You Don’t Know Us Negroes by Zora Neale Hurston review – fearless and dazzling essays

The pioneering African American writer’s nonfiction pieces have a power, depth and courage that still resonate more than 60 years after her death

When the African American writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston explored the southern states in the 1930s, as well as including a pen and paper in her luggage, she packed a gun. The author, whose novels included the much admired Their Eyes Were Watching God, was spiky and fearless, often travelling in dangerous territory where a lone Black female reporter attracted unwelcome attention.

In recent years, new works by Hurston – work either previously unpublished or short stories collected together for the first time – have been eagerly anticipated. Books such as Barracoon (2018), Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick (2020), and now You Don’t Know Us Negroes, a collection of nonfiction pieces, have meant that Hurston, who died in 1960, has now garnered more fans than when she was alive.

The essays demonstrate the wit of a pioneering star of the Black literary circle dubbed by Wallace Thurman “the Niggeratti” (a title she endorsed) during the short-lived Harlem Renaissance. But, at its height, when Hurston and her contemporaries laid claim to modernism, she also accented the primacy of the African American working-class “voice”, which was disparaged by the Black middle-class. Writers such as James Weldon Johnson had sought to “tidy up” Black vernacular forms in standard English. Hurston, on the other hand, was determined to preserve the brilliance of “Black English” in traditional cultural forms, whether embellished by preachers or embedded in folk tales – an approach that the most influential Black critic Alain Locke thought was retrograde and unsophisticated.

Throughout the essays, she’s critical of those who attempt to co-opt downtrodden African Americans for their own ends; Hurston reserves special contempt for Marxists and their Black literary advocates such as Richard Wright, who cast Black life in terms of victimhood, as “units of oppression”. A Black man’s life, she argues, is as varied, full of love and hate, as any group: “When his baby cuts a new tooth, he brags as shamelessly as anyone else without once weeping over the prospect of some Klansman knocking it out.”

She’s prescient, too, about white editors keen to demonstrate their bona fides while advancing writing that conforms to their own misperceptions. After Black Lives Matter, British publishers caught in the stampede to diversify their lists should be directed to Hurston’s excoriating essay about tokenism, The “Pet Negro” System.

Hurston’s anthropological reportage seems now a precursor of the New Journalism later exemplified by Joan Didion

Her irreverence towards received opinions and opinion-makers is one of the delights of Hurston’s shtick. She dismisses Black critics who believe she’s letting the side down in her depiction of so-called unedifying stereotypes. She called the snobbish Locke, who negatively reviewed Their Eyes Were Watching God, a “fraud” whom she’d send her “toenail to debate him on what he knew about Negroes”. She has little time also for the inflated attention given in literature to those “passing” for white: “Only a few self-conscious Negroes feel tragic about their race and make a cage for themselves.”

Fierce, insightful and often devilishly funny, her satirical writing is particularly biting. But while in The Emperor Effaces Himself, she lampoons the Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, who “expressed a fearful lack of confidence” in appointing himself the ”provisional president of Africa”, she champions his belief in Black self-pride.

Controversially, she doubts the value of the US supreme court ruling to end segregation in the public schools of the south, challenging the old assumption that “there is no greater delight to Negroes than physical association with whites”. Further, she’s alarmed that it will sound the death knell for historically Black colleges and universities, which, though poorly funded, had thrived and educated students beyond the curriculum in how to survive in their hostile racist homeland.Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston review – wickedly funnyRead more

Survival sometimes requires compromise. Though her novels idealise Black self-sufficiency, Hurston was practical, too, recognising her dependence on patrons such as Charlotte Osgood Mason, who endeavoured to push Hurston’s writing towards a kind of African exoticism, as the price for her support.

Hurston’s anthropological reportage seems now a precursor of the New Journalism later exemplified by Joan Didion. In Ruby McCollum Fights for Life, Hurston writes poignantly about a Black woman put on trial for shooting to death a white man. Innovatively interspersing court records with her own interviews, Hurston shows how Ruby’s fate will be determined by a judiciary scandalised by her affair with the deceased; she had one child with him and was pregnant with another – details overlooked by the prosecutors who called for her execution.

A detailed investigation also informed the oral histories Hurston collected for the Federal Writers’ project in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash. Her meagre income from writing, though, wasn’t sustainable. She spent her last years working as a maid, cleaning houses for white people whilepretending to be carrying out research into domestic service if any friend questioned her.

A pitiful end but, as seen in this new collection, the depth and power of Hurston’s prose continues to dazzle. Like the African American preachers whom she admired, she articulates “that consciousness of the inexpressible and a hunger for beauty”.

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