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Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States. (fiction reviews).

Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States by Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Carla Kaplan HarperCollins Publishers, December 2001, $25.00, ISBN 0-06-018893-6

In the foreword of the book Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States, the writer John Edgar Wideman urges the reader to "Imagine the situations in which these speech acts occur, the participants' multicolored voices and faces, the eloquence of nonverbal special effects employed to elaborate and transmit the text ... Forget for a while our learned habit of privileging the written over the oral...." This is wonderful advice as the reader embarks upon a literary journey where such guidance will prove a useful navigation tool.

At the heart of Every Tongue Got to Confess is acclaimed author, anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston's compilation of Negro folktales that are sure to touch upon a host of sensibilities. What began as Hurston's study of southern African American folklore in 1927 has emerged today as a volume of voices, imaginations, observations and insights that entertains as well as provokes. Editor Carla Kaplan presents the material close to the manuscript Hurston envisioned.

Although Hurston's book was never published in her lifetime, it is offered now, nearly 75 years later, for an audience of Hurston lovers, historians, writers and storytellers to enjoy.

As diverse as the southern farmyards and backyards where these stories were recorded, there are more than 600 folktales divided into chapters like God Tales, Devil Tales, John and Massa Tales, and Talking Animal tales. And while many of the stories are anecdotal and comical, a few even evocative of serious thought, it is easy to find them offensive and buffoonish. This later thought stems mainly from the fact that they are written in the vernacular, and the storyteller comes across as backwoods and illiterate. But the reader should take into consideration the context: the storyteller's life, their characters, and more notably, the time period. The stories then ring with a warm sense of familiarity and honesty.

One of the comforting things about this book is the fact that many of the stories deal with characters and themes that are as indelible and recognizable within the African American community today as they were in the 1920s: the not-so-saintly preacher, the shiftless worker, the scheming seductress, the cunning creatures of nature, the tug between God and the devil, and simply trying to get ahead in a complex world. Indeed, these are things folktales were made of and still are.

Some of the tales in this collection are rooted far down in their origins (dialect and thought) and their ideas are a bit hard to follow, and their endings are not particularly rewarding. (I prefer a folktale to have some hint of a treasurable moral I can carry like a keepsake.) However, for the reader who is content with even the smallest dose of a folktale, these stories will suffice.

It would be difficult to a find a favorite voice among the hundreds Hurston has collected here. Yet any reader is sure to enjoy fishing in this stream of black history. And as Every Tongue Got to Confess has rekindled my appreciation for and reinforced the importance of folktales, I am sure dat when and if I get up tuh heben, I'm gointa ast fo de folks who done tole deez tales.

Clarence V. Reynolds is a freelance writer in Baltimore and New York as well as a BIBR copyeditor and reviewer.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Reynolds, Clarence V.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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