Zora Neale Hurston’s unmatched talent was almost lost to us forever. By the time of her death in 1960, her books had stopped being published and she’d already fallen into obscurity and poverty. An American literary establishment that only saw white men fit to revere as classics was more than ready to let Hurston’s incredibly innovative and important body of work disappear.
Fortunately for readers, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and other classics, did not let that happen. At the end of The Complete Stories of Zora Neale Hurston, you’ll find Walker’s essay about her journey to restore Hurston to her rightful place as one of America’s most masterful storytellers and ethnographers of Black American life.
The collection includes every short story the author/anthropologist ever published and even a few that weren’t published because white-run magazines found the incisive criticism of issues like police brutality and systemic racism too controversial.
One of the most interesting examples of that is the inclusion of two versions of her short story “Now You Cookin’ with Gas.” The published version, titled “A Story in Harlem Slang,” is notably lacking a long, pointed conversation from the unpublished version between two Black characters about the threat of police brutality and the experience of everyday racism in New York.
With no weak links and a broad range of form, including a dictionary of African American Vernacular English (“Harlem Slanguage”) and a story told in biblical verse (“Book of Harlem”), The Complete Stories is a fast-paced, light-hearted, and affectionate celebration of Black culture. It’s also an unadulterated criticism of systemic racism in the early 20th century and one of the best introductions to Hurston’s range and style that a reader could hope for.
Hurston Pulls Readers Into Her Stories by Blending Ethnographic and Literary Methods in Innovative Ways
I was an instant fan of Zora Neale Hurston as soon as I read Of Mules and Men. The autoethnography of Hurston’s research trips through New Orleans and rural Florida collected African American folklore but threaded those stories into a narrative of everyday Black life in Florida and Louisiana, all while keeping the ethnographer (Hurston) present in the narrative rather than pretending she was some omniscient, unbiased outside observer.
To be doing all that at any point in history, let alone in 1935, is incredible. To be doing ethnography at home, rather than off in some remote part of Africa or South America or Asia where the (usually white) ethnographer could primitivize and exoticize some other society’s daily life, is incredible. Zora Neale Hurston is incredible and remains one of my favorite authors.
My fascination with anthropology grew out of my love of stories. Specifically, stories that revealed the underappreciated complexities of everyday situations. I loved sitting down to listen to a professor spend two hours breaking down the many dimensions of meaning, cultural assumptions, and social hierarchies involved in an encounter as seemingly mundane as one person ordering a sandwich from another.
The most significant moments in our lives are the ones in which all its different elements coalesce in a single, subtle gesture or glance or phrase. They’re the ones in which, if you pause a moment to reflect, you will discover all the different pieces of yourself fitting together just so.
Reading Hurston’s stories feels like that. She blends fiction and ethnography seamlessly, telling true stories with the flourish of literary language and fictional stories with the raw impact of real, living language.
This collection of short stories feels like a set of elements that can each exist on their own but also coalesce into a single impressionist portrait of humanity. She is a great writer and a great ethnographer — and the combination of the two is an unstoppable force.
It is this that allows her to create such whole characters and such natural dialogue that at once feels like something you would overhear and something that would be written down as poetry.
When most authors were fighting over whether to write realistic or mythical novels, Hurston was writing something else entirely, something that reminded us that our lives are only complete when they are composed of real and mythical elements.
Humans are creators by nature. When nature seems bleak, bland, or confusing, we dress it up in myths, stories, and symbols. We create out of dull earth something for us to admire. Hurston channels that human creative force into her work and does so consciously, in a way that inspires her readers to be more conscious about channeling their own.
If you read this collection, you will find yourself regularly startled by the unexpected subtlety and cleverness of the language. You will read it again and find that there are layers to this language, layers playfully and skillfully arranged.
For me, the most representative story of the collection is the one that has been tucked neatly in the middle. Here you’ll find High John De Conquer, a story given with such a kind and compassionate sentiment that you’ll feel the America she spoke to (and the America of today) did not actually deserve it.
Speaking to a nation in the grip of World War II and afraid, she shares “the secret of Negro song and laughter.” She tells of High John De Conquer, a mythical figure created by enslaved Black people.
Hurston’s attitude here is a controversial one. While many Harlem Renaissance writers debated whether their work should serve to build a bridge across racial divisions or to be made just for the Black community, Hurston did a little of both.
Here, she shared something intimate and sacred (something I’m sure not everybody agrees she should have shared) but she doesn’t alter or whitewash it to make it palatable to white audiences in the way that magazine editors would do to many of her short stories upon publication. It’s not my place to have an opinion about the responsibility of Black authors to their communities, so I’ll just say that I appreciated “High John” even if it might not ever mean to me what it means to a Black reader.
Hurston’s story is yet another High John folktale on one level, an anthropological examination of the function of High John stories on another, and a generously offered gift on still another level.
High John would get into all kinds of antics, often outwitting the man who enslaved him but sometimes losing to him in a humorous, harmless sort of way. They are funny stories “to help [Black people] overcome things they feel that they could not beat otherwise.” In one of the most unimaginably cruel periods of history, enslaved Black people created light and laughter out of nothing; created hope out of nothing.
The many antics of High John are framed in a lucid explanation of the purpose these stories served and the power of the gift she was sharing with her readers. It opens with just the sort of small human gesture in which so much coalesces:
We have put our labor and our blood into the common causes for a long time. We have given the rest of the nation song and laughter. Maybe now, in this terrible struggle, we can give something else — the source and soul of our laughter and song. We offer you our hope-bringer, High John de Conquer.