You Don’t Know Us Negroes — Zora Neale Hurston, the great American provocateur

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the great provocateurs of 20th-century American letters. Active from the 1920s to the 1950s, Hurston was best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which fascinated readers with its vivid depiction of black female sexuality. Richard Wright, the black American author of the bestselling 1940 novel Native Son, meanwhile, criticised it for its “facile sensuality”: the book, in his opinion, didn’t match the gravity of the black condition in the US.

Elsewhere, in her essays, which were published in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and The American Mercury, Hurston denounced the civil rights movement’s advocacy of racial integration in the 1950s, because she felt it did not take the interests of black Americans seriously enough, and she eschewed any personal sense of racial victimhood. She died in obscurity in 1960, but her reputation was revived by Alice Walker in 1975 and she was subsequently canonised as a great African-American writer — the predecessor of Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.

You Don’t Know Us Negroes, a new collection of Hurston’s essays, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr and Genevieve West, demonstrates once again how ill suited she was to the role of a solemn and respectable author, the matriarch of black American fiction. In these essays, which cover themes of race, gender and politics, her writing is characterised by an impish relish that remains both shocking and invigorating today.

Hurston’s best essays reflect her racial pride. She was born in Alabama in 1891, just as Jim Crow laws of segregation were being endorsed by the US legal system, but she grew up in Eatonville, Florida, which was the first black-governed town to be incorporated into the United States. In her lifetime, Hurston witnessed the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s — a period when many black American writers and artists wanted to express black experiences after centuries of being demonised by a white establishment. But part of her pride was also in challenging the idea that to be black is to think exclusively about your racial identity.

In “What White Publishers Won’t Print”, for instance, she writes that for “the national welfare, it is urgent to realize that the minorities do think, and think about something other than the race problem”. Meanwhile in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, another essay, she states: “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.” She describes this attitude as the state of being “tragically colored”.

These opinions can be shocking to modern readers, accustomed as we are now to a more heightened sensitivity to racial prejudice. Indeed, at times Hurston — who witnessed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the popularity of eugenics and fierce resistance to black civil rights — carries herself with mesmerising confidence: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against,” she writes, “but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.”

She was certainly witty, convivial and a great phrasemaker. But even these qualities do not make her scepticism about racial integration easy to digest. Hurston did not believe that integrating schools would improve the lot of black children. In fact, she thought it might make black-white relations worse. In the essay “Which Way the NAACP”, she writes: “One has to be persuaded that a Negro suffers enormously by being deprived of physical contact with the Whites and be willing to pay a terrible price to gain it.”

One line of argument against segregation was that black schools were underfunded, and this was because black Americans were considered inferior by the government and society. Hurston maintained that the way out of this was not through integration but by making black schools better.

Whether or not one agrees with this, it is clear she was motivated not by self-hatred but by self-preservation. In this respect, Hurston can be seen as part of a distinguished pantheon of thinkers, from Booker T Washington to Malcolm X, who argued that black Americans needed to develop confidence in themselves rather than seeking external validation from white people.

Hurston’s reputation as a novelist is now well established. Their Eyes Were Watching God was listed by Time Magazine in 2005 as one of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. Zadie Smith, in a reissue of the novel by Virago Press in 2008, wrote a glowing introduction in which she announced: “There is no novel I love more.” This new collection shows that Hurston’s essays also deserve great acclaim. She was an iconoclast on matters of race, but this came out of a reverence for black dignity.

You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays by Zora Neale Hurston, Amistad £20/HarperCollins $29.99, 464 pages

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