Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life

By Tiffany Ruby Patterson | Go to book overview

5

A Transient World of Labor

We stole words from the grudging lips of the Lords of
the Land, who did not want us to know too many of
them or their meaning. And we charged this meager
horde of stolen sounds with all the emotions and long-
ings we had; we proceeded to build our language in
inflections of voice, through tonal variety, by hurried
speech, in honeyed drawls, by rolling our eyes, by flour-
ishing our hands, by assigning to common, simple words
new meanings, meanings which enabled us to speak of
revolt in the actual presence of the Lords of the Land
without their being aware! Our secret language
extended our understanding of what slavery meant and
gave us the freedom to speak to our brothers in captiv-
ity; we polished our new words, caressed them, gave
them new shape and color, a new order and tempo,
until, though they were the words of the Lords of the
Land, they became our words, our language.

—Richard Wright, Twelve Million Black Voices, 40

WHEN ZORA NEALE HURSTON arrived in Polk County, Florida, in 1928 to collect folklore in the turpentine and sawmill camps, the population was more than 90 percent black and composed of transient labor from all over the South. The phosphate mining camps were also heavily black. Records of the Everglades Cypress Company, which managed the turpentine and sawmill camps, are not available. The Peonage Files of the U.S. Department of Justice offer only partial clues. Other records are sketchy and provide only fleeting references to the life of the workers or labor

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