‘I am not tragically colored’

In her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression”, published towards the end of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston asserted that fighting in African American culture is a high art in which “Discord is more natural than accord”. Hurston, whose career spanned the New Negro movement and the early days of the campaign for civil rights, was one of the twentieth century’s great contrarians, for which this collection provides bountiful evidence. Her short story “Spunk” was published in the landmark anthology The New Negro: An interpretation (1925), a volume of fiction, poetry and essays by leading African American and Caribbean authors, but she was at loggerheads with its editor, Alain Locke, the soi-disant midwife of the Harlem Renaissance.

Hurston’s story, which drew on her childhood in the all-Black town of Eatonville, Florida, employed regional dialect to capture the superstition of the rural South. When a bobcat confronts the eponymous protagonist, he believes the animal is the manifestation of the man he recently killed, that “it was Joe done sneaked back from Hell!”. Although Locke claimed in the introduction to The New Negro that new Black art would revive the “folk spirit”, he believed the use of Black dialect simplified and caricatured African American culture. Hurston’s use of folk culture sat at odds with his aesthetic for the New Negro, which celebrated Black American culture – provided that it sat within the bounds of propriety – even as he championed European modernism.

During the 1920s WEB Du Bois counselled Black American writers on the politics of respectability while insisting that all art should be propaganda, two directives Hurston wilfully ignored. She marched out of step with the Black bourgeoisie as well as “the overseers” of the New Negro movement, as she dubbed Locke and Du Bois. In the mid-1920s Hurston founded the literary magazine Fire!!, along with the poet Langston Hughes and other bright young things. The ill-fated publication, which produced only one issue before folding, included stories of prostitution and gay male desire, scandalizing its readers and casting Hurston as a troublemaker. Her close friendship with Hughes, at first an ally who shared her conviction in the artistry of folk culture, ended acrimoniously as the pair feuded over the co-authorship of their play Mule Bonethe subject of Yuval Taylor’s recent volume Zora and Langston: A story of friendship and betrayal (2019).

Hurston’s spats with leading male cultural and political luminaries, which exhibited her trademark blend of Southern eloquence and venom, are among the most engaging pieces in You Don’t Know Us Negroes. In New Massesa notorious Marxist magazine, Richard Wright condemned her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), for pandering to white readers; Hurston, rising to this challenge, wrote a withering review of Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), calling the stories “so grim that the Dismal Swamp of race hatred must be where they live”. In the academic journal Opportunity, meanwhile, Locke accused her of simplifying her Black American characters. “But when will the Negro novelist of maturity who knows how to tell a story convincingly”, Locke asked, “come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction?” Hurston wrote an essay in response – which the journal declined to print – in which she claimed that Locke “pants to be a leader, and in his eagerness to attract attention he rushes at any chance to see his name in print, however foolish his offering “.

Hurston’s debates with Wright and Locke underscore her opposition to those who insisted that the literary culture of Black America should be one of protest. “I am not tragically colored”, Hurston declared in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, adding: “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it.” In “Art and Such” she laments that “The one subject for a Negro is the Race and its suffering”, concluding that Black American art has suffered as a consequence: the “idea was not to produce literature – it was to ‘champion the race'”. And while she made her name during the Harlem Renaissance as a short-story writer, in the titular essay of this volume she claims that “Negro reality is a hundred times more imaginative and entertaining than anything that has ever been hatched up over a typewriter” . As the editors explain in their introduction, “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“.

Drawing on her training as a folklorist, ethno-grapher and cultural anthropologist, Hurston championed the art of the everyday, explaining that “prayers and sermons are tooled and polished until they are true works of art”. In contrast to Locke, she stressed the dynamism of Black American culture. “Negro folklore is not a thing of the past”, she reminded her readers, “it is still in the making.”

Hurston slipped with ease between folklorist and anthropologist. “The Last Slave Ship” contains sections of her interviews with Cudjo (Cudjoe) Lewis – presumed to be the final survivor of the Middle Passage – who became the subject of Barracoon: The story of the last “Black Cargo”, a book that she began in the 1920s, but that was not published until 2018. Other essays give snapshots of the Black Holiness and Pentecostal Churches, in which Hurston explains that “the religious service is a conscious art expression”. “Characteristics of Negro Expression”, an early exploration of how “the American Negro has done wonders to the English language” (and one of Hurston’s better-known essays), was written at a moment in African American history when her contemporaries were changing Black vernacular forms into Standard English. “This”, the editors write, “was a most radical act, a spirited declaration of the need to recover the essence of black creativity in the sublime artefacts of the Southern unreconstructed slave past.”

Elsewhere, anticipating the taut, confident prose of James Baldwin’s early essays, “What White Publishers Won’t Print” boldly claims: “For the national welfare, it is urgent to realize that the minorities do think, and think about something other than the race problem”. Other essays employ an idiom more obviously rooted in folklore, including “High John de Conquer”, where a trickster figure who survived slavery “waits to return when his people shall call him again”. Hurston’s caustic wit is frequently displayed, as in her satire of the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who with “rare insight…saw that the redeeming of the continent of Africa would take time”. Some essays unravel the tapestry of scholarship that depicts Hurston as an unimpeachable feminist, a role she has enjoyed for thirty years. In “The Lost Keys of Glory”, one of several pieces that explored the intersections of race and gender, feminism is described as a “mirage” and “the light that failed”. Hurston proclaims here, “let no woman deceive herself that she ever impresses men by her intellect”, explaining that women “get along in the professions or in public life because some man in power is impressed by our femininity”.

Race and gender would become the focal point of her journalism during the last decade of her life. Writing for the Pittsburgh Courier In the 1950s, she covered the trial of Ruby McCollum, a well-to-do African woman who murdered her lover, a white doctor and state senator-elect. “Here was a woman – a Negro woman”, Hurston wrote, in a rare moment in which her voice can be heard from within the constraints of reportage, “with the courage to dare every fate, to boldly attack every tradition of her surroundings and even the age-old laws of every land.”

During the 1940s and 1950s, Hurston drifted further to the right. Her deep-seated suspicion of communism – “it is amazing how commies can hang on to a mere notion in the face of facts” – was matched by her disillusionment with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading political organization for Black Americans. Most surprisingly, perhaps, she opposed the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools, insisting that Black American schools should see “Growth from within”. As the editors point out, “Hurston maintained that the purpose of the Black writer was both to lift the Veil and to allow the Black experience to speak in his own voice, in all of its sublime resonance – good and bad, positive and negative” . The essays in You Don’t Know Us Negroesserved well by careful notes, allow Hurston to emerge as contradictory, uneven, lively and brilliant.

Douglas Fieldteaches at the University of Manchester. He is the co-editor ofHarold Norse: Poet maverick, gay laureate2022

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