The Largesse of Zora Neale Hurston


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 Hurston’s unpublished folklore manuscript lingered for 30 years in a basement at Columbia University in a file that once belonged to anthropologist William Duncan Strong.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 FolkTales 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.

Hurston first came to fame during the Harlem Renaissance, when Negroes were, as Langston Hughes termed it, “in vogue.” In her time, Hurston was as well known in inner circles as Hughes, her competitor and contemporary. Hurston remains an inner circle persona. To those who know (of) her, Hurston is worthy of holy words. Those who don’t know (of) her suffer from a lopsided canon. People who haven’t read her work are looked at askance by writers, feminists, word people, Afro-centrists, historians, and cultural studies mavens.

Both Hurston and artist Frida Kahlo have a kind of long-suffering memory fused to a high-drama, high-production personality. Their work and their take on it almost deifies them. Knowledge of Zora and Frida bestows a kind of password, a keen signal of an inside knowledge. Now, parents are naming their children Zora. Her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, holds an annual festival in her honor. She has been the subject of more than a dozen critical studies, and there is The Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation. Scholarships are given in her name by this foundation, which is dedicated to perpetuating black writing and to supporting black writers. You can call her first name and somebody else who has rediscovered her will, like you, find it incantatory. Zora.

We often talk about visionaries being “before their time.” This is our way of commending them for seeing what they explain. I perceive Hurston as more than avant garde, but also “over their heads.” Hurston researched, defined, and elevated the cultural praxis that others of her time were unable to celebrate. Excepted notably is Langston Hughes, who joined her in the work of defining who was beautiful in a world of ugly slurs.

Zora Neale Hurston and her hip, fringe, bohemian, Harlem Renaissance friends are credited for calling themselves the Niggerati. This play on Italian thrives, or is revived, in inside language today. Using the word “Niggerati” appalled the “Renaissance Fathers,” who Hurston believed merely emulated white bourgeois behavior. For all the references in Randall Kennedy’s recent book on the N-word, he does not cover this important, artistic variation, this play on “literati.” Niggerati—there is humor and playfulness in this swipe at academia, and at the cultural elite.

The only time I ever heard Zora’s voice she was singing. This too was a huge find for me, one that seems befitting. People who, like Hurston, make art realize that there is the lilt and arch of being inventive that can be compared to song. Hurston elevated the ordinary to position it for interpretation, thereby asserting its worth. On the song recording Hurston made, young girls sang accompaniment to a game they played. Hurston recorded them singing, and then recorded her understanding of what she heard. You can hear Hurston pause, the researcher inquiring, awaiting validation, a nod to authenticity. She uncovered and preserved their game. In an oral culture, such a risk of loss, of oblivion, prevails. Hurston recorded without being asked, often without being encouraged.

Hurston filled a void in history as the hole stretched open. Can’t you see her standing with her Barnard-fashioned shovel, holding her hunger for her culture to survive? Heave ho, go away, hole. Hurston sweat as she worked, but sweat wins out. “OK, this is how the song goes,” she said on tape. She sings. I couldn’t really hear—or more precisely, can’t remember—the specific words she sang. But hearing her sing so unexpectedly startled and confounded me, this new mystery. As yet, I haven’t been able to retire the sound of her to any place where we set the unremarked or unremarkable. Hurston sings again.