“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.”
Consider, for instance, an essay titled “Race Cannot Become Great Until It Recognizes Its Talent,” in which Hurston offers a peculiar defense of Black artist. For much of history, “any thought worth its salt had to be embalmed in French or Latin,” Hurston writes, adding that Chaucer changed all that, as did “Shakespeare the man.” If her linguistic history doesn’t pass muster, that’s besides the point; Hurston means to make an analogy for American arts. Black people, she argues, should cherish their unique creative offerings and shuck the half-rate performances of whiteness that she saw going ’round: “We cry out against the ignorance and barbarities in the South that we say bar our way to the heights. ” Here she mentions Claude Neal, who was lynched and paraded among thousands of whites in Jackson County, Florida. “But he is one man,” Hurston continues. “How about the intellectual lynching we perpetrate upon ourselves?” We could call that an analogy too far. I doubt we’ll find a quote such as “WE LYNCH ORIGINAL THOUGHT“Printed on a tote bag anytime soon. The modern reader who associates Hurston with the lush empathy afforded Janie Mae Crawford, the protagonist of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” might not take kindly, either, to “The Lost Keys of Glory.” The piece is an amusing parable for women’s equality—“The Devil and the Woman had always been the best of friends,” Hurston writes—that is as serious as a stroke in lamenting the feminine powers lost on women who leave the home. “There is no doubt that women are taking themselves quite seriously as the equal of men in all of these pursuits,” Hurston writes. “It is obvious, however, that women are not adequate to the struggle.”
This is mild compared with what Hurston had to say about Brown v. Board of Education (title: “Court Order Can’t Make Races Mix”) or the ongoing question of segregation. It was rumored that, near the end of her life, Hurston had upset some folks in her Florida community for supporting, with vigor, a certain segregationist politician. I suspect that politician was Spessard L. Holland, whom she praises in one essay, circa 1958, that was never published in its time. (The piece survives only in a handwritten version, and brackets in the book denote portions that were lost when the staff of the nursing home where Hurston had lived began burning her effects after she passed.) Hurston defends Holland on the basis of down-home customs that she considers incompatible with Northern progressive lexicon. “Certain words and phrases mean one thing to Dixie and something entirely different outside. For example segregation is interpreted as racial hatred by outsides but not so in the South where it merely means separate social activities and connections—not hatred of Negro individuals,” she writes. “The South is very frank about it.”
That Hurston was no friend of the left is no secret, though few are as eager to discuss her politics as John McWhorter, the writer and linguist, who’s dubbed Hurston “America’s favorite black conservative.” Black conservatism, like folklore, is a tradition with long roots, even if white people seldom recognize it as such. In the introduction to the new collection, Gates and West write that “we might think of Hurston as a Black cultural nationalist, in contemporary Black political parlance, or as a Black cultural ‘conservative’ or a ‘traditionalist.'” “This strikes me as a roundabout way of saying that Hurston both adored Southern folkways and detested what she called “Federal handouts.” In a footnote to an essay titled “I Saw Negro Votes Peddled,” an eyewitness account of single-shot voting in Dade County, the editors warn that “Hurston was unwittingly repeating” racist ideology out of Columbia’s Dunning School regarding Reconstruction and “clearly had not read WEB Du Bois’s seminal rebuttal.” But what if she had read “Black Reconstruction in America” and found it neither here nor there? Because we adore Hurston, calling it straight can feel hard, like airing out family business.
Reading these essays letting go of the agonizing business of saving Hurston from her politics, as though the writer we credit with knowing so much of her own Negro mind just so happened to forget herself on occasions where the takes haven’t aged as well as we’d prefer. The journalist and scholar Valerie Boyd, who died this past weekend, rightly wrote, in her Hurston biography, “Wrapped in Rainbows,” that “Hurston’s individualist stance . . . did not nullify her identity as one of the folk.” Hurston’s lifelong artistic project, the mastery of a black idiom, isn’t incongruous with her opinions; Negroness was her mode of composition, whether was expounding on she electoral or her ethnographic research. To Hurston, Negroness was anything lovely, if it sounded just right. Idiom, as she defines it in an essay called “Art and Such,” concerns the “poetical flow of language,” effected by “stewing the subject in its own juice.” Hurston’s subjects might be Bob Taft or High John de Conquer, the folk hero out of Africa (“To some, he was a big, physical-looking man like John Henry. To others, he was a little, hammered-down, low- built man like the Devil’s doll-baby”). Twice in the collection, Hurston writes about noses—as Black a subject as there ever was—ascribing social qualities for the feature in general and in its racial-ethnic (Grecian, Anglo-Saxon, African) particulars. “I observe a great stir among the ladies of l’haut monde for if there were no noses, there would be no snubs and with no snubs there would be no society,” she writes. Out of such disparateness—from noses to neo-spirituals—emerges a sense of the Hurstonian mode, assured and unobjective, yet preoccupied with this “stewing,” and with getting the taxonomy down.