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

Ohen the African-American writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston explored the southern states in the 1930s, in addition to including a pen and paper in her luggage, she packed a gun. The author, whose novels included the much admired Their eyes looked at Godwas prickly and fearless, often traveling in dangerous territory where a lone black reporter attracted unwanted attention.

In recent years, new works by Hurston – unpublished works or novellas collected for the first time – have been eagerly awaited. Books such as barracoon (2018), Hit a straight lick With a crooked stick (2020), and now You don’t know us niggers, a collection of non-fiction pieces, have meant that Hurston, who died in 1960, has now garnered more fans than during her lifetime.

The essays demonstrate the spirit of a pioneering star in 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 his contemporaries claimed modernism, it also accentuated the primacy of the African-American working “voice”, decried 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 vibrancy of “black English” in traditional cultural forms, whether embellished by preachers or embedded in folk tales – an approach that the most black critic influential Alain Locke considered it backward and unsophisticated.

Throughout the essays, she criticizes those who attempt to co-opt oppressed African Americans for their own ends; Hurston reserves particular contempt for Marxists and their black literary defenders such as Richard Wright, who present black lives in terms of victimization, 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 gets a new tooth, he brags as shamelessly as any anyone else without crying once at the thought of a Klansman knocking them out.”

She is also visionary about white publishers willing to demonstrate their good faith while advancing writing consistent with their own misperceptions. After Black Lives Matter, UK publishers caught up in the rush to diversify their listings should be directed to Hurston’s excoriating essay on tokenism, The “Pet Negro” System.

His disrespect for received opinion and opinion makers is one of the delights of Hurston’s shtick. She dismisses black critics who think she is letting the camp down in her depiction of supposedly unedifying stereotypes. She called the snob Lockewho rated negatively Their eyes looked at God, a “swindler” to whom she would send him “the nail of the foot to debate him on what he knew of the niggers”. She also has little time for the exaggerated attention given in literature to those who “pass” as white: “Only a few self-aware niggers feel tragic about their race and cage themselves.” »

Fierce, insightful and often devilishly funny, his satirical writing is particularly biting. But while in The Emperor fades, she ridicules the black nationalist leader Marcus Garveywho “expressed a chilling lack of confidence” in naming himself the “provisional president of Africa”, she defends her belief in black hubris.

Controversially, she doubts the value of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end segregation in southern public schools, challenging the age-old assumption that “there is no greater pleasure for blacks than physical association with whites”. Additionally, she is alarmed that it will spell the end of historically black colleges and universities, which, though poorly funded, had thrived and educated students beyond the curriculum on how to survive in their hostile racist homeland.

Survival sometimes requires compromise. Although her novels idealize black self-sufficiency, Hurston was also practical, acknowledging her reliance on patrons such as Charlotte Osgood Mason, who strove to nudge Hurston’s writing toward a kind of African exoticism. , as the price of his support.

Hurston’s anthropological reporting now seems to be a precursor to the new journalism later exemplified by Joan Didion. In Ruby McCollum Fights for Life, Hurston writes poignantly about a black woman on trial for shooting a white man. Innovatively interweaving court records with her own interviews, Hurston shows how Ruby’s fate will be determined by a justice system outraged by her affair with the deceased; she had one child with him and was pregnant with another – details ignored by prosecutors who called for her execution.

Detailed investigation also informed the oral histories Hurston collected for the Federal Writers’ Project following the Wall Street crash. His meager writing income, however, was not sustainable. She spent her last years working as a maid, cleaning white people’s homes while pretending to conduct research on domestic service if a friend asked 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 she admired, she expressed “this awareness of the inexpressible and this thirst for beauty”.

You don’t know us niggers and other essays by Zora Neale Hurston is published by HarperCollins (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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