Alice Walker's 'Strong Horse Tea': Folk Cures for the Dispossessed

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Author: David C. Estes
Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
Date: 2007
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 97)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,747 words

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[(essay date 1993) In the following essay, Estes examines the politics of African American folk medicine portrayed in "Strong Horse Tea," focusing on the behavior and motives of the story's elderly healer.]

In championing the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker has called attention to her predecessor's exemplary respect for African American folk traditions. In Mules and Men (1935), Hurston documented a wide variety of customs, folk beliefs, and verbal lore, including tales, sermons, and folksongs. She grew up in Florida, as a part of the traditional culture which she later returned to observe as a university-trained anthropologist, and thus recognized, in the words of her literary biographer, that in these folkways "black people affirmed their humanity by creating an expressive communication system that fostered self-pride and taught techniques of transformation, adaptation, and survival" (Hemenway 1978:xx). Walker has said that after first reading Mules and Men in 1970, "I was soothed by her assurance that she was exposing not simply an adequate culture but a superior one" (1983:84). Because Hurston prized the traditions that upwardly mobile African Americans have typically denigrated, she communicated "racial health; a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and literature" (85). Walker turned to Mules and Men initially for authoritative historical information about hoodoo for a story she was writing, but she found the book to be much richer than she expected. Hurston's vision of folk culture and sympathetic portrayal of it confirmed the beginning writer's own urge to represent in fiction the meaningfulness of the lives of rural southern blacks.

Trudier Harris has demonstrated that Walker uses folklore "for purposes of defining characters and illustrating relationships between them as well as for plot development," ways of incorporating folklore that are "especially evocative" of both Hurston and Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1977:3). All three have written about conjure women, giving careful attention to their traditional role and status in the community. Walker's "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff" differs only in the directness of the social commentary that emerges from the tale of how Tante Rosie uses her powers to punish racial oppression. Harris's analysis of two other stories from In Love and Trouble (1973) and also the novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) supports the observation that "Walker does not view the folk culture as something separate from life, but as an integral and useful part of one's existence" (7). In a more recent study of Walker's fiction up through The Color Purple (1982), Keith Byerman has noted her particular interest in the relationship between folk culture and women's sense of self-esteem: "The principal source of strength is the knowledge, gained through folk wisdom, that suffering seems the destiny of women and that survival is a valid revenge for the pain" (1985:104). Nevertheless, Byerman questions Walker's practice of linking her own political views with "an often fatalistic folk wisdom." He concludes that the two are contradictory because "the folk worldview implicitly assumes that...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420075845