Sharpening Her Oyster Knife

You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays by zora neale hurston, edited by henry louis gates jr. and genevieve west. new york: amistad. 464 pages. $30.

The cover of You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays

ZORA NEALE HURSTON’S LITERARY STATURE is no longer in dispute, yet people are still trying to put her into a box. “Do you think she was a libertarian?” someone once asked me. For whatever reason, I was too polite to say something like “How the hell should I know?” Far more polite than Hurston would be if she could now answer for herself. Yes, she made conservative, even reactionary noises in her lifetime against the NAACP, leftist politics, Richard Wright, and other socially progressive influences. But tagging Hurston as a libertarian or reactionary is far too reductive for such a formidable polymath whose groundbreaking work as an anthropologist, oral historian, journalist, and gadfly is nearly as monumental as her sui generis fiction, notably her 1937 masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She was allergic to anybody’s political program and was too grand and outsize a personality to fit into anybody’s box. None of that “to-be-or-not-to-be” mess for Hurston. She simply, proudly, and unapologetically was. And her own mercurial audacity was all the ideology she ever needed.

Coping with the dimensions of Hurston’s achievement continues to test her readers’ expectations, all the while leaving them laughing and keeping them guessing. The gauntlet is thrown down yet again with You Don’t Know Us Negroes, a garden-fresh collection of Hurston’s nonfiction cocurated by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Genevieve West. One can never have too much Zora in one’s intellectual diet. And these testimonies, tirades, reveries, and reportage—some of them never before published—forge a vibrant simulacrum of a ferociously independent, disarmingly mercurial sensibility whose complex legacy and even knottier personality we’re still trying to figure out decades after her death in 1960 at age sixty-nine. The reignited tensions of this new century likely will make her just as bemusing to contemporary readers, white and Black. But she has always made it fun for all of us to stick our heads in the game. 

An inimitable composite of grande dame, lyric poet, contrarian pundit, and sociocultural detective, Hurston was perpetually frustrated by what she saw as the intelligentsia’s distortions and tapering of what she believed to be the diversity of thought and feeling within Black American life. Among the articles given their first appearance in print in You Don’t Know Us Negroes is its title essay, which advances this grievance with emphatic brio. Originally written in the early 1930s, it is a characteristically savory gumbo of folk mythology, literary references, sociological observation, and satiric sermonizing that, however much it indulges in sidelong vaudevillian effects (“And for why?” one Biblical anecdote rhetorically asks in gentle spoofery), holds fast to pleading its case for depicting Black people with all their nuances and contradictions intact. Better that, she writes, than “white writers have been putting in the street that we laugh and laugh and hold no malice, [while] the Negro writers have set out to prove that we can pout.” “Negro reality,” she continues, “is a hundred times more imaginative and entertaining” than what white writers had conceived up to the time she wrote this piece. “You Don’t Know Us Negroes” (yea verily, there’s a joke in that title) is among the pieces here that anticipate Ralph Ellison’s insistence in his own nonfiction on digging deeper into cultural complexity and psychological diversity within Black America, as well as Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans (1970), with its critique of what he termed “social science fiction” advanced by sociologists and writers of “protest fiction” who stressed a vision of pathology that degraded and oversimplified Black lives at the expense of more expansive and creative qualities.

Zora Neale Hurston, 1937. Library of Congress
Zora Neale Hurston, 1937. Library of Congress

In “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” first published in 1934 (the same year “You Don’t Know Us Negroes” was to have been published in the long-defunct American Mercury magazine), Hurston called upon her expertise in anthropological research to itemize African Americans’ extravagant deployment of simile and metaphor. She observed that the “will to adorn” was among her people’s more persistent impulses in bending, stretching, braiding, and, on many levels, reimagining the English language. Among her examples are such colloquialisms as “One at a time, like lawyers going to heaven”; “I’ll beat you till [you]: (a) rope like okra, (b) slack like lime, [or] (c) smell like onions”; “regular as pig-tracks”; “You sho is propaganda”; and so forth. She also is attentive to the mischief Black idiom makes in fashioning verbs out of nouns (“Sense me into it,” “’Taint everybody you kin confidence,” “Uglying away”) and vice versa (“She won’t take a listen,” “That’s a lynch”), and in creating what she refers to as “double descriptive(s)”: “high-tall,” “sham-polish,” “speedy-hurry,” and “low-down,” the latter of which became over time as much a part of white people’s argot as that of Black people’s. The way she characterizes this process, it comes across less like what we’d later call “appropriation” or “assimilation” and more like a rolling tide, a seismic upheaval, or plain old rain showers: all natural and, to similar degrees, unavoidable. 

What also becomes apparent from reading these essays is that in becoming a dogged and incisive champion of southern Black vernacular, Hurston was absorbing what she viewed as its near-Shakespearean surges of audacious imagery, nimble invention, impromptu grace, and incantatory fervor into her own means of expression. It’s hard to resist plucking a passage, any passage, from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s virtuosic depiction of love and self-autonomy in Florida’s Black settlements a century ago, as examples of her musically evocative narrative voice. Listen, for instance, to Nanny, an ex-slave trying to gently settle the young granddaughter who would grow up to be the novel’s besieged yet indefatigable heroine Janie Crawford:

You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. . . . But nothing can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody so low till you can rob ’em of they will. . . . Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me. Freedom found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms, so Ah said Ah’d take a broom and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through de wilderness for her. 

There’s little in Gates and West’s anthology that surpasses anything found in Their Eyes. But taken together with such diverse and similarly vibrant works as the 1934 novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine, the folklore gathered in 1935’s Mules and Men and 1938’s Tell My Horse, the 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, and the reconstructed 1927 interview with the last surviving African slave “cargo” posthumously published in full as Barracoon in 2018, You Don’t Know Us Negroes reaffirms Hurston’s stature as perhaps one of the greatest, and certainly most demonstratively idiosyncratic, of America’s twentieth-century prose stylists. Her own “will to adorn” is all over this collection, whether in the acerbic but quirkily affectionate burlesque of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey (the previously unpublished “The Emperor Effaces Himself,” dated 1925); the use of mythic Black hero “High John de Conquer,” as a morale booster for wartime America in 1943 (“If the news from overseas reads bad, and the nation inside seems like it is stuck in the Tar Baby, listen hard, and you will hear John de Conquer treading on his singing-drum”); and, most trenchantly, in her famous (some would say “notorious”) critique of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, in which she inferred that racial integration in the schools would denigrate generations of Black educators in segregated schools striving to give their pupils race pride and a decent education, despite underfunded facilities and institutionalized racism. In “Which Way the NAACP?,” written in 1957, Hurston posed the rhetorical question: “Is it conceived that a Negro child is ‘advanced’ by sitting in the same class-room with White children, and if so, how and why? Or is the push a determined attempted jail-break from the imaginary cage of race on a national scale?”

Controversial opinions like her opposition to Brown—along with a 1951 essay attacking Communism, and another from that same year weighing conservative Ohio senator Robert A. Taft’s prospects for the presidency with admiration—tempt readers to gently extract a right-wing ideological thread linking Hurston’s politics. But doing so would embody the kind of lazy superficiality in assessing Black consciousness that Hurston challenged in pieces like 1950’s “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” which tore into the presumptions shared by Caucasian cultural arbiters that “all non-Anglo-Saxons are uncomplicated stereotypes” and, thus, lacking in any depth or complexity. Just because she opposed school desegregation doesn’t mean that she was totally OK with white supremacy. Her 1944 essay “My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience” briefly recounts the way a white doctor in New York (“instead of the South,” she notes, “as one would have expected”) had treated her for “disturbances of the digestive tract” in a careless, perfunctory manner. Rather than storm off in outrage “as I was first disposed to do,” Hurston reports that she “stayed to see just what would happen, and further to torture him more.” When it was over, she “set [her] hat at a reckless angle and walked out,” promising to send him a twenty-dollar check, “which I never did.” 

Such feisty, commanding composure in the face of casual bigotry reminded me of what remains my favorite of all her short pieces: “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” a 1928 testament about her early life in “the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida” and how abruptly her childhood ended at thirteen when she was sent off to nearby Jacksonville, “not Zora of Orange County” but just another “little colored girl.” 

And yet, as she immediately—and memorably—insists:

I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. 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. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. 

It’s hard not to wonder in our own time of free-range indignation and prefabricated opinion as enabled by social media how someone like Hurston would maintain her fierce hold on her autonomy and independence. She’d likely remain just as “contrary” about received wisdom and snap judgments while sustaining one of her most attractive and least heralded qualities: her unchecked curiosity about human beings, manifested in You Don’t Know Us Negroes by examples of her diligent and far-sighted journalism that include detailed notes from 1940 on “ritualist expression” at a typical Seventh-Day Adventist service; a corrosive (and still topical) 1950 autopsy on “Negro votes being peddled” in Florida, and her coverage for the historically Black Pittsburgh Courier of the 1952 murder trial of Ruby McCollum, a wealthy Black woman who shot and killed a prominent white physician named C. LeRoy Adams in Live Oak, Florida. The trial, which takes up the whole of the anthology’s fifth and concluding section, eerily emerges like a lengthier, real-life version of the similarly fraught and complicated murder trial faced by Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s articles on the trial enhance her reputation for having sharp eyes and open ears; the clippings recovered by Gates and West resound with her typical poise, narrative command, and unyielding instinct for the explicably human. 

And how at this point in our shared cultural dynamics would Zora Neale Hurston’s ghost, likely as flamboyant and devil-may-care in the spirit world as she was in the “real” one, assess what many would consider an America in which white and Black youth seem to have moved beyond hip-hop and are uneasy at best at what’s to come in their shared future? I like to think she would smile with sad recognition of how familiar so much of it seems to her with the same aspirations, misgivings, and mistakes being made by those who are “colored” and those who are not. And she would be silent throughout, even if silence is an unaccustomed state for one who so readily doled out whole pieces of her mind when alive, heedless of consequences. I’ve heard somewhere, though not specifically from her, that ghosts aren’t allowed to speak. 

Gene Seymour is a writer living in Philadelphia.