’t languish in a dusty corner and, if you happen to stumble across this blog, I love you for your spirit of adventure, your kindness and your wonderful gift.
Now I know a good way to send my old books off into the world before they take over the house (my wife says they already have). Like Tell My Horse, many of my books are older than I am and will need loving homes rather than moldy basements and dusty attics.
One of my favorite stories out of the Federal Writers Florida Folklore project, is the one about Uncle Monday collected by the author Zora Neale Hurston in the 1930s. Among other places, it appears in “Uncle Monday and Other Florida Tales” by Kristin G. Congdon.
Uncle Monday was a powerful conjure man who brought his magic from Africa. He was sold into slavery. When he escaped, he joined up with the Seminole Indians to fight against federal troops. He vowed that he would never be taken captive and enslaved again.
During a ceremony at Blue Sink Lake in central Florida held by Africans and Indians, Uncle Monday danced and transformed into an alligator and plunged into the lake with all the other alligators. He is said to live there even now and to change into a man again when it suits his fancy. At the end of the day, though, he returns to the lake and, as Congdon writes in her rendition, folks “feel more comfortable with Uncle Monday home in the waters with his reptile family.”
If you search on line, you’ll probably find a number of tales about the alligator man, one of which relates the story of one Judy Bronson of Maitland who claimed she was a more powerful conjure doctor than anyone else. One night when she was fishing at Blue Sink, she saw Uncle Monday walking across the water in a beam of light with an army of gators.
She tried to escape, but her legs wouldn’t function. Uncle Monday told her she would stay right there until she admitted that her magic wasn’t as powerful as his. This was the last thing she wanted to do, but she had no choice. When she confessed she could not do such magic, she was carried back to her house. Soon, she threw away her conjure bottles, candles and herbs and claimed that she fell ill on the shore of Blue Sink and that Uncle Monday cured her.
As Congdon writes, “Folks will try to tell Judy that she only suffered a stroke and fell in the lake, but she knows better.”
Since I’ve read more than one story about this man, I couldn’t resist mentioning him in my Florida folk magic novel Eulalie and Washerwoman, along with other legends such as the giant gator named Two-Toed Tom, the Swamp Booger, and the ghost from Bellamy Bridge near Marianna.
Zora Neale Hurston’s “tales from the turpentine camps, on the surface, could be seen as silly, promoting these stereotypes. A sweet potato floating through the air with a knife sticking out of it? Pure fantasy. But a closer reading shows a culture of resistance and resilience. In the camp workers’ wildest dreams, all they want is unlimited access to food, a basic need that often locked them into the camp through debt racked up at the company store, or one that they were sometimes flatly denied. Food was hope and optimism.” – Julie Botnick in “Zora Neale Hurston, Diddy-Dah-Widdy, and the WPA Federal Writers’ Project”
The legendary Florida town called Diddy-Wah-Diddy, collected–or perhaps, imagined–by Zora Neale Hurston in 1938, has been celebrated by numerous blues singers and included in anthologies and re-tellings by Mary E. Lyons and others for years.
In his New York Times review of The Food of a Younger Land, Jonathan Miles writes, “Couched between a selection of black Mississippi recipes transcribed in dialect (‘wrop cakes in a collard leaf, place on dese coals coverin wid some more hot so hot’) and the Christmas dinner menu at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Ky., is a stunning prose poem by Zora Neale Hurston about a mythical place in African-American folklore — a kind of barbecue version of Shangri-La — known as ‘Diddy Wah Diddy.'”
While the WPA Federal Writers project featuring the story was never completed, Hurston’s work lives on, describing her take on the many dreams of food and better times and magical places from Blacks enslaved in the turpentine camps, usually for minor or imaginary offenses.
Unfortunately, Lyons’ book appears to be out of print. Her website description sounds tempting: “During Virginia’s 2008-2009 Big Read for Little Readers, Mary E. Lyons rewrote these same stories for young people. Now children in grades 1-4 can travel with Zora to a magical land where nobody cooks, but the food is always ready. In Diddy Wah Diddy readers meet Chicken, Pie and Moon Man. They wander to Zar and stroll through Bella. They amble across Amen Avenue, then fly down to West Heck with High John.”
I came across the mythical town while researching Florida legends for my upcoming novel Eulalie and Washerwoman. I couldn’t resist including a reference to the place, a town nobody knows how to get to, but if they happened to find it, all that had to do was sit and wait and pretty soon the best food they could possibly want appeared, ready to eat, with knife, fork and spoon ready to go.
In her collection, Uncle Monday Monday and Other Florida Tales, Kriston G. Congdon’s version includes the line about a town “way off somewhere” that “Is reached by a road that curves so much that a mule pulling a wagon-load of feed can eat off the back of the wagon as he goes.” Congdon says that most people think the place exists.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “The Sun Singer,” and other magical novels. The soon-to-be released “Eulalie and Washerwoman” is a sequel to “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”
Like King Arthur of England, he has served his people. And, like King Arthur, he is not dead. He waits to return when his people shall call him again … High John de Conquer went back to Africa, but he left his power here, and placed his American dwelling in the root of a certain plant. Only possess that root, and he can be summoned at any time. Zora Neale Hurston in “High John De Conquer”
When an author plunges into background information and themes for his stories, as I did while writing my upcoming novella Conjure Woman’s Cat, it doesn’t take long to discover mythic characters. John the Conqueror is perhaps the king of conjure, looming larger than life through blues songs, stories, root doctor herbal books, and an oral tradition dating back prior to the Civil War.
Today, conjure women–and those requesting their services–know a lot about the “three Johns,” the herbs named after the mythic hero:
The much sought after High John root, Ipomoea jalapa, is thought to create sexual power.
Southern John, from the Wake Robin, Trillium grandiflorum, used in medicine under the name Birth Root to facilitate childbirth and reduce menstrual cramps, is used in folk magic to solve family problems and love issues.
Chewing John (AKA Court Case Root) is Galangal, Alpinia galangal, used in medicine to reduce stomach ache and in folk magic to help a client prevail in court.
Charles W. Chesnutt’s 1899 book The Conjure Woman taught mainstream audiences about conjure in a fashion similar to the way Alan Lomax’s books taught them about true country music. Chesnutt collected stories. Lomax collected folk songs.
Whether they trusted them or feared them, African Americans’ awareness of conjure women pre-dates slavery in America. Most White people knew little about the myths and practices of conjure before Chesnutt–and later, Harry Middleton Hyatt and Zora Neale Hurston–collected stories and put them into print.
Oral stories about John the Conqueror fed on themselves and on the hope such tales brought to slaves.
He was an African Prince
He was a slave
He played tricks on his masters and got away with it
Stories may have started with a real person
He was seen as a trickster like Coyote and Bre’r Rabbitt
Strange doings of unknown origin were attributed to him
The mythic prince/slave was seen as so powerful that, as Hyatt wrote in Folk-Lore from Adams County Illinois in 1835, “If you think that someone is trying to hoodoo you or do you some harm, and you meet them, walk backward six steps, spitting right and left, and saying, ‘John over John’–and, ‘John the conqueror’–and they can’t hurt you.” (The book is available in PDF.)
Hurston brought the myth into the modern day when she wrote, in a 1943 “American Mercury” article, “So the brother in black offers to these United States the source of courage that endures, and laughter. High John de Conquer. If the news from overseas reads bad, if the nation inside seems like it is stuck in the Tar Baby, listen hard, and you will hear High John de Conquer treading on his singing-drum. You will know then, that no matter how bad things look now, it will be worse for those who seek to oppress us…. White America, take a laugh from out of our black mouths, and win! We give you High John de Conquer.” The article is available in PDF.
Conjure subjects fed into blues music and blues music supported conjure. White Americans learned about conjure through songs sung by such well-known artists as Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and others. It should come as no surprise, then, that Dixon wrote a song called “My John the Conqueror Root.”
My pistol may snap, my mojo is frail But i rub my root, my luck will never fail When i rub my root, my John the Conquer root Aww, you know there ain’t nothin’ she can do, Lord, I rub my John the Conquer root
As an author, I think it’s important to keep the old stories alive, whether they’re about King Arthur, John the Conqueror or Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories. They’re part of our culture and our history. Today, I suppose, most of the John the Conqueror focus is on the three roots and the qualities they have in the lore of folk magic.
I’m a novelist and don’t purport to be an anthropologist, much less a collector of myths and folktales. When we write ethically, the research we discover while planning a story isn’t pasted into the work like background music in an elevator. It helps shape the story and make it real. I’ll leave the theories to others and focus on storytelling with as much tradition as I can discover–and that includes John the Conqueror.