Zora Neale Hurston Protected Black Stories
As a new collection of her short fiction reminds us, she gave honor to the mundaneness and magic of rural, Southern Black people
On May 12, 1925, Zora Neale Hurston sent anti-suffragist and author Annie Nathan Meyer some of her work, as requested. Eleven days earlier the two had met when Hurston was awarded prizes at Opportunity literary magazine’s contest, along with contemporaries Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. The note accompanying this parcel asserted an unjaded perspective from Hurston after such an illustrious night: “…the little praise I have received does not affect me unless it be to make me work furiously. Instead of a pillow to rest upon, it is a goad to prod me. I know that I can only get into the sunlight by work and only remain there by more work.”
Even after winning prizes in several categories. Even after attaining a scholarship to Barnard College (where Hurston would become the first Black graduate in 1928), with the aid of a new friendship with Meyer. Even with this level of budding notoriety and support from mentors like Alain Locke at the time, Hurston knew there were no guarantees. The Negro Renaissance was several years in and Jim Crow had been around even longer; both were at their height. The world Hurston knew as truth for the abundance of Black people, especially in the rural South, was not a fair depiction often written by White or Black people. And, just as important, Black life, and by extension Black history, needed to be preserved in earnest. There was work to do.
And work she did. Zora Neale Hurston’s career corroborates her prolific nature: She was a novelist, folklorist, dramatist, ethnographer, and cultural anthropologist. Most days all at once. To dismiss one aspect of Hurston’s work dismisses the totality of how her writing operates across genres. Thanks to benefactors and fellowships, relationships and a reputation that preceded her, Hurston’s overall catalogue grew to include all aspects of Black stories, from the biblical to the mythological to the contemporary to the age-old oral tradition. But how we think we know Hurston often encompasses a somewhat secular narrative that may not include the vast amount of material she produced in the early years of the Negro Renaissance.
In November 2019, I posed the following questions online: Were you introduced to Zora Neale Hurston through Their Eyes Were Watching God? If so, was it assigned to you in school? This had been the case for me, and as it turns out, of about 200 responses, the overwhelming answer was yes to both. Hurston’s second novel, published in 1937, is in high circulation because it’s on most syllabi/course curricula. Respondents were also brought to the attention of Their Eyes thanks to the Oprah Winfrey- and Quincy Jones-produced film adaptation from 2005. Others credited Alice Walker and Zadie Smith, who have written about Hurston deeply and lovingly.
In Walker’s widely attributed essay “Looking for Zora,” the loss of Hurston is central to a journey of resurrection. We’re introduced to Hurston through an orchestrated kind of tragedy: She died alone, her texts were not taught in her hometown, she had no tombstone, and the location of her final resting place was potentially overrun by snakes. (A more accurate attribution of Hurston’s last days can be found in Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.) Walker’s essay exposes how Black women who defied “the norms” of what they “should” be writing or doing have not always been granted their due. This 1973 sojourn ends with a tombstone marking Hurston as “a genius of the South.” The headstone also lists at least three of her titles: “novelist, folklorist, anthropologist.”
The world Hurston knew as truth for the abundance of Black people, especially in the rural South, was not a fair depiction often written by White or Black people.
“One of the descriptives I use for Hurston is ‘genius’ and I don’t take that lightly,” says retired University of South Florida professor Deborah Plant, who worked on Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” published by Amistad Books in 2018. The publication of Barracoon marks one of Hurston’s first full-length manuscripts that, at the time in the late 1920s, was not published because Hurston refused to compromise Cudjo Lewis’ (née Kossola’s) speech. Hurston was a novice at this kind of research, learning from Franz Boas as well as through her education at Howard University and Barnard College. Professor Plant mentions how Hurston’s on-the-scene learning with Kossola created a successful “participant-observer approach. She recognizes he’s bringing a history back, which is legendary in many ways.” The respect Hurston has for Kossola rejects the observer-subject dynamic he’d been dealing with from other journalists who took parts of his story and regurgitated them without context or reverence. Hurston embraced Kossola and the overall tradition of storytelling she’d been raised on. As an ethnographer, she self-corrects when he points out her rushed tactics and the two enjoy compatible silences when he’s unable to reflect on his many losses.
“It comes back to this genius,” Plant notes. “African American culture was the greatest cultural wealth on the continent. How did [Hurston] know that? And how did she know how to represent it? She saw it as having a wealth in and of itself, that it had intrinsic value.” From the very start Hurston not only mentions — she illustrates with precision — the value of Black life, culture, and society. One of her most prominent essays is “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” published in 1928. Here Hurston expounded a bit on her recognition of what it means to be “colored” and ultimately how she always embraced it. For her storytelling was always a crucial link to the longevity and vivacity of Blackness. The awe Plant touches on for Hurston coincides with the multi-hyphenate writer’s rearing, community, and, most notably, a perspective shaped at a young age. Hurston writes, “Up to my thirteenth year I lived in the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a colored town. The only white people I knew passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando.”
While it’s neither accurate nor inaccurate to call Hurston’s interactions and travels “studies” of Black people, it’s evident that her pursuit of an honest and true narrative always included immersion in the world she was about to scribe. Hurston is an anthropologist — one of the most notable ones to have her writing distributed as widely as it is, even if it happens to be categorized as fiction. “Hurston could go further, not only because she was trained in the way she was in collecting data but because she had this respect for Black people as human beings,” Plant says. The years encompassing her studies at Howard and later Barnard coincided with the publication of her short stories as well as the Opportunity awards banquet that brought her further into the Negro Renaissance spotlight. From the 1920s on, Hurston’s participant-observer approach with Kossola led to initiations in voodoo practices in Louisiana. Hurston, as she writes in Dust Tracks on a Road, once escaped a knife fight by jumping into her car and riding off as townspeople threw fists. Her early years were filled with writing, and collecting, and absorption. There were hardships and dangers in this along with years of working with little financial security. Her persistence in capturing this level of accuracy and respect is enigmatic of how her work stood out then and continues to through language, interactions, cultural signifiers. In discussions of the narrative gaze we have to consider how, even during the Negro Renaissance, this gaze could revolve squarely around White supremacy impeding Black livelihood.
It’s evident that Hurston’s pursuit of an honest and true narrative always included immersion in the world she was about to scribe.
I asked Dr. Julie E. Hudson, associate professor at Huston-Tillotson University, if she thought the anthropologist/ethnographer that Hurston was could be extracted from who she is as a creative writer. She agreed it couldn’t and shouldn’t. These aspects of Hurston go hand-in-hand from her academic study to her continuous field research. Not only is this where Hurston differed, it’s how her early work made her a staple in her own right. Dr. Hudson says Hurston “wanted to write about and privilege the communities of the rural south and their ways of speaking and describing their cultural and social mores.” Hurston does this explicitly so that “the reading public knows that African American communities were more than what was represented by the Black northern intelligentsia, which had its own political, social, and economic agenda.”
Hurston’s perspective, one imbued with the awareness of a cultural anthropologist as well as the inherent ability of a raconteur, put her at odds with those whose work framed the issues of Jim Crow, White supremacy/benefits of Whiteness, and other institutional forms of unrest at the forefront of Black society. From Hurston’s short stories, White people are an irrelevant factor within the regions she recreates. In all but one story from the new collection of her short fiction, Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick, which was published this month by Amistad Books, do they even appear.
There is never any shame in the work Hurston transcribes and describes in her stories. The townspeople we’re introduced to, be it in Eatonville or Harlem, are those who may act objectionably, depending on the perspective. Yet they all have clear goals of wanting to live a life to the fullest extent of their own happiness, no matter the cost. And perhaps, as Dr. Hudson mentions, this comes at odds with a more sanitized version of Blackness that was in limited view. “Her representation of their language represented her respect for their language, but on the other hand, to the intelligentsia, it represented something that they were getting away from.”
If you were to read Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, or Angelina Weld Grimké’s work, the scope is very Northern, somewhat posh (or at least a posh life is sought after), and in many ways centering the ways Whiteness (most often directly) points at the ways Blackness could be “better” or at least more comfortable if only racism weren’t in existence. These stories carry their own weight and perspective, one in which readers do not always get a break from the hazards of the White-Black dynamic at the time. They are equally important to the essence of Black life, especially in the Northern states and New York City, but we are not always the focus even when Black people dominate the page. To read Hurston, in addition to these women, the contrast is not only remarkable — in some ways it’s refreshing.
The bulk of Hurston’s short fiction was published through the 1920s and early ’30s. Many of these works appear in Hitting a Straight Lick, including eight unpublished ones along with notables such as “Sweat,” “Spunk” (a story that won Hurston second prize at the 1925 Opportunity dinner), and “The Gilded Six-Bits.” Emulating Hurston’s desire to preserve Black Southern, rural life, Amistad’s editorial director Tracy Sherrod emphasized the imprint’s investment in making Hurston’s work accessible. “Her stories reflect who we are because we’re so much. When I was reading these stories, I thought of Zora when she was writing them. I feel her appreciation for Black people.”
In addition to Hitting a Straight Lick, Feminist Press reiussed the collection of Hurston’s fiction and nonfiction in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing… edited by Alice Walker. I Love Myself includes such essays as “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” and Walker’s “Looking for Zora.”
As others developed their voices, Hurston strengthened hers. Even when her political leanings of a more conservative nature — consider her thoughts on integration — does not dispel the person who recorded Black history due to her pure love for others, and she did so without filters. The work she compiled continues to grow as though she were reproducing in real time rather than the annals of history seeking to continue the preservation she initiated 100 years ago. In her recollection of Eatonville as a child in “Colored Me,” Hurston speaks to how she belongs to her people. “The colored people gave no dimes. They deplored any joyful tendencies in me, but I was their Zora nevertheless. I belonged to them, to the nearby hotels, to the county — everybody’s Zora.”