“Negro folklore is not a thing of the past,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston. “It’s still in the works.”
A new collection of essays and stories from Hurston, edited and featured by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Genevieve West in “You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays,” seems to prove him right. A hundred years ago, Hurston was attending Howard University, a historically black college, as a young writer. Now, a century later, this collection contextualizes both Hurston the writer and black life in American culture.
Born in 1890s Alabama, Hurston spent her life observing black people in her community and beyond. Through her writing of fiction and her work in anthropology, she has developed new ways of conceptualizing black language, music, and culture. She insisted on capturing the nuances of black people in the Americas and often used the black vernacular, or what is now called African American Vernacular English, in her writing. His 1937 novel, “Their Eyes Beheld God”, was initially criticized by his contemporaries, who criticized it for its primary use of AAVE.
“You Don’t Know Us Negroes” is divided into five sections to guide readers through Hurston’s writing. The final section is devoted to Hurston’s reporting and respect for the infamous Ruby McCollum murder case in Live Oak, Florida (more on that later). The rest of the collection oscillates effortlessly between folklore, Hurston’s reporting and his essays.
The collection kicks off with “On the Folk,” in which Hurston explores various black American superstitions, languages, cultural heroes, and tales. From slang to church spirituals, Hurston traces the lineage of black culture and its power to overthrow white supremacy. Speaking of the presence of blacks in America, she writes: “He changed the language, the way of preparing food, … and most certainly, the religion of his new country.”
Readers are treated to vivid examples of Hurston’s sharp wit and his critique of the politics of respectability, sexism and classism. Throughout the collection, she relentlessly takes aim at issues not only outside the black community, but also within it. In the eponymous essay, “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” she points out that black writers are partly responsible for the distortion of black life in mainstream culture. A reluctance to portray the fullness of black culture, even the bad sides, led to this, Hurston argues.
His essay “The Ten Commandments of Charming,” in the third section of the book, seems timely given the ongoing revelations of the #MeToo movement. In it, Hurston brazenly and sarcastically details the “commandments” for young women. “Thou shalt ask no questions,” writes Hurston. “Don’t forget your femininity.” She advises young women to smile in the street, because that’s what men like. At a time when more and more women are speaking out about sexual harassment and abuse, Hurston’s writing, written decades ago, rings even truer.
Her reporting on the 1952 McCollum case for the Pittsburgh Courier laid bare the harsh realities of black women in the Deep South. The black defendant was a married mother of four, who was charged with the murder of C. Leroy Adams, a white doctor, who she claims forced her into a year-long sexual relationship. McCollum said her youngest child was fathered by Adams. At the trial, she was denied the opportunity to tell her full story and explain her motives for killing Adams. The judge’s gag order prevented her and her lawyers from speaking to the press. An all-white jury found her guilty of first degree murder and she was sentenced to the electric chair. The case was appealed and the death penalty was eventually dropped as part of a plea deal, but McCollum, no doubt traumatized by her ordeal, was committed to a mental institution. (She was released in 1974.)
“You Don’t Know Us Niggers” is not light reading. It deals with complicated and raw subjects that may be too intense for young readers. The collection is meant to be absorbed piece by piece, slowly, over time. It has a lot to offer, but readers should take the time to fully read and enjoy the material.
While Hurston was a fierce protector and supporter of black culture, she also wanted “the black experience to speak its own voice,” write editors Gates and West. She argued that it was the black writer’s responsibility to “lift the veil” on black lives. Without a doubt, “You Don’t Know Us Negros” does just that. This collection provides insight into Black language, culture and history. But “You Don’t Know Us Negroes” is also a reminder that black life is vast, nuanced, and (as Hurston puts it) “a hundred times more imaginative and entertaining than anything ever concocted on a typewriter.”