The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Zora Neale Hurston was once forgotten. A new book reminds us why her voice must be heard.

In ‘You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays,’ Hurston, who died in 1960, is at the top of her game

(Amistad; Photo courtesy Barbara Hurston Lewis, Faye Hurston, Lois Gaston)
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In the early 1970s, Alice Walker went on a mission to revitalize the works and reputation of Zora Neale Hurston. At the time, Hurston’s books, including the now-classic “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” were out of print and had fallen out of favor, even in Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Fla.

Walker traveled to Eatonville, pretending to be Hurston’s niece — “as far I’m concerned, she is my aunt — and that of all Black people as well,” Walker wrote in a 1975 article for Ms. Magazine. Her goal: to find Hurston’s unmarked grave and mark it. The headstone now reads, “Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South.” That is a fitting description for the prolific and provocative author who, from the 1920s to the 1950s, published four novels and an autobiography, as well as numerous short stories, essays, articles and plays.

Many years later, Hurston’s books are back in print, including “Barracoon,” an account of the transatlantic slave trade, which appeared in 2018. Now we have “You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays,” a dazzling collection of her work edited by professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Genevieve West.

Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, ‘Barracoon,’ finally sees the light of day

“You Don’t Know Us Negroes” reveals Hurston at the top of her game as an essayist, cultural critic, anthropologist and beat reporter. The volume includes 51 essays that cover an extensive swath of history, through the glories of the Harlem Renaissance into the early days of the civil rights movement; they record an American landscape in transition. Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Alain Locke, Fannie Hurst and Ethel Waters are just a few of the luminaries who make appearances.

Profiles of politicians and leaders are also numerous and include Eleanor Roosevelt, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Presidents William Howard Taft and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Most of the essays appeared previously in Negro Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, Negro World, the Pittsburgh Courier, the American Mercury and many other publications, but some appear here for the first time.

For example, the title essay, “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” was slated for publication in 1934 in the American Mercury but never made it into print “for reasons that remain unclear,” according to West and Gates. The piece expresses Hurston’s contempt for “Negro literature” — “the consequence of the hasty generalization that we Negroes are obvious and simple because, at a glance, we seem to be so” — as well as White America’s ignorance regarding Black life: “The writings that made out they were holding a looking-glass to the Negro had everything in them except Negroness. Two hundred and forty-six years of outward submission during slavery time got folks to thinking of us as creatures of tasks alone. When in fact the conflict between what we wanted to do and what we were forced to do intensified our inner life instead of destroying it.”

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Black agency is a theme that runs throughout the collection. The editors argue that Hurston “was a proto-black cultural nationalist, a forerunner of an artistic and political philosophy that would become central tenets of the Black Arts Movement, born circa 1966.” These essays bolster that assessment.

West and Gates organized the collection according to theme in five sections. Art, language, race and gender, folklore and politics are covered here, and Hurston is, by turn, provocative, funny, bawdy, informative and outrageous. She makes no secret of her contempt for male intelligence in the “The Ten Commandments of Charm.” Hurston, who was married three times, writes: “Forget not the first law of conversation, which is, Thou shalt not talk about thyself, nor the last law, which is, Help every man to express himself brilliantly. Thus shalt thou be accounted a ‘fascinating conversationalist,’ though thou utterest not a single word.”

In the same section, Hurston riffs on noses: “The uses of the noses are as varied as their looks. They are (1) to separate the eyes; (2) to keep the lips from running up to the forehead; (3) to wear powder … (4) to whiff and locate one’s food; (5) to administer the snub and no snub is so snobbish as the snub administered by the proper organ of snubbing.”

For many writers, Zora Neale Hurston’s work has been a guiding light. Now there’s even more to read.

Hurston will make you laugh but also make you remember the bitter divide in Black America around performance, language, education and class. Her love of folklore, dialect and country people set her apart from many of her peers, who thought she was practicing minstrelsy.

Her disdain for pretension, practiced by Black people in power, what Hurston called “bookooing,” is all over her essay about the NAACP, where she rants about the divide “between house servants and field hands.” She calls universities “begging joints” full of college presidents with their hands out for donations. And her famous opposition to school integration is fleshed out in “Court Order Can’t Make Races Mix,” where she asks, “How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?”

But the surprising page turner is at the back of the book, a compilation of Hurston’s coverage of the Ruby McCollom murder trial as a beat reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier in the 1950s. McCollom, a wealthy married Black woman and mother of four, murdered her White lover, a doctor and revered member of her community.

Some of Hurston’s writing is sensationalistic, to be sure, but it’s also a riveting take of gender and race relations at the time. “Human nature cannot be ignored,” she notes. “The McCollums were wealthy and otherwise stood high in the community. These local Colored people were for the most part, little people, the kind of people, irrespective of race, who have only the earth as their memorial. With death, they go back to the ground to rejoin the countless millions of other nameless creatures who are remembered only by the things which grow in soil. There is ever a residue of resentment against the successful of the world. It has nothing at all to do with race. Thus from the beginning of time the most popular story is one in which the poor triumph over the more fortunate. … So there was a certain amount of revengeful satisfaction in seeing Ruby … brought low.”

Gates and West have put together a comprehensive collection that lets Hurston shine as a writer, a storyteller and an American iconoclast. What Alice Walker began, all those years ago, comes to fruition here. Hurston is truly commemorated in all her glory.

Lisa Page, an assistant professor of English at George Washington University, is co-editor of “We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America.”

You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays

Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Genevieve West.

Amistad. 436 pp. $29.99

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