Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life

Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life

Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life

Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life

Synopsis

A historian hoping to reconstruct the social world of all-black towns or the segregated black sections of other towns in the South finds only scant traces of their existence. In [title] Tiffany Ruby Patterson uses the ethnographic and literary work of Zora Neale Hurston to augment the few official documents, newspaper accounts, and family records that pertain to these places hidden from history. Hurston's ethnographies, plays, and fiction focused on the day-to-day life in all-black social spaces as well as "the Negro farthest down" in labor camps. Patterson shows how Hurston's work coincides with the fragmented historical record to demonstrate the extent to which the folklore and stories provide a plausible account of these Black folk as active human subjects, shaped by history and shaping their private world. Beyond the view and domination of whites in these spaces, they created their own codes of social behavior, honor, and justice. In Patterson's view Hurston did not demean her subjects or caricature them; she rendered them faithfully and with respect for their individuality and endurance. In so doing, she enabled us to envision a world that otherwise would have been inaccessible.

Excerpt

On a hot August day in the 1920s, an unlikely couple motored through New England, stopping at an exclusive inn in Westchester County, New York. They were Fannie Hurst and Zora Neale Hurston, both writers, both female. One was an African American from the South whose rural southern heritage was imprinted in her color, language, and dress. The other was Jewish, and her heritage was hidden beneath her color, language, and dress. One was passing, the other could not. On many of their excursions together, they had discovered that race mattered in some places and not in others. They were welcomed into hotels and restaurants in Ontario, Canada. At hotels in the United States, however, Hurston was often shunted off to the servants' quarters, if a place could be found for her at all. In a show of solidarity, Hurst once offered to refuse accommodation. But Zora Neale Hurston's response puzzled the white middle-class liberal, who detected no sense of indignation. Unmoved by either the insult or Hurst's display of empathy, Hurston quipped, “If you are going to take that stand, it will be impossible for us to travel together. This is the way it is and I can take care of myself as I have all my life. I will find my own lodging and be around with the car in the morning.”

On this particular day in Westchester County, however, Hurston revealed a ripple in the apparent calm of her mental state. Fannie Hurst, dressed and behaving like a Fitzgerald heroine, abruptly . . .

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