Zora Neale Hurston's Complicated Relationship to Black Race Pride

Historians in the News
tags: African American history, Southern history, anthropology, Zora Neale Hurston

"You are my idea of the world’s worst secretary,” the white woman once told the Black woman. But today she was saying, “Come on, Zora, with your car and let’s you and I go on a trip.” So Miss Fannie Hurst and Miss Zora Neale Hurston left the confines of Hurst’s West Sixty-seventh Street duplex and went driving. As Hurston writes, in an essay called “Fannie Hurst,” the two writers wound their way through Saratoga Springs and Ontario, stopping off at the Falls because Hurst begged it—“Zora, you must see this thing from the Canadian side.” Zora, loving a trip and, presumably, a paycheck, obliged. Hurst, as observed by Hurston, made immaturity a habit, “almost dancing up and down like a six-year-old putting something over on its elders.” But the trip showed Hurston another side, the artist “about to birth a book.” (The book, though Hurston doesn’t mention it, was likely “Imitation of Life.”) Hurst was “a blend of woman and author,” Hurston writes. “You can’t separate the two things in her case. Nature must have meant it to be that way.”

This deep-cut essay, originally published in the Saturday Review, is among the fifty pieces collected in “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” a new volume of Hurston’s writings, released last month. Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Genevieve West, it is the first book-length collection of Hurston’s short nonfiction. The story of Hurston’s recovery prefaces her archive like fable: the indelible image of Alice Walker combing through central Florida brush for an unmarked grave. That grave has read “Genius of the South” since 1973. The interim has seen Hurston recognized as a folklorist and ethnographer, a novelist and short-story writer. Her name has become synonymous with a certain strain of Afro-Americana, her most famous quotes invoked as maxims: “I am not tragically colored”; “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” With the new collection, its editors write, “Hurston takes her place as a major essayist of the twentieth century.” The essays also torque the impression that many readers still have of the mind behind “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

The volume contains certain well-known Hurston essays, among them “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” and “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” both of which are emblematic of the proud, bristling Southern woman with whom we’ve become familiar. I regularly teach “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” another piece in the collection, which provides a window into the studious side of Hurston for readers short on time. Yet reading any of those individual texts differs from knowing Hurston as an essayist, as a blend of Negro woman and writer who worked for her bread. The late, immense scholar Cheryl Wall, who had a hand in raising Hurston’s reputation, observed that, though the canon of African American literature is full of essayists, often “critics turn to their essays mainly for the light they shed on the authors’ better-known texts.” But the essay form, “digressive” in thought and full of persona, resists such instrumental use. Hurston wrote vigorously and often, and was, by scholarly accounts, the most prolific Black woman writer in America during the decades spanned in this collection. What emerges from the sum of these writings is a Hurston who cannot be easily construed as a champion of race pride, which she once called “a luxury I cannot afford.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker