Book Review: “You Don’t Know Us Negroes” by Zora Neale Hurston

The essays range from the well-known (“What White Publishers Won’t Print”, “High John de Conquer”, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”) to the unpublished, such as the title essay. “You Don’t Know Us Negroes” posits that white fiction writers are woefully ignorant of real black life, and instead of seeking to learn, they rely in their stories on myths, stereotypes, and beliefs. misrepresentations. Implicit in his argument is a commitment to black culture that is decidedly out of step with the majority of white Western thought in the early to mid-twentieth century.

The breadth of Hurston’s intellect is particularly striking here. She peppers her essays with literary, historical, biographical, political, artistic, educational and religious references so exhaustive that if readers were to simply follow the footnotes alone (as compiled by West and Gates), they would gain valuable education. .

Hurston’s knowledge was matched only by his conviction. She’s unapologetic and unbridled because she dares to call all topics her business, even ones that might make others think today: like the “Pet Negro” system in the South, in which a white supremacist takes a liking to and supports a person black in particular. . Of “this underground connection,” Hurston writes, “Who am I to pass judgment? … It weaves a kind of basic fabric that tends to stabilize relationships and give something to work with in adjustments. She considers that Brown v. Board of Education is an insult because it challenges ideas and institutions that have supported black people for centuries. If, she asks, the only good of integration was to have black and white children sitting side by side, then what was the point?

Readers familiar with Hurston’s work will notice the continuing signatures of his voice in these essays: the impertinence, the audacity to take to task institutions or individuals who, in his mind, would exploit less informed African Americans. She denounced the sale of black votes during the Florida primary of 1950, echoing the politics of the Reconstruction era; and her criticism of what she calls “Begging Joint” schools: those so-called institutions of higher learning for black, hastily trained Southern students whose primary purpose appears to be fundraising from philanthropists. whites.

Combining intellectual criticism with geographic movement as she travels the country—from Ohio to New York to Florida—she observes and comments on topics relevant to the political and social advancement of African Americans, such as the suitability of Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft to be president. of the United States, or the trial she covered in Live Oak, Florida, in 1952. All of Part 5 is devoted to this court case, in which Ruby McCollum, a wealthy African-American woman, shot and killed Dr. C. LeRoy Adams, a well-known white physician and politician. After coercing McCollum into having sex in exchange for medical treatment over a period of years, Adams impregnated her twice; one pregnancy resulted in the birth of a daughter and the other was aborted. In trying to understand McCollum, whose trial Hurston attended but was unable to interview, Hurston invokes her own inner insights and life experiences, as recounted in her 1942 autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road”, as well as in his portrait. by Janie Crawford in “Their Eyes Beheld God” (1937). Her own memories help her sketch out what she assumes McCollum must have thought and felt with Adams and during his trial. There are questions of poetic license, but they take nothing away from this engaging and compelling story of race and sexual exploitation in the Deep South.

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