Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States

Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States

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Every Tongue Got to Confess is an extensive volume of African American folklore that Zora Neale Hurston collected on her travels through the Gulf States in the late 1920s.

The bittersweet and often hilarious tales — which range from longer narratives about God, the Devil, white folk, and mistaken identity to witty one-liners — reveal attitudes about faith, love, family, slavery, race, and community. Together, this collection of nearly 500 folktales weaves a vibrant tapestry that celebrates African American life in the rural South and represents a major part of Zora Neale Hurston's literary legacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060934545
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/01/2002
Series: Harper Perennial Series
Edition description: 1st Perennial Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 147,196
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Zora Neale Hurston was a novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist. An author of four novels (Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1934; Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937; Moses, Man of the Mountain, 1939; and Seraph on the Suwanee, 1948); two books of folklore (Mules and Men, 1935, and Tell My Horse, 1938); an autobiography (Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942); and over fifty short stories, essays, and plays. She attended Howard University, Barnard College and Columbia University, and was a graduate of Barnard College in 1927. She was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, and grew up in Eatonville, Florida. She died in Fort Pierce, in 1960.  In 1973, Alice Walker had a headstone placed at her gravesite with this epitaph: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”


Date of Birth:

January 7, 1891

Date of Death:

January 28, 1960

Place of Birth:

Eatonville, Florida

Place of Death:

Fort Pierce, Florida


B.A., Barnard College, 1928 (the school's first black graduate). Went on to study anthropology at Columbia University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Why God Made Adam Last

God wuz through makin' de Ian' an' de sea an' de birds an' de animals an' de fishes an' de trees befo' He made man. He wuz intendin' tuh make 'im all along, but He put it off tuh de last cause if He had uh made Adam fust an' let him see Him makin' all dese other things, when Eve wuz made Adam would of stood round braggin' tuh her. He would of said: "Eve, do you see dat ole stripe-ed tagger (tiger) over dere? Ah made. See dat ole narrow geraffe (giraffe) over dere? Ah made 'im too. See dat big ole tree over dere? Ah made dat jus' so you could set under it."

God knowed all dat, so He jus' waited till everything wuz finished before he made man, cause He knows man will lie and brag on hisself tuh uh woman. Man ain't found out yet how things wuz made -- he ain't meant tuh know.

--James Presley.

When God first put folks on earth there wasn't no difference between men and women. They was all alike. They did de same work and everything. De man got tired uh fussin 'bout who gointer do this and who gointer do that.

So he went up tuh God and ast him tuh give him power over de woman so dat he could rule her and stop all dat arguin'.

He ast Him tuh give him a lil mo' strength and he'd do de heavy work and let de woman jus' take orders from him whut to do. He tole Him he wouldn't mind doing de heavy [work] if he could jus' boss de job. So de Lawd done all he ast Him and he went on back home -- and right off he started tuh bossin' de womanuh-round.

So de woman didn't lak dat a-tall. So she went up tuh God and ast Him how come He give man all de power and didn't leave her none. So He tole her, "You never ast Me for none. I thought you was satisfied."

She says, "Well, I ain't, wid de man bossin' me round lak he took tuh doin' since you give him all de power. I wants half uh his power. Take it away and give it tuh me."

De Lawd shook His head. He tole her, "I never takes nothin' back after I done give it out. It's too bad since you don't like it, but you shoulda come up wid him, then I woulda 'vided it half and half."

De woman was so mad she left dere spittin' lak a cat. She went straight tuh de devil. He tole her: "I'll tell you whut to do. You go right back up tuh God and ast Him tuh give you dat bunch uh keys hangin' by de mantle shelf, den bring 'em here tuh me and I'll tell you whut to do wid 'em, and you kin have mo' power than man."

So she did and God give 'em tuh her thout uh word and she took 'em back tuh de devil. They was three keys on dat ring. So de devil tole her whut they was. One was de key to de bedroom and one was de key to de cradle and de other was de kitchen key. He tole her not tuh go home and start no fuss, jus' take de keys and lock up everything an' wait till de man come in -- and she could have her way. So she did. De man tried tuh ack stubborn at first. But he couldn't git no peace in de bed and nothin' tuh eat, an' he couldn't make no generations tuh follow him unless he use his power tuh suit de woman. It wasn't doin' him no good tuh have de power cause she wouldn't let 'im use it lak he wanted tuh. So he tried tuh dicker wid her. He said he'd give her half de power if she would let him keep de keys half de time.

De devil popped right up and tole her naw, jus' keep whut she got and let him keep whut he got. So de man went back up tuh God, but He tole him Jus' lak he done de woman.

So he ast God jus' tuh give him part de key tuh de cradle so's he could know and be sure who was de father of chillun, but God shook His head and tole him: "You have tuh ast de woman and take her word. She got de keys and I never take back whut I give out."

So de man come on back and done lak de woman tole him for de sake of peace in de bed. And thass how come women got de power over mens today.

--Old Man Drummond.

God done pretty good when He made man, but He could have made us a lot more convenient. For instance: we only got eyes in de front uh our heads -- we need some in de back, too, so nuthin' can't slip upon us. Nuther thing: it would be handy, too, ef we had one right on de end uv our dog finger (first finger). Den we could jest point dat eye any which way. Nuther thing: our mouths oughter be on top uv our heads 'stead uh right in front. Then, when I'm late tuh work I kin just throw my breakfast in my hat, an' put my hat on my head, an' eat my breakfast as I go on tuh work. Now, ain't dat reasonable, Miss? Besides, mouths ain't so pretty nohow.

--George Brown.

One day Christ wuz going along wid His disciples an' He tole 'em all tuh pick up uh rock an' bring it along. All of 'em got one, but Peter...

Every Tongue Got to Confess. Copyright © by Zora Hurston. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

A Note to the Readerxxxiii
Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States1
Appendix 1257
Appendix 2259
Appendix 3"Stories Kossula Told Me"265

Reading Group Guide


Storytelling is an essential element of many cultural traditions -- especially those that have had to carve their identities in an unfriendly setting and struggle to hold their communities together. The African-American storytelling tradition is one of the strongest, yet this astonishing collection of African-American folk tales has lingered in archival obscurity for decades -- until now.

In the late 1920s, with the support of Franz Boas of Columbia University, a circle of friends that included members of the Harlem Renaissance, and a wealthy patron named Charlotte Osgood Mason, Zora Neale Hurston set out to collect the folk tales of the rural south. Travelling from Florida to Alabama to Georgia and Louisiana, Hurston spoke with men and women, young and old, domestics and mine workers, housewives and jailbirds, collecting their tales word for word. She wanted to preserve a language that was unique, pure, and lasting. "I have tried to be as exact as possible. Keep to the exact dialect as closely as I could, having the story teller to tell it to me word for word as I write. This after it has been told to me off hand until I know it myself. But the writing down from the lips is to insure the correct dialect and wording so that I shall not let myself creep in unconsciously." (from the Introduction by Carla Kaplan, p. xxvii)

The result of Hurston's travels is this unique and extensive volume of nearly five hundred African-American folk tales grouped in categories ranging from God Tales to Devil Tales, from John and Massa Tales to Heaven Tales and School Tales. The stories poignantly capture the colorful, pain-filled, and sometimes magical worldthat surrounded them, revealing attitudes about faith, love, family, slavery, race, and community. Yet the tales are laced with humor from which no one is spared. In one story God is accused of mistaking a white man for a Negro; in another, a watermelon is so large that when it bursts it floods the river and drowns the townsfolk; and in yet another, the devil tries to make a field of cabbage like God has done, but he can't quite get it right and ends up with a field of tobacco.

Hurston's determination to capture the authentic language of "the Negro farthest down" (xxvi) is a vital contribution to African-American letters. These folktales were not just Zora Neale Hurston's first love; they paved the way for generations of African-American writers, preserving a language whose poetry thrives to this day.

Questions for Discussion

  • The oral tradition is extremely important -- in fact, for many cultures it is the only way of passing on traditions, beliefs, stories, etc. How has modern life infringed upon or altered this tradition? In the media age, does oral tradition have a place in literature?

  • Many contemporary African-American authors found inspiration in Zora Neale Hurston's work. In reading these folktales, are you able to recognize their influence? And if so, can you think of any particular authors whose style recalls Hurston's?

  • What does the oral tradition lose in the translation to the written word? Do you think that Hurston succeeds in being true to the stories and storytellers in her rendering of these tales? What sort of images do you conjure about the tellers themselves?

  • Do you agree with John Edgar Wideman that "translation destroys and displaces as much as it restores and renders available" (p. xvi)? Discuss how this premise manifests itself in this collection.

  • In the Foreword, John Edgar Wideman draws a connection between African-American oral tradition, jazz, and hip hop. Do you agree with him that Zora Neale Hurston began a trend the cultural impact of which even she could not foresee?

  • In a letter to Langston Hughes, Hurston writes, "I am leaving the story material almost untouched. I have only tampered with it where the storyteller was not clear. I know it is going to read different, but that is the glory of the thing, don't you think?" (xxviii) Discuss the balancing act Hurston had to negotiate between the free flowing storytelling tradition of the rural south and her more formal academic training.

  • In her introduction, Carla Kaplan suggests that if Hurston had published this volume of folktales during her lifetime it may have "derailed" her career as a novelist. Do you agree? How do you think it would have affected her career? How would it have affected our perception of African-American literature?

  • Do you feel that the exactness of the dialect in Hurston's transcriptions -- a dialect that can often be difficult to read -- contributes to the value of these folktales as a historical document? Discuss the pros and cons of reading the folktales in the dialect they were spoken.

  • The title of this collection -- Every Tongue Got to Confess -- came from one of the Folktales, but Hurston didn't choose it. Do you think it sums up the essence of the collection? If so, how? And if not, what are some of the other titles you would propose?

  • Discuss your favorite tales in this collection. What is it about these particular stories that you especially liked? About the Author: Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, the fifth child of John Hurston (farmer, carpenter, and Baptist preacher) and Lucy Ann Potts (school teacher). The author of numerous books, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jonah's Gourd Vine, Mules and Men, and Moses, Man of the Mountain, Hurston was a novelist, anthropologist, outspoken essayist, lecturer, and theatrical producer. Hurston's finest work of fiction appeared at a time when artistic and political statements--whether single sentences or book-length fictions--were peculiarly conflated. Many works of fiction were informed by purely political motives; political pronouncements frequently appeared in polished literary prose. And Hurston's own political statements, relating to racial issues or addressing national politics, did not ingratiate her with her black male contemporaries. The outcome of the controversy was bitter for Hurston, with Their Eyes Were Watching God going out of print after an initial burst of commercial success and remaining out of print for nearly thirty years. It was only through the determined efforts of Alice Walker, Robert Hemenway (Hurston's biographer), Toni Cade Bambara, and other writers and scholars in the 1970s that all of her books are now back in print and that she has taken her rightful place in the pantheon of American authors.

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    Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Good read if you grew up in the gulf region of the country or in parts of florida. Hard to follow if you have not read her books before or if you are not familiar with the local tongue.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Many of these stories really hit home. It reminded me of the many stories told by my grandparents and great grandparents (oh, how I miss them). If you have older relatives from the South, this book makes a GREAT conversation piece and it's a good prelude to telling and hearing their old stories.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I read this book as part of my book club. It was wonderful it brought back memories of my family. I can hear my praternal grandmother in her kitchen in Virginia talking. It reminds me of my maternal grandmother talking to my mother. And all the others southern black people I know. This book should be a staple in every school in America.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    this is a wonderful volume of folklore collected by a great american author. hurston studied anthropology at barnard and collected stories extensively in the american south and throughout central america as well. her own fiction was influenced by stories and tales just like these. one of the best discoveries in the book involves the tall tales, where readers can enjoy the old-fashioned equivalent of today's 'your mama's so fat' jokes -- from 'this man was so ugly...' to 'that pumpkin was so big.'
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Steps forward, claiming Gym 6.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago