The Largesse of Zora Neale Hurston

After 50 Years in a Basement, a Buried Manuscript Resurfaces

We are in a state of perpetual discovery about Zora Neale Hurston. For years her novels lay dormant, her grave unmarked, her birthdate unknown, her papers languishing in basements. Her patron was domineering, and a primitivist. Hurston's old age, when it came, was unsupported. She died poor in Florida, in 1960.

What we save shapes our recollection. Relics of our national memory are housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., a most holy burial place. Hurston's unpublished folklore manuscript lingered for 30 years in a basement at Columbia University in a file that once belonged to anthropologist William Duncan Strong. The files were then moved to the Smithsonian, where they waited another 20 years to be discovered. In 1998, the Zora Neale Hurston estate announced that the manuscript had been found. It was published in book form earlier this year.

Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales From the Gulf States (HarperCollins) is the lost manuscript, a collection of folktales from Hurston's research in the late 1920s, in the Gulf States. The collected stories include"God Tales," "Preacher Tales," "John and Massa Tales," and "Talking Animal Tales." They all involve the Negro's often humorous quest for survival against the plagues of insects, heat, holy order, and white people in the swamplands of the American South.

Hurston spent her life preserving the culture Negroes made in America. In Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography, and in Their Eyes Were Watching God, her most acclaimed novel, Hurston wrote about travails similar to those in the folktales, but her more personal books are infused with wide-armed treatises on love. The folktales in Hurston's new book sport symbols and morals and worlds fully invented: God sometimes walks the earth, wearing tattered pants and boots.

The oral character of Negro culture was waning in the late 1920s and early 1930s, as was its romance with the name "Negro." Every able head leaned forward trying to master American letters, so great, grand, and until then, hoarded, kept away. The stories we told each other, shaped and seasoned across creeks and rivers, repeated and retold to every chick and child, were getting shunted, disavowed, disregarded. Going the way of the slave shack. In Every Tongue Got to Confess, we hear stories about knowledge and possession, God and the devil, and the teachings of gnats and mosquitoes.

Folklore is inside knowledge. There's no absence of secrets, of wisdom, of warning, in the folktale. The more you make yourself present and open to folklore as an art form, the deeper an immersion you allow yourself to take, the easier it becomes to perceive what folktales have to tell. Hurston often spoke about studying "the Negro farthest down." Perhaps she chose those words because she understood that the oral tradition was fading, that in time the remains would be thinned to invisible. A certain posterity evolved through Hurston's ink.

Hurston, maybe more than any other 20th-century author, wrote in Ebonics before it was so called, often resulting in criticism by her contemporaries. Stories Hurston collected for Every Tongue offer a perspective on the Negro's predicament in a changing world: "I seen a railroad so crooked till de fireman be throwing coal in de headlight instead of de fire-box." Her publications were peppered with "black speech"—odd spellings, oral syntax not adjusted for the formal written text; the author rightly perceived that the "errors" matched her genre.

The peak attribute of folklore as genre involves its "mega-meaning." Zora Neale Hurston did not miss this reality in the way that the Ebonics debate seemed to. The purpose of black speech was often to say one thing and simultaneously mean something else, or something more. The purpose of altered syntax, symbolic storytelling, and the use of fable allows me to say, "The porch couldn't talk for looking," and mean that the sight before people stunned them. Some shock is beyond comment.

Folklore has been prayed over and prayed into. And this work of devotion and distillation turns the stories into fables—all about the moral order, all about, well, God. In the section "God Tales" Hurston presents a story of creation, where God, who gave man greater strength, is one-upped by the devil, who gave woman three keys: to the bedroom, the cradle, and the kitchen. And so, power was redistributed. The god stories are all about power and re-creation.

Because Hurston invoked religion, which has three sons—civics, speech, and everybody's secrets—she landscaped posterity based on the language of spoken word. These folktales are once again available to people who relinquished the aural language in favor of the constrained, restrained, suspended written word. What is written automatically predates what is spoken. The present tense is improvised.

Our culture marshaled many forces to erase Hurston. And yet, here we are, 42 years after she passed on so quietly, many of us calling her name. Every Tongue Got to Confess again revives our study of the researcher, writer, and fighter for the record. What attracted me to Hurston in the past remains the same: her uncanny understanding, her dedication to elevating the vernacular, Black English, or—sin of sins—Ebonics, and her refusal to let the spoken word die. Hurston listened to, protected and handled our language with real understanding and true attention to the multiple meanings the dialect supports. That was, and is, the primary point of the English that African Americans came to speak: to be able to say one thing in the face of the culture(s) that oppress(es) us, and simultaneously communicate another meaning among ourselves.

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