Discussing “High John De Conquer”

Published in 1943

A gift to a nation that was facing fears of the Second World War

Hurston tells us how High John De Conquer was this ever-present entity that got black people through the horrors of slavery and is always present when we need help to get through.

Hurston recounts how High John appeared in many forms depending on the need and who was present.

For example, how John appeared as Brer Rabbit and his tells when encountering “Old Massa and Old Miss,” so they were entertained but the stories held a meaning to the slaves that went beyond entertainment. The stories were our way of sharing and maintaining our philosophy and culture in a world where we were not allowed to read and write.

In this story you hear reframes of other works and phrased from Hurston. Like the phrase “Hitting a straight lick with a cooked stick” and a retelling of the story from Possum or Pig story.

High John De Conquer was that spirit, that thing our people brought from Africa that kept them alive and moving through the worst thing that could happen to a group of people. It was the thing that allowed us to live and love in a world designed to reduce us to unlovable people. High John was that force that kept us from giving up and kept us believing in a future outside of slavery even though many would never see it.

At one-point High John takes a group of Black people who are on their lunch break on a magical tour of hell, where John turns everything upside down, including turning down the heat. Then John takes the people to Heaven where the roads are tuned to the vocal parts of a choir, and everything is wonderful beyond imagination. Even when the Black people are shocked back to their world by the voices of “Old Massa and Old Miss,” they now have the memory of that magical adventure to pull on and keep them going. Hurston authored this story as a gift for the non-black Americans who were facing the fears of losing the World War and the risk of a change to their world. High John De Conquer was the gift given freely to the country. The gift of the history of Black people surviving the worst that evil could throw at them and keep their song and laughter. Hurston is letting the country know that they should open themselves to High John De Conquer and he will help them through this awful time like he helped Black people survive the middle passage, slavery, and Jim Crow.

More discussions of Hurston's short stories.