Do you believe in Zombies? Having studied Voodoo in Jamaica and Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston’s book Tell My Horse (1938) claims that the undead really do exist and she has seen proof with her own eyes!
As a member of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was interested in recovering authentic black feminine power. But she did not look for it in the guise of the New Woman, she wanted to reconnect with the wily, wild conjure woman from the African Ur-cultures, the pagan witches of antiquity.
Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica is divided into three parts. The first two are a little disorganized as she describes the history and politics of Jamaica and Haiti. Legend has it that while Hurston was doing “under cover” research in Jamaica, the natives found out she was going to publish their secrets and she had to flee the island in fear of her life.
The third section about Voodoo is both disturbing and compelling. Hurston respectfully introduces this practice as “a religion of creation and life,” but then describes at length the “people who have been called back from the dead,” in particular “this case of Felicia Felix-Mentor . . . So I know there are Zombies in Haiti.” But these are not the flesh-eating TV characters that appear in The Walking Dead. Haitian Zombies are generally called back for one of three reasons: to work as free manual labor toiling in the fields; as the revenge of an enemy who wants to deny them eternal rest and peace; or as a sacrifice to another spirit. It is the Haitian version of giving-a-soul-to-the-devil.
The dead person’s spirit is stolen by the Bocor who turns the body into a mindless slave. Bocors are the “bad witches” of Voodo, as opposed to the “good witch” leaders called the Houngan.
Tell My Horse is a strange and fascinating attempt to explain the West Indian Obeah practices. It is weird – and at times disgusting – and definitely an acquired taste. Scholars will find it useful, but I do not think its antiquated style holds much appeal for the general reader.
Fortunately, it is a very different book from Hurston’s other stellar work!