Hurston and John the Apostle

In Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Characteristics of Negro Expression,” she discusses culture heroes, including figures in Christianity, such as God, the Devil, and Peter the Apostle. Although she does mention the name “John,” it is in reference to John Henry, who (as far as I know) is not related to John the Apostle, which surprised me because of how often the name John is used in the “lies” that Hurston documents in Mules and Men. One example of this is in a story starting on page 80 of Mules and Men, in which a slave named John tells Ole Massa that he can tell fortunes and Ole Massa, claiming that John has never lied to him, makes a bet against somebody else about it. This is not the first story Hurston includes in which a slave master owns a slave named John who he trusts immensely, and this theme reminded me of John the Beloved Apostle, whom Jesus often favored and trusted. 

I also noticed a lot of trickery in the stories that the characters in Mules and Men tell each other, especially with slaves tricking Ole Massa. This makes me wonder about the Transatlantic nature of the stories that they tell–it makes me question if the trickery in the stories stems from the uncertainty and instability that comes with life in slavery, as well as tenuous relationships with other groups like the Irish, who ultimately sided against Black Americans after a period of struggling alongside each other. The fact that “John” is a continual figure is further evidence of the way that Black Americans weaved Christianity into their culture, and the Beloved Apostle himself might represent a desire to be seen as a loyal slave to escape mistreatment. However, John’s mischief in the story, specifically the way that he lied about being able to tell fortunes and used a match to represent calling down lighting, presents an underlying message that it is tricking the white man, in this case Ole Massa, that is the ultimate goal. In this way, slaves and freed Black Americans ironically use Christianity against their oppressors who imposed the religion upon them in the first place.