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The new collection spans more than 35 years of Hurston’s essays, criticism, and articles.
It takes a great critic (or critics) to know one. In this exclusive excerpt from the introduction to Zora Neale Hurston’s You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Genevieve West give us a panoptic view of Hurston as a critic, essayist, and anthropologist whose nonfiction was always informed by the writerly flair and empathy that characterize her novels. In their own feat of scholarship, Gates and West center Hurston as the fulcrum of an authentic African American aesthetic as it emerged in the early 20th century. She tapped wellsprings of influence, from jazz to sermons to satire, gently pulling back the “Veil” that Black people hid behind, allowing her people to step forward and to speak for themselves.
Gates and West flesh out Hurston’s complexity and richness as a thinker, her vigorous engagement with such topics as race, education, and the push-pull of conventional gender roles as women moved confidently into careers. There are surprises: She had a conservative streak, for instance, and adamantly opposed Communism and even Brown v. Board of Education. But in her essays, Hurston is always curious and uncompromising, her greatest legacy the literary language she created and bequeathed not only to Toni Morrison and Alice Walker but to readers everywhere. Her ear captured chords and keys, major and minor, across the Black register. As Gates and West write, “She highlights the manner in which African Americans have fashioned, and continue to fashion, the English language in their own resplendent voices, investing in English new power, poetry, neologisms…and originality of expression, a thing in which to marvel and not to mock.”—Hamilton Cain, contributing editor at Oprah Daily
I’m going to sit right here on this porch chair and prophesy that these are the last days of the know-nothing writers on Negro subjects. Both editors and readers are clamoring for something that makes their side meat taste like ham, for to tell the truth, Negro reality is a hundred times more imaginative and entertaining than anything that has ever been hatched up over a typewriter. From now on, the writers must back their rubbish with something more substantial than the lay-figure of the past decade. Go hard or go home. Instead of coloring up coconut grease in the kitchen, go buy a cow and treat the public to some butter.
—Zora Neale Hurston, from “You Don’t Know Us Negroes”
The witty rhyme with which Zora Neale Hurston ends the title essay of this collection—“Biddy, biddy, bend, my story is end, / Turn loose the rooster and hold the hen”—can be taken as a sort of epitaph for her, certainly, but also as the naming of a key theme to which she returns again and again throughout the essays she wrote over almost four decades—monumental decades that saw the birth of the Harlem Renaissance and the launch of the classic period of the civil rights movement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the desegregation of the U.S. military and the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Through these essays, collected in one volume for the first time, Hurston takes her place as a major essayist of the 20th century.
Hurston’s words in the epigraph above would prove prophetic. The renowned Black psychiatrist from Martinique, Frantz Fanon, brilliantly observed that the West could never “understand the being of the black man, since it ignores [Black people’s] lived experience.” Hurston dedicated her writings, especially her novels, to addressing this very shortcoming, which braids its way through so many of her political and aesthetic essays. Essentially, Hurston argues that “the Negro in fiction,” as she said, was too often an artificial, two-dimensional construct. Both white and Black authors were guilty of creating a fictional Negro, the former to demean or exoticize, the latter as one more propaganda weapon in the war against white supremacy. What she wanted instead was a revelation of the richness and complexity of Black life behind “the Veil,” as W. E. B. Du Bois famously put it in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folk. “And so,” she argues, “the writings that made out they were holding a looking-glass to the Negro had everything in them except Negroness. Some of the authors meant well. The favor was in them. They had a willing mind, but too light behind.” Slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy, and anti-Black racism, she explains, “intensified our inner life instead of destroying it.” And rather than using literature to deflect the white gaze, Hurston maintained that the purpose of the Black writer was both to lift the Veil and to allow the Black experience to speak in its own voice, in all of its sublime resonance—good and bad, positive and negative.
These religious forms are tooled and polished until they are true works of art.
Reading Hurston’s reflections on the inner logic of Black cultural forms, social institutions, and behavior is a bit like overhearing an internal monologue in the same way that soliloquies function in Shakespeare. This is one of the innovations she makes in the history of the African American essay form. And throughout these essays, she argues that the full richness of the African American experience could only be realized in print if writers allowed the tradition to speak for itself, thus revealing “a genuine bit of Negroness” in the same way blues and jazz artists had done in the secular tradition; Black preachers and the “unknown bards” had done in their compositions of sermons, spirituals, and gospel music; and as she herself had done, much to the annoyance of Black male contemporaries such as Richard Wright and Alain Locke, in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Her lesser-known essays “Race Cannot Become Great Until It Recognizes Its Talent,” “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” and “The Chick with One Hen” capture these lifelong aesthetic commitments to lift the Veil.
One of the delightful aspects of Hurston’s nonfiction is the subtle way in which it serves as commentary on her practice of fiction writing in a relationship of theory to practice. Her foundational essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” for example, is an attempt to define systematically, like a linguist would, the unique ways in which African Americans speak, the ways in which “the American Negro has done wonders to the English language.” This essay is one of the first attempts to arrive at a typology of Black English, helping us to understand the principles behind her representation of Black speech in her novels. Hurston identifies “the Negro’s greatest contribution to the language” as these three original usages: metaphor and simile (“You sho is propaganda”); the double-descriptive (“chop-axe”); and verbal nouns (“I wouldn’t scorn my name all up on you”). These she groups under the larger Black aesthetic principle of “the will to adorn.” Then she traces examples of this originality in traditional Black artistic forms, such as folklore, prayers, and sermons. These religious forms, she says, “are tooled and polished until they are true works of art,” forged “in the frenzy of creation,” a theme to which she returns several times in these essays. “The beauty of the Old Testament does not exceed that of a Negro prayer,” she asserts. As rendered in print, “dialect,” which Hurston distinguishes from “idiom,” was the often racist representation of Black spoken English, widely dismissed as a sign of Black people’s lack of intelligence, in minstrelsy, dialect poetry, and vaudeville. But when flowing from Hurston’s pen to page, her use of idiom underscores the beauty and range of what is actually a poetic diction, a language within a language. She highlights the manner in which African Americans have fashioned, and continue to refashion, the English language in their own resplendent voices, investing in English new power, poetry, neologisms (colorful coinings of words and expressions), and originality of expression, a thing at which to marvel and not to mock.
For Hurston, Black Vernacular English and folk cultural forms are two of the African American people’s most original contributions to American culture. Most importantly, she argues, the cultural artifacts produced by the enslaved community and their heirs are proof that the “will to adorn,” in spoken English and storytelling, in the composition of sacred forms such as sermons, prayers, and the spirituals, in the blues and jazz, was one of the most salient signs of cultural vitality and survival and adaptation in the face of the horrors of enslavement and Jim Crow. These forms are parts or manifestations of what we might think of as a larger, organic “culture of themselves,” one that Black people formulated behind the Veil. And in these essays, Hurston is determined, detail by detail, to lift that Veil for the world to see, and just as importantly, to hear the sounds of African American cultural formations. She mounts a defense of what we might think of as traditional Black culture against those who would disparage it, be they white or members of the Black middle class.
Hurston can be quite bold in her taxonomies of what she terms “Negro Folklore.” For instance, she characterizes Jack or John and Brer Rabbit, Black culture’s ultimate heroes, both with the wit and power to defeat the Master and, in John’s case, even the Devil, as he is “often smarter than God.” She also, in several asides, characterizes the Black Church as something of its own, a sui generis belief system: in the essay’s “Culture Heroes” section, she daringly writes, “The Negro is not a Christian really,” because of the vestiges of African religions still very much alive and patently manifest in traditional forms of worship, especially in the South. “We are not Christians really, but pagans,” she repeats in “Full of Mud, Sweat and Blood,” her review of David Cohn’s novel God Shakes Creation. “It is true that we employ all of the outward symbols of Christianity, but it is a beating of drums before new altars and calling old gods by new names.”
The church, to Hurston’s mind, is also the ultimate source of the most sublime Black poetry:
The finest poetry that has come out of the Negro race so far has come out of the church, out of the mouths of preachers. If a man announces that he is called to preach and cannot get up in the pulpit and call God by all His praise-giving names; cannot gild the sunrise; heighten the glory of the rainbow, he will soon find himself back at his plowing and digging. Like others we have that consciousness of the inexpressible and a hunger for beauty, and the preacher must fill that want.
Precisely when her contemporaries either wanted to render Black vernacular forms in standard English infused with the African American idiom (for example, James Weldon Johnson) or see them as reflections of economic exploitation and desperate cries for salvation (for example, Richard Wright), Hurston not only defends their sublimity, but subtly makes the case for an aesthetics based on these traditional forms themselves, a true “Black Aesthetic.” This was a most radical act, a spirited declaration of the need to recover the essence of Black creativity in the sublime artifacts of the Southern, unreconstructed slave past.
Creativity and originality, Hurston argues, infuse every aspect of Black life.
Hurston returns to this idea repeatedly, particularly in “Mother Catherine” and “Ritualistic Expression,” her perceptive analysis of the sacred cultural forms that define the Black Church, far too many to enumerate here. But her keen observation is that Black religious practice really was what we might think of as a “cultural laboratory,” because, as Hurston puts it, “the religious service is a conscious art expression,” reflecting both strikingly original musical forms and neologisms. In “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals,” she explains that “[i]n the mouth of the Negro the English language loses its stiffness, yet conveys its meaning accurately.” She offers marvelous examples: “‘The booming bounderries of this whirling wind,’ conveys just as accurate a picture as mere ‘boundaries,’ and a little music is gained besides. ‘The rim bones of nothing’ is just as truthful as ‘limitless space.’” Here she summarizes the relation between art and the religious service in action:
[A]ll religious expression among Negroes is regarded as art, an ability recognized as definitely as in any other art. The beautiful prayer receives the accolade as well as the beautiful song. It is merely a form of expression which people generally are not accustomed to think of as art. Nothing outside of the Old Testament is as rich in figure as a Negro prayer. Some instances are unsurpassed anywhere in literature.
This practice by Black people of reshaping Christian forms of worship in their own image is just one example of a cultural characteristic shared throughout African American culture. Hurston argues:
So if we look at it squarely, the Negro is a very original being. While he lives and moves in the midst of a white civilization, everything that he touches is re-interpreted for his own use. He has modified the language, mode of food preparation, practice of medicine, and most certainly the religion of his new country, just as he adapted to suit himself the Sheik hair-cut made famous by Rudolph Valentino.
This implicit and explicit political approach to Hurston’s art makes discussions of race and gender central to understanding her larger body of work. Her willingness to argue for Black vernacular artistic culture and her concomitant creation of strong female characters often made her a lightning rod for those who would have preferred to see depictions of unambiguously centered, barefaced white racism, or of predictably noble and praiseworthy Black characters striving for the middle class. Long before second-wave feminism proclaimed that the personal was political, Hurston created resilient female characters who dared speak their pieces, often in the faces of their male antagonists and partners. Courtship and marriage lie at the heart of most of her fiction, and in her nonfiction, we are similarly offered a glimpse at Hurston’s views on whether romance and self-regard can coexist for women in their relationships with men.
Hurston’s race pride permeates everything she writes.
Hurston was herself married three times (to younger men), but she never stayed married for long. From a distance—in her letters and her other writings—she seems to have been happiest pounding away at her typewriter, puttering in her garden, or collecting folklore, but—“The Lost Keys of Glory” suggests—she wanted both, a long-lasting romantic relationship and an active intellectual life as a writer and anthropologist. She certainly resisted giving up her career as a writer, as she explains in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), for traditional married life.
Hurston’s race pride permeates everything she writes. She exults in a “timeless” but feminine self even as she sharpens her oyster knife in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” She takes a more serious look at racism in “My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience,” but she refuses to give up even a scintilla of pride or sense of self to a racist physician who has the gall to request payment after seeing her in his laundry closet, as if she were so much dirty linen to keep out of view. Absolutely certain of her worth as Lucy Hurston’s daughter, she recalls, “I got up, set my hat at a reckless angle and walked out, telling him that I would send him a check, which I never did. I went away feeling the pathos of Anglo-Saxon civilization. And I still mean pathos, for I know that anything with such a false foundation cannot last. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”
What, then, explains Hurston’s well-known opposition to Brown v. Board of Education? Her letter to the editor bears careful reading—both for what it says and for what it does not. The inclusion of “Which Way the NAACP?,” which appears here in print for the first time, also sheds light on her thinking. Hurston recoiled at the unintended message she saw lurking beneath the court case that integrated schools with integrated teachers were without question somehow better than all-Black schools with all-Black teachers; that white teachers and students were “inherently” better than Black ones. Her “white mule” critique of the decision reflects her immense pride in Black educators and her knowledge that Black teachers in Black schools teach more than merely academic subjects. They serve as role models and shepherd students through a racist culture.
So why did she oppose the landmark Supreme Court decision? Hurston saw the efforts to integrate schools—primary, secondary, and post-secondary—as a declaration that African Americans were not independent and needed the approval of, and social mingling with, whites. She wanted instead to see “[g]rowth from within.” Hurston argues that it was conceding too much to declare that all-Black institutions, inherently, were unequal. Underfunded schools were inherently unequal, not Black schools. What she believed in was willing separation versus enforced segregation. She points out, quite rightly, that “[i]t is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association.”
Writers needed to mimic that mode of self-revelation, of voice expression, without self-censorship.
Underlying the move to desegregate, she fears, is self-loathing, a failure among rising middle-class African Americans to love themselves, their traditions, their culture regardless of what whites think. The fight for desegregation, she believes, flies in the face of all she has argued for in her fiction and nonfiction alike.
Zora Neale Hurston’s politics have been criticized over the years. Her contemporaries Richard Wright, Sterling Brown, and Ralph Ellison accused her of pandering to racist stereotypes in her writings, but the volume you hold in your hands demonstrates that was simply not the case. In fact, it brings to the fore Hurston’s lifelong attempt to reclaim traditional Black folk culture from racist and classist degradations, to share with her readers the “race pride” she felt, to build the race from within. She was often constrained—by her patron, by her publishers, by the limits of what white publishers would print. To acknowledge that material reality doesn’t make her one of those “handkerchief-head[s],” as she put it in 1955. Rather, it grounds her writings in a particular cultural and historical moment, one full of closed doors for a Black woman who wanted to do more than clean homes. It makes her remarkable contributions to American arts and letters, her place in American culture as an icon of African American, modern, and women’s literature, all the more inspiring. She wrote in her visually inspired vernacular that “every tub must sit on its own bottom.” With a long-overdue collection of her best essays finally in the hands of readers, Hurston can now do just that.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Genevieve West
Adapted from You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays by Zora Neale Hurston and Henry Louis Gates. Published by Amistad. Copyright © 2022 HarperCollins