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…