THE TESTIMONIES recorded in Zora Neale Hurston's writing take us beyond traditional sources and help us understand a particular place and time. Traditional sources allow us to know the external world that I have described in Chapter 3; Hurston's work, both fiction and nonfiction, takes us beyond that world to the inner lives of the human beings that inhabited it.
It has often been said that history repeats itself. When Hurston's play Mule Bone was performed on Broadway in 1991, it met with the hostility of an audience unprepared for the “Negro farthest down.” Viewers of Mule Bone disliked its brand of humor, felt uneasy about the predicaments its characters faced, and were embarrassed by the earthy language in which these characters spoke. They might as well have been George Schuyler's contemporaries, echoing Schuyler's prescriptions for the proper sentiments, appearance, and language through which the “best-footforward Negroes” could present their most respectable selves. It is surprising, in a way, how little things have changed. But it is the central premise of every historian's work that things do change, in spite of seeming likenesses between past and present.
In Zora Neale Hurston's day, the “Negro farthest down” was not considered a fit subject for literature. What has changed today is that this view, while it survives in some quarters, as the Mule Bone audience shows, is no longer at the core of a life-and-death political struggle against disenfranchisement, segregation, and violence.