On a warm Florida evening in 1927, Zora Neale Hurston sat beneath a large oak tree with local residents of Fort Pierce. They were engaged in a “lying contest”, swapping stories to entertain each other, and the clear champion was a man called Mack C. Ford. He told Zora a story which she later printed in two versions – one in her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression” in 1934’s Negro: An Anthology, and one with the full context in her landmark ethnographic work, Mules and Men (1935). Called “Why De Porpoise’s Tail is on Crossways”, the story starts with God, who after he “done made de world and everything”, hung the Sun up in the sky and told it to run around a long golden track. The length of time it took the Sun to run around the track would become the length of the day. But an eavesdropping porpoise had other ideas…
De Sun went zoomin’ on cross de elements. Now, de porpoise was hanging round there and heard God what he tole de Sun, so he decided he’d take dat trip round de world hisself. He looked up and saw de Sun kytin’ along, so he lit out too, him and dat Sun! So de porpoise beat de Sun round de world by one hour and three minutes. So God said, “Aw naw, this aint gointer do! I didn’t mean for nothin’ to be faster than de Sun!” So God ran dat porpoise for three days before he run him down and caught him, and took his tail off and put it on crossways to slow him up. Still he’s de fastest thing in de water. And dat’s why de porpoise got his tail on crossways.
The version of the story recounted in Mules and Men is essentially the same, but with different wording. It ends, “He can’t beat de sun no mo’ but he’s de next fastest thing in de world”. It is one of many stories in the collection where God is shown to be easily outsmarted. Usually he is fooled by the Devil or the culture hero Jack, but in this case, it is a wily porpoise who can’t help but show off his incredible speed. Zora gave this story as an example of “Folklore and the Modern Culture Hero”, situating the mischievous porpoise within the wider tradition of African-American storytelling. She described how she had seen these porpoises “turning somersault and shootin’ up and down de Indian River like lightnin’ thru de trees”, indicating that the porpoise of the story is actually a bottlenose dolphin, several hundred of which live in the Indian River Lagoon. Today this population of dolphins is critically threatened by pollution and poor environmental regulation.
Having trained under Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, she chose Florida as the location for her ethnographic expedition because “Florida is a place that draws […] Negroes from every Southern state”. At times, Zora felt she was carrying the whole weight of African-American folk tradition on her shoulders, fighting to win wider recognition for the rich body of stories that shaped her childhood. She wrote that she was “weighed down by this thought that practically nothing had been done in Negro folklore when the greatest cultural wealth of the continent was disappearing without the world ever realizing that it had been”. Mules and Men was the first book on African-American folklore written by an African-American for a popular audience. Most of the book is written in the vernacular language of the people she interviewed, reflecting her mission to show that the “Negro farthest down” in society had just as much to contribute to America’s literary tradition as any white author who had come before.
The fact that the two versions she published have different wording shows that in transmitting the stories from the oral tradition to the written word, Zora endeavoured to maintain the mutable nature of the oral storytelling tradition. She too was participating in the tradition of the greatest storytellers, who never tell a story the same way twice. The two different versions of “Why De Porpoise’s Tail is on Crossways” demonstrate the very point Zora made in her essay: “Negro folklore is not a thing of the past. It is still in the making.”
You can read more about Zora Neale Hurston and Mules and Men here.