“Plough Up Some Literary”: Signifying on “Ole Massa” and White Authority through Oral Space in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men and Eudora Welty’s “Powerhouse”

Date of Award

Fall 12-13-2019

Document Type

Honors Project

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


English, Linguistics, and Communication

Department Chair or Program Director

Richards, Gary

First Advisor

Richards, Gary

Major or Concentration



This essay compares representative methods of black storytelling and signifying that overcome white authority in Hurston’s Mules and Men and Welty’s “Powerhouse.” Though many critics disagree with Mules and Men’s ambivalent structural frame, this essay defends Hurston’s subversive use of anthropological features and humanization of the storytellers as an act of authority over the white-dominated genre of anthropology she portrays. Likewise, the “Ole Massa” tales the workmen tell in Mules and Men signify on or subvert the legacy of slavery by depicting the slave-owner as a man easily and consistently fooled by John the slave. In using oral space, the black workmen achieve some sense of control unburdened by white narrative presence. Likewise, Hurston as narrator-author leaves these stories unburdened by needless exposition. Likewise, jazz musician Powerhouse in Welty’s “Powerhouse” similarly signifies on white authority by using jazz to improvise black oral space in the face of an audience that demands popularly white songs from him. Though compliant, Powerhouse opens a psychic link with his other musicians through music, telling and retelling stories apart from the audience. This exclusion provides linguistic agency that the workmen in Mules and Men similarly feel when portraying the slave-owner as foolish without the presence of their white foreman. Powerhouse and the workmen thus significantly overcome some of the plights of white authority through oral signification and use of folkloric storytelling.

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