In Zora Neale Hurston’s Essays, the Nonfiction of a Nonconformist
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Zora Neale Hurston’s best-known sentence, judging by its appearance on coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets, is this one: “No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
As distillations of her sensibility go, that’s not terrible.
Hurston’s books, which include the classic novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) and the memoir “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942), are earthy, packed with rough pleasures, wide in their human sympathies and in close contact with the ebullience that can touch the margins of everyday existence.
What’s interesting about the “oyster knife” comment, read in context — it appeared in her 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” — is how expressive it is of her political views, which were heterodox. Were she living now, she might have a Substack.
Hurston felt America gave all its citizens — even its Black ones, even in 1928 — a crack at success in life, and that things were improving every decade.
“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 wrote in the same essay. “I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less.”
She added: “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is 60 years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you.”
Hurston felt, to the dismay of some of her peers, that too many Black people in America were refusing to take yes for an answer.
A new collection of her work, “You Don’t Know Us Negroes: And Other Essays,” is out this month. It’s been edited by Genevieve West, an English professor at Texas Woman’s University, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Most of its contents were printed during Hurston’s lifetime, but some essays appear here for the first time.
Hurston was a gradualist. Her conservatism shows up in her instinctual wariness of the New Deal, which she viewed as governmental overreach.
She was warier still about communism. “Why would we want to swap freedom for bondage?” she asked in 1951, when the Soviet Union was thought to be wooing unhappy members of racial minorities as party members.
Black people, Hurston responded, are aspirational. They don’t want “shapeless felt boots” and cabbage soup.
She wanted integration but, to the dismay of many, opposed its enforcing. To her it was a matter of self-respect. “How much satisfaction,” she asked, “can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?”
It was like her to have a sense of humor about it. “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.”
There was nothing doctrinaire about Hurston’s fiction. Her novels chime with her politics though, in the sense that, as West and Gates point out, she declined to offer depictions of “unambiguously centered, barefaced white racism, or of predictably noble and praiseworthy Black characters.”
Her sense of humor, she wrote, derived from her sense that “we are just as ridiculous as anybody else. We can be wrong, too.”
Hurston is in league with intellectuals like the critic Albert Murray, who complained that “most critics feel that unless brownskin U.S. writers are pissing and moaning about injustice they have nothing to say.”
And she is in cahoots across time with the novelist Paul Beatty, the editor of the invaluable book “Hokum: An Anthology of African American Humor,” which includes several selections of Hurston’s work.
There’s a bit of Hurston in Beatty’s tone when he writes, about Maya Angelou’s classic memoir: “I already knew why the caged bird sings, but after three pages of that book I now know why they put a mirror in the parakeet’s cage, so he can wallow in his own misery.”
The essays in “You Don’t Know Us Negroes” take aim at a range of topics. Hurston writes about Black language and about spirituals, which she felt had been shorn of their jagged qualities by “glee club” renditions.
There are a handful of book reviews. There’s a column of dating advice titled “The Ten Commandments of Charm.” (“Beware the temptation of the inkwell. For a woman that delugeth a man with letters and perfumed notes shall be called ‘pest.’”)
There’s a Marcus Garvey satire, two short pieces about noses and Hurston’s reporting, for The Pittsburgh Courier, about the 1952 trial of a wealthy Black woman who had shot her prominent white lover.
In their introduction, West and Gates argue that, with this book, “Hurston takes her place as a major essayist of the 20th century.” That’s true to the extent that five or six of these essays are obvious masterpieces of the form, their sting utterly intact.
There’s a lot of filler here, too, though — mundane essays that, if you removed Hurston’s name, could have been written by anyone. A long piece about Howard University, from 1925, prints pages of statements from its board of trustees. If the editors aren’t scraping the bottom of the barrel, they’re an inch or two away.
This book’s long introduction is well written but not, somehow, useful. The authors devote many pages to telling you what you are about to read and cherry-picking the best quotes. It’s like watching a 15-minute trailer for the film you’re about to watch.
Relevant biographical information is absent. We don’t learn how Hurston felt about her freelance writing. Did it matter to her? Who were her editors? Did she visit their offices? Was she well paid? Did she turn a lot of things down? Were her pieces ever rejected?
Her essays ran in places like The Saturday Evening Post, The American Mercury and Negro Digest. Did she sometimes pitch The Atlantic or The New Yorker but settle for placement not on those mountains but on subsidiary crags?
I liked this book anyway. Reading Hurston, you always wonder what shape her dignity will take next. Her style and spark were her own. When she was in high spirits, she felt “as snooty as the lions in front of the 42nd Street Library.”
She wrote at the end of a different essay: “Thems my sentiments and I am sticking by them.”
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