Tailing Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes across the South
Ornate and imposing, the century-old Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Passenger Terminal in downtown Mobile, Alabama, resembles a cross between a Venetian palace and a Spanish mission. Here on St. Joseph Street, on July 23, 1927, one of the most fortuitous meetings in American literary history occurred. “No sooner had I got off the train” from New Orleans, Langston Hughes wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea, “than I ran into Zora Hurston, walking intently down the main street.” The pair knew one another from New York but had each left town several months earlier. Neither of them knew the other was in the area, so, as Hughes wrote, “we were very glad to see each other.”
Hurston was in Mobile to interview Cudjoe Lewis, a former slave born in Africa, and then planned to make her way back north, doing folklore research along the way. Bankrolled to the tune of $1,400 by Carter G. Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and by Elsie Clews Parsons of the American Folklore Society, Hurston had been gathering folklore in Florida all spring and summer; as she was the first Southern black person to do this, her project was, even at this early stage, clearly of immense importance. Penniless as usual, Hughes had been touring the region for months, making some public appearances and undertaking his own research—he read his poems at commencement for Nashville’s Fisk University in June; in New Orleans he strolled the streets alone, ducking into voodoo shops. So when Hurston invited him to join her expedition—in her little car, nicknamed “Sassy Susie”—Hughes happily accepted:
Miss Hurston was bound North, too. She had her own car, so we decided to travel together, stopping on the way to pick up folk-songs, conjur, and big ole lies, for Miss Hurston was on a collector’s trip for one of the folk-lore societies. Blind guitar players, conjur men, and former slaves were her quarry, small town jooks and plantation churches, her haunts. I knew it would be fun traveling with her. It was.
“This place is kind of barren,” said Jacky, my thirteen-year-old son, as we drove through Mobile in search of the historic train station. Then we saw it rising up from the landscape of highway ramps, warehouses, and subdivisions, one of the only old buildings in a half-mile radius. During urban renewal in the 1960s and ’70s, more than forty city blocks were erased from Mobile, and an intercity highway now opens to downtown here. I suppose they didn’t have the gall to raze the Gulf Terminal, even though the last time a train passed through it was in the 1950s. Hurricanes and tornadoes have also taken their toll. My wife, Karen, found the Mission Revival building an “unexpectedly grand” backdrop for the chance encounter. The incongruity of the station, now converted to office space, with its modern surroundings made it nearly impossible for me to imagine the historical scene of that meeting at the spot where it happened.
Since 2012, I have been researching Hughes and Hurston and the intersections of their lives for a book I’m writing on their friendship, a deep and passionate one that lasted six years, only to end in bitter acrimony. Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, has long been one of my favorite books, and when I researched her work more extensively for my previous book, Darkest America, I fell in love with it for its sharp humor, evocation of a vanished world, improvisational language, and unflinching portrayal of community relationships. As for Hughes, he reminds me of another figure I am intensely interested in: Bob Dylan. (Both were very young when they arrived in New York from Midwestern small towns; handsome, intense, and penurious, inspiring precocious adulation. Both were elusive characters prone to shifting gears. And both became elder statesmen who led long, productive lives.) Despite a wealth of literature about the Harlem Renaissance, including excellent biographies of Hurston and Hughes, their relationship has never been explored at length and in depth. Both writers distorted the facts of it in their autobiographies, and neither admitted therein how valuable their friendship had been.
But as I got to know them better and better over the years, they became increasingly real to me. I had already visited their respective houses in Westfield, New Jersey, where both were living in 1929, and the Harlem rooming house that was the center of activity for their group of literary mischief-makers a few years earlier. From Mobile, I hoped to retrace the 1927 road trip that cemented their friendship. Jacky, Karen, and our seventeen-year-old daughter, Thalia, were along for the ride.
Their Eyes Were Watching God remains the single most widely read book ever written by an African American; Hughes’s poems had a greater influence than those of any other black poet of his era. Together the two writers invigorated the Harlem Renaissance, promulgating ideas about African-American expression that fundamentally shifted the course of American letters and provided a wellspring of inspiration for future black art and empowerment. Their position in American literary history is by now firmly established. But in the summer of 1927 they were relatively unknown.
Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston met on May 1, 1925, at an awards ceremony given by the National Urban League’s magazine, Opportunity, at New York City’s Fifth Avenue Restaurant, where they received more honors than anyone else. Zora was thirty-four but passed for ten years younger; Langston was only twenty-three. Newcomers to the Manhattan literary scene, they were winning it over. Zora, with her distinctively high cheekbones and colorful clothes, her Southern accent, and her love of storytelling, radiated energy and insouciance—she loved nothing better than putting on a show. Langston, equally at ease with uneducated workers, intellectuals, and Manhattan socialites, was tall, thin, muscled, and enviably handsome in his dark suit and vest, even though he had barely recovered from a bout of malaria contracted in Washington, D.C. (That city was “worse than the coasts of Africa,” as he explained.) They were each inimitable characters, terrifically attractive, especially to certain wealthy white “Negrophiles.” And both of them had been writing almost exclusively about the black experience, drawing heavily on folk tales and popular music, not just for the rhythm but for the content of their work. They soon helped found the Niggerati, a group of young writers who frequented writer and editor Wallace Thurman’s Harlem rooming house, and published a daring new journal, Fire!!, that broke literary, sexual, and racial taboos. They made plans to collaborate on an opera, and they took their white socialite friend Carl Van Vechten to all the best Harlem nightspots. And then they separately left New York.
The serendipitous meeting in Mobile and subsequent trip provided the perfect opportunity for them to compare notes from their prior travels—to exchange ideas and to explore, along the back roads of the South, the characteristics of African-American culture that informed their greatest work. They had both kept meticulous records of songs, sayings, and turns of phrase, delighting in the cultural riches of their Southern black brethren. Zora told Langston all about her terribly disappointing marriage in St. Augustine two months earlier to her old flame Herbert Sheen, a medical student who had traveled there from Chicago to see her; perhaps she also told Langston that her second thoughts had begun the moment she said “I do.” (“Who had cancelled the well-advertised tour of the moon?” she wondered.) Langston told Zora all about his infatuation with Charlotte Osgood Mason—or Godmother, as she preferred to call herself—an immensely wealthy and apparently psychically gifted seventy-three-year-old widow; she was already a patron of Hughes’s and would soon begin supporting Hurston with generous stipends while manipulating their lives and work. As they drew closer, the writers shared not only their knowledge and feelings, but also their food and money.
On the way to Mobile, Langston had been jotting down notes on the train:
The palm trees
The pecan groves on both sides of Ocean Spring
The little boys with their derbies and box band.
After meeting Zora that day, he added:
Mobile July 23.
Mr. H. Roger Williams
“I’m a sojourner in truth since I got religion so I just calls ma self Sojourner Truth.”
The slave walk, which came from hoeing and planting.
The “Big House” explanation for Negro jealousy of those who come up.
Zora’s bare front.
The chicken seller.
I have to assume that the lines about Sojourner Truth and slavery came from conversations Langston was having with Zora. As for “Zora’s bare front,” I can draw no conclusions except that the sight must have aroused some feeling in him. That Zora might, even inadvertently, reveal her “bare front” to Langston does not seem to me out of character.
Of their journey, Hurston wrote very little, during or after; Hughes wrote quite a bit. He recounted their travels in letters and postcards—mostly to Van Vechten—and devoted a number of pages of his autobiography to it. Constantly, it seems, he recorded details, both mundane and sometimes movingly lyrical, in pocket notebooks now housed in the Langston Hughes Collection of Yale’s Beinecke Library. Typical lines read: “Stark naked kids . . . families picking cotton . . . very black people”; “Crabs, whiting, cat fish.” Elsewhere, he listed expenses. On August 22, for example, Hurston paid a quarter for breakfast, twenty cents to a “garage man,” and a dollar fifty for “tire and gas”; Hughes paid six bits for lunch and ten cents for a soda. He included some rather unusual transactions, too: he gave four bits to a “convict” one day and the same to a “tramp” another, while a “conjur man” cost him two bucks. Notable repeated expenses include cigarettes (fifteen cents a pack) and watermelon (fifty cents in Macon, thirty in Charleston and Richmond).
“Right off,” Hughes wrote about their meeting in Mobile, “we went to eat some fried fish and watermelon. Then she took me to see Dr. Williams and his daughter, Lucy Ariel, a talented pianist and poet.”
We arrived in Mobile on July 18, five days short of the eighty-eighth anniversary of Hurston and Hughes’s chance meeting. We were hungry, so we went to Mobile’s most popular restaurant, Wintzell’s Oyster House, first thing. As it happens, the gravel parking lot for Wintzell’s is at 608 Dauphin Street, formerly the site of the home of H. Roger Williams, where Hurston likely had been staying. Across the street, Wintzell’s has been occupying, since 1938, a one-story shack squeezed between two nineteenth-century buildings, and, at some point, it expanded to take up both adjacent storefronts as well. One of those housed Dr. Williams’s Live and Let Live Drug Store, which he opened in 1901, the first black-owned drugstore in Mobile. Now, the walls of the oyster house are crowded with thousands of handwritten homilies and, I noticed, a vintage GEORGE WALLACE FOR PRESIDENT placard.
That afternoon, at the History Museum of Mobile, located in the former city hall, we learned about the Clotilde, the last known slave ship to bring captives (including Cudjoe Lewis) from Africa to the United States. The shipment was secretly commissioned by a wealthy Mobile businessman and arrived in 1859 or 1860, more than fifty years after the United States had abolished the African slave trade. Lewis and his fellow shipmates were slaves only a few years; after the Civil War, they established a large community called Africatown a few miles north of Mobile.
Hurston’s description of Africatown in her report to Carter Woodson about Lewis reads in full: “There is no pavement of any kind. The settlement is not lighted.” Today, Africatown is a neighborhood of old shotgun shacks dispersed over a large wooded area; most are crumbling. Despite the community’s place on the National Register of Historic Places, the section called Lewis Quarters, founded by Cudjoe’s brother, is difficult to find because it is practically surrounded by the Gulf Lumber plant, the construction of which consumed part of the neighborhood. There, almost all of the houses have been rebuilt since the Lewis family still occupies them, and there’s a little plaque in their honor. Africatown, however, home to lumber mills from the time of its inception, has been continually plagued by industrial pollution. One resident told Bridge the Gulf, an Internet news site, “We’re still burying most of our people between the age of 40 and 50 right now.”
The first road over Mobile Bay, a complicated multimillion-dollar project that included five bridges and a causeway, was completed in June 1927, just in time for Zora and Langston to cross it on their way to Montgomery. It would have been tremendously exciting to take that brand-new series of spans, one of them an enormous vertical lift bridge, across the twenty-four-mile-wide bay—but there is no mention of it in Hughes’s journals.
East of Mobile, U.S. 31 to Montgomery winds through hills and forests, many of them recently clearcut, providing us glimpses of devastation. Occasionally the timber was so thick that we felt like we were driving through a canyon. Langston and Zora spent a Saturday night in Montgomery, of which Langston wrote in his notebook, “Distance from station / The churches with yelling ministers.” It’s possible that one was the Dexter Avenue Church, built in the 1880s very near the capitol, where Martin Luther King Jr. would help kick off the civil rights movement in 1955. In impressive heat we walked around the simple brick church and visited Maya Lin’s small memorial, with water flowing over the names and dates of murdered civil rights workers, culminating in King’s assassination. But there were no other visitors there on a Sunday afternoon, so we pushed on to the Tuskegee Institute, as Hurston and Hughes did, and spent the night, as they did, on campus.
Tuskegee’s campus is reminiscent of Harvard’s—redbrick, classic, with the clean lines of academic American architecture. The primary architect, Robert R. Taylor, was the first black graduate of MIT, and Tuskegee was built entirely by its own students, who even fired the bricks. Zora and Langston arrived on July 24, and the next day they met Jessie Fauset, the literary editor of the NAACP’s house journal, the Crisis, who had been almost a second mother to Langston for years and published many of his poems, and who also happened to be visiting Tuskegee from New York. On July 27, Langston had lunch with Sadie Peterson, who had helped develop the African-American collection at the New York Public Library in the early 1920s and then the library at the VA hospital in Tuskegee. He also received a check for one hundred dollars that day from Godmother. On July 29, he wrote to Gwendolyn Bennett, who would publish an excerpt from his letter in Opportunity in September: “I am having the time of my life down here. Everybody’s fine to me and the South isn’t half bad. Tuskegee is wonderful.” He mentions Fauset and Peterson and “gangs of delightful folks,” and relates his itinerary: “I am going to the country tomorrow for a while and then on to Georgia.”
Hughes had been invited to travel with Tuskegee’s Movable School, or the Booker T. Washington Agricultural School on Wheels, an exemplar of rural outreach. As he noted in his journals, the Movable School worked through county agents who would arrange stops; Alabama was the only state that had one. It had been Washington’s idea, and it had first operated using mules, then a Ford truck; by Hughes’s time it was housed in a White Motor Company truck (the 1920s equivalent of a heavy-duty pickup), laden with a Delco-Light electric plant, a motion picture machine, an electric sewing machine, an iron, a churn, a gasoline stove, a tool chest, volleyball equipment, an ax, a shovel, a fireless cooker, a water cooler, and a stocked pantry. He spent a week with three teachers near the Tennessee border, visiting Decatur, Huntsville, and Berkley, taking copious notes about the people he met, stories he heard, and places he visited. He returned to Tuskegee on his own, arriving August 7, and stayed another week. At some point, Hughes also visited George Washington Carver in his laboratory—we know this from a letter Carver later wrote him—but, curiously, he didn’t mention this in his notebooks.
What Hurston did during this time remains a mystery. An undated note she wrote Langston from around this period told him, “Finished work and got my check today. Woodson cut me a week. I thought I’d get pay for the month but he only paid me for two weeks. Have only $10000. Rather depressed. I hate that improperly born wretch. Shall we drive, or shall I sell car? shall see you in five days at the outside.”
There are three photographs of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes together on the trip, all from their visit to Tuskegee. In one they’re standing with Jessie Fauset at the center of Tuskegee’s campus in front of Charles Keck’s statue “Lifting the Veil of Ignorance,” which shows Booker T. Washington uncloaking a newly freed slave. In another the two writers pose with two very elegantly dressed young African-American men and a woman. None of them smile, but they look comfortable. In the third they stand with three others in full sun, brightly lit, with trees behind them. Zora is wearing different white dresses in each of the photographs, but the same long string of beads; Langston wears the same jazzy tie in the sunny portraits. These are, as far as I know, the only extant photographs of the two of them together.
When the two friends finally left Tuskegee, they crossed into Georgia bound for Fort Valley. Hughes wrote in his notebook, “Saw man driving goat cart in Columbus. Passed many gourds for bee-martins high on poles.” It’s impossible to imagine anyone driving a goat cart near Columbus today, and it couldn’t have been common in 1927 or else Hughes wouldn’t have remarked on it. The gourds are practically the only things we saw that haven’t changed—on our trip we counted a dozen varieties. (They are installed for purple martins, not bee-martins, another name for kingbirds; he was mistaken.) Some poles sport as many as two dozen gourds arranged symmetrically; in other cases, as in Roberta, Georgia, a line of half a dozen poles will sport one or two gourds each, put up haphazardly like inverted Calder mobiles.
“In Georgia,” Langston wrote in The Big Sea, “we visited an excellent Negro school at Fort Valley and met Mr. and Mrs. Hunt in charge, but at that time the school was closed and we saw only the buildings.” Henry A. Hunt was one of the most important black educators in the South, “advancing” at Fort Valley “the vanguard of civilization on a front where the resistance has been most bitter,” as the Crisis put it in 1930. That night, Hughes described in a letter to Van Vechten, he and Zora ventured “out in the country to a backwoods church entertainment given by a magician. It closed with his playing on a large harp and singing the Lord’s Prayer in a very lively fashion. And his version began like this:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hollywood be Thy name!”
In a postscript, Hughes added: “We’re on our way to the old Toomer plantation now where Jean’s father was born and where a number of his ‘poor relations’ still live.”
Hughes was referring to Jean Toomer, the author of Cane, a celebrated collection of poems and vignettes about rural Georgia published in 1923. Toomer’s father had once been a slave on John Toomer’s small plantation not far from Fort Valley. There, Hughes related in his autobiography, they talked with some of Toomer’s distant relatives, and Hughes became enamored of an old hat that one of the men there wore, “a marvelous patchwork hat of felt, patched over and over.” It was, he continued, “wonderfully weather-stained and dirty. The old Negro looked like something out of Uncle Remus. Indeed like Uncle Remus himself. I coveted his hat. It seemed to me like the quaint soul of labor in the Old South, ‘caroling softly souls of slavery.’ It seemed to me like early dawn on the Georgia plum trees and sunlight in the cotton fields. [The quote and imagery are from Cane.] So, after much dignified bargaining (for I had to overcome his entrenched resistance), I traded my new straw hat for it and brought the octogenarian’s hat back with me to New York.”
I hesitate to include this passage here. Hughes’s fondness for Uncle Remus and “the quaint soul of labor in the Old South” isn’t just retrograde, it echoes age-old white justifications for the horrors of slavery. But it’s quite typical of his autobiography. His journal is altogether different:
Cousin (Fred Toomer) much like Gene [sic]. Wife ill. House in midst of cotton fields and peach trees. Chickens running under house and two dogs alive with fleas. Pecan, and English walnut trees. Grape vines and brambles. A very deep, cloudy well.
Came back to town and went looking for a guitar player named Bugaboo but couldn’t find him.
The simple lyricism I find stunning.
The next day, on August 17, Langston and Zora sent Van Vechten a postcard. It read, “We are charging home in a wheezy car and hope to be home for Xmas,” joking about the pace of their travel. “We are being fed on watermelon, chicken, and the company of good things. Wish you were with us. Lovely people not spoiled by soap-suds and talcum.”
The people of Fort Valley—the Peach Capital of Georgia, featuring a triangular “square” with a gazebo in the middle surrounded by towering pecan orchards—are still lovely. We went to City Hall, where I spent a half hour talking with the marshal, Calvin Jones, while Karen talked to the mayor, Barbara Williams. We were trying to locate the Hunt residence, which Hughes had called “marvelous.” Jones and Williams, both of whom are African American, had gone to school with Henry Hunt’s grandchildren, and Marshal Jones made a call to help us find it. And find it we did—the big, “marvelous” home: the “Anderson House” right next to Hunt’s high school, now Fort Valley State University.
Census records offered no precise location but informed me that the Toomer plantation was in the southwest corner of Houston (pronounced House-ton) County, not far from town. Google Maps gave us a Toomer Road in the area, so we headed that way on back roads. We followed it for another ten miles, passing nothing but near-contemporary houses, until, near the end of the road, we came to an old C.M.E. (Colored Methodist Evangelist) Church. Set back in the woods, it was white, its windows boarded up with plywood painted black. There was no driveway, just driven-over grass. In the graveyard were seven Toomer graves, the oldest dating from the 1950s: they were the only stones painted white. The churchyard was surrounded by pine woods. After a little discussion—the kids disapproved—we ignored a NO TRESPASSING sign and drove into the woods on grass trails, checking for evidence of a hidden plantation, but discovered only more of an extensive tree farm. Farther down Toomer Road we saw a few clapboard buildings that, despite new green roofs, were clearly from long ago. We turned into the driveway but felt wary, as two unchained dogs loped toward us, so we didn’t advance any closer. We backed out. The people who live in these buildings had also hung gourds in their back yards.
Was this once the Toomer plantation? It was very hard to know.
In Fort Valley, Hurston and Hughes had found out that Bessie Smith was making an appearance in Macon at the Douglass Theatre, built by African-American entrepreneur Charles H. Douglass in 1921 and one of the most important movie theaters and vaudeville halls in the area. They ended up staying at the same hotel together, almost certainly the Colonial, Macon’s only hotel for blacks, which Douglass had built in 1906; it stood right next to the theater and advertised “25 Neatly Furnished Rooms with Hot and Cold Baths.” (It’s no longer there.) “You didn’t have to go near the theater to hear Bessie sing,” Hughes wrote in The Big Sea. “You could hear her blocks away. Besides, she practised [sic] every morning in the hotel where we lived, so we met her and got to know her pretty well.” The Douglass Theatre still stands and has been gloriously renovated, golden, with green velvet seats, plaster garlands and masks, and, in the lobby, colorful stencilled designs. In fact, the Douglass featured occasional whites-only nights so that the whites of Macon could see the great black performers of the day.
Across the South, the summer of 1927 was marked by a growing recognition that the great exodus of blacks to the North represented an economic threat that had to be dealt with. Georgia had already made it unlawful for workers to leave the state for outside employment; now the labor commissioner of Louisiana warned of a crisis in the building trade in New Orleans if the exodus continued, and Alabama enacted a statute prohibiting the inducement of workers to leave the state “through grandiose promises of economic and social betterment.”
The Great Mississippi Flood, which had begun the previous summer and lasted until August 1927, had displaced more than 600,000 people in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana; 25,000 of them went to St. Louis alone, adding more than twenty-five percent to that city’s African-American population. But the emigration was widespread all over, for the conditions in which blacks lived—under mob rule, with constant threats of lynchings and whippings, and with peonage and sharecropping offering hardships at times worse than slavery—were insupportable.
On August 20, the Chicago Defender, one of the main black newspapers of the era, ran an astonishing article titled “Barbecue in Georgia” on its editorial page. The white citizens of Talbot County had hosted a barbecue for the benefit of both races that past week, and advertised it as follows: “There will be plenty of barbecue and speeches free. We want to show that good feeling exists between the races: and that white people are their friends.” The Defender reported that “Thousands of citizens were present” and one speaker there shouted, “We must stop this migration. . . . There will be no more lynching in this county, and no more in this state if we can help it. We have decided to remove all inequalities between the races: henceforth there shall be no more use of ‘nigger’ in this county if we have to build more jails to house those who violate this rule.”
Obviously, the article was satire. But it gives a good indication of the tenor of the times. And, coincidentally, Zora and Langston had driven right through Talbot County on Sunday, August 14, the very day of this fictional barbecue. “Passed a town last night named Tallbottom,” Hughes wrote to Van Vechten, deliberately misspelling Talbotton. “Maybe that’s where the Blackbottom started. Anyhow the Georgia Grind seems prevalent.” Langston was referring, jokingly, to two popular dances of the day.
Their journey across the South in Sassy Susie, coming right after Langston had published poems like “Song for a Dark Girl,” about a Southern lynching, and “Mulatto,” about a Southern white-on-black rape, may appear like a risky venture, and not only in hindsight. Yet nothing Hughes or Hurston ever wrote about it gives that impression.
According to the notebooks and letters, they had been meeting a large number of Southern African-American educators on their journey; almost all of them were in what W. E. B. Du Bois had called the “talented tenth,” the “best of this race,” “its exceptional men” and women. Interestingly, these were decidedly not the kinds of people they were writing about. Hughes’s poems of the time focus on musicians, dancers, and low-wage workers, echoing blues lyrics about drunk women (“Ballad of Gin Mary”) and gambling men (“Crap Game”); Hurston’s fiction and plays were mostly about relatively unsophisticated rural Southern black families and townspeople (her most recent publications were the stories “Possum or Pig,” “The Eatonville Anthology,” and “Sweat,” and the short play Color Struck). There’s hardly an educator in the lot.
In Savannah, Langston relates, they “met a little woman who was out shopping for a second-hand gun to ‘sting her husband up a bit.’ She told us where the turpentine workers and the dockworkers hung out, and we got acquainted with some and had supper with them. We asked them to sing some songs, but the songs they sang we had heard before and they were not very good songs.” One of the men they met was a Col. Pinkney, who had been sent to a chain gang for nine years and seven months at the age of fifteen for striking his wife, was then paroled to a white planter, and ran away. The meetings with intellectuals and educators may have been supportive and convivial, but these other encounters, like the one with Bessie Smith and her entourage, fed their imagination.
The novelist Arna Bontemps described Zora Neale Hurston to her biographer Robert E. Hemenway as follows: “She was really not a showoff but she just drew attention in that way. . . . She had an ease and somehow projected herself very well orally, and almost before you knew it, she had gotten into a story. She had a wealth of them . . . a storehouse of memories of folk, wisdom and amusing anecdotes.” This description also suits Imani Mtendaji, the guide and storyteller we met at King-Tisdell Cottage, a small and unusual museum of Savannah’s black history.
As soon as I told her about my project, Mtendaji brought up The Book of Negro Folklore, which Hughes and Bontemps put together and published in 1958, based on Hurston’s own definition of folklore, “the boiled-down juice of human living,” and which drew heavily on her work. Modeled largely after Benjamin Botkin’s monumental 1944 volume, A Treasury of American Folklore, the 624-page collection of folk tales and songs was the first comprehensive anthology of its kind.
And indeed, The Book of Negro Folklore, with the exception of an uninspiring introduction by Bontemps, is a triumphal representation of everything both Hughes and Hurston stood for. For it is not, despite its title, limited to material gathered from the folk themselves but includes plenty of literary interpretations of folk material, by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Walker, as well as Hughes and Hurston. It represents African-American culture in much the same way the latter two writers (and Godmother) had envisioned it in the 1920s—free from politics, free from white folks, free from pretentiousness or middle-class values. Zora wrote Langston in 1928, “I am getting inside of Negro art and lore. I am beginning to see really and when you join me I shall point things out and see if you see them as I do.” That same year, Hurston wrote to philosopher Alain Locke: “I am using the vacuum method, grabbing everything I see. Langston is responsible for that to a great extent.” In other words, the writers’ visions coincided: both to get inside the folk ways of the African American and to encompass them in all their variety. And that must have been fuel for long conversations on long stretches of rural Southern roads.
“When I was a camp counselor,” Mtendaji told me, “most of the songs and stories that I could teach and sing with the kids were in The Book of Negro Folklore and in Zora Neale Hurston’s stories.” Those books remain Mtendaji’s primary source. “There’s a story in every place, in every thing, in everyone,” she said. “It’s a conduit, a magical use of words. We use songs, we compare stories and myths, we mix and match and put our flavor on it.”
The story of the King-Tisdell Cottage is one of rescue and renewal. Westley Wallace Law, a great Savannah civil rights leader, was appalled by the urban renewal projects undertaken in the 1970s, and, as founder and president of the Savannah-Yamacraw Branch of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, he rescued one house, choosing it because of its family history, its architecture, and the interesting stories of the people who owned it. He then relocated it two miles west to a similar African-American neighborhood and filled it with artifacts of black life in Savannah and its environs. Mtendaji told the story well, with plenty of fascinating digressions. “I have a kind of passion for it,” she said of her work at the Cottage. “It’s the pride and the dignity and the connection to the past and the potential for the future. But I can tell you my favorite concept in it is connecting the dots: the connections, the putting together of the puzzle. It’s almost like a high for me, like an addiction.”
I can say the same for my research. Trying to figure out, for example, exactly where Zora and Langston slept in each city—Dr. Williams’s house in Mobile, the Anderson House on the campus of Fort Valley State University, the Colonial Hotel in Macon—is definitely a high for us. For Karen, one of the best days of our trip was our visit to Fort Valley and Toomer Road—trying to solve the puzzles those places brought up was like playing detective.
From reading the only firsthand published accounts of the trip, Langston’s autobiography and letters, it would appear that the entire trip was something of a lark. Zora’s perspective is conspicuously absent, but we know from her writing that she took Southern folklore very seriously. Puzzle solving can be serious business—I would even go so far as to say that it’s the meaning of life, the one thing that really gives us purpose. Following the trail of these two writers has transformed their journey and ours from a fun road trip to a quest, despite the lack of that sense in The Big Sea.
After Savannah, Langston and Zora were intent on getting back to New York City and spent little time exploring. They arrived in Charleston on August 24, had a tire puncture repaired in Columbia the next day, then picked up the newly labeled U.S. Route 1 through Cheraw, South Carolina, and on to Richmond and Baltimore, arriving in New York before September. The only records we have of this portion of the trip are Hughes’s financial notebook and an amusing letter Hurston sent Van Vechten from Cheraw: “Somehow all the back of my skirt got torn away, so that my little panties were panting right out in public. I suppose this accident will be classed as more tire trouble.”
We similarly accelerated our pace, toward Chapel Hill, Washington, and Baltimore. We came upon Route 1 in the middle of Columbia, and passed by the State House from which, that month, the South Carolina government had finally removed the Confederate flag. After having driven by the site of the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and having glimpsed that flag flying on too many porches in Alabama and Georgia, what a joy it was to see the State House unadorned by that symbol of hate. But Hurston and Hughes hadn’t seen it when they drove by either—it was only installed there in 1961, signaling the state’s reaction to the civil rights movement.
The two writers saw little of each other over the next few years. Instead, flush with cash from Godmother, they kept up an affectionate correspondence, signing their letters “love” or “lovingly yours.” (Of their surviving letters, only two predate the trip, while two dozen postdate it.) After she’d been through a spiritual crisis, Hurston wrote Hughes, “You are my mainstay in all crises. No matter what may happen, I feel you can fix it.” She deemed him not only her “best friend” but “the nearest person to me on earth.”
Hughes was working on his novel Not Without Laughter; Hurston was in the South and the Bahamas collecting folklore. The central question guiding both of them, even if it wasn’t made explicit, remained: how to best popularize African-American folklore? Hughes’s valiant attempt to bring the blues into a popular literature in his second collection of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, had been trounced by the African-American intelligentsia. Hurston had been turning folk tales into short stories, but she was prohibited by her contract with Godmother from publishing the new material she was collecting. Both authors thus felt stymied in their primary media, and felt that a different medium, the theater, presented the ultimate opportunity for realizing their shared goal. If they could write a play together, that would be the thing.
In 1929, Hughes moved to Westfield, New Jersey, to finish his novel; in March 1930, Godmother arranged for Hurston to move there, too, just two blocks away, and they shared a stenographer in Louise Thompson. She was a beautiful young black woman with a degree from Berkeley and had met Hughes when he gave a reading at Hampton Institute in Virginia, where she was teaching. In Westfield, Hurston and Hughes finally wrote the play they had both so much looked forward to collaborating on: The Mule-Bone. That work spelled their relationship’s doom.
Hurston, offended by Hughes’s proposal to compensate Thompson for her typing by giving her partial credit for the play, left Westfield and moved back to New York City, taking the manuscript with her. There, she tried to expunge Hughes’s contributions to it and copyrighted it under her own name alone as De Turkey and de Law. (The Mule-Bone was not produced until the 1990s, and it remains a flawed play; De Turkey and de Law, which has never been produced, is a masterpiece.) Hurston also helped turn Godmother against Hughes and Thompson (in letters Zora would soon call Langston a liar and a “gin-hound,” among other things); Godmother’s rejection of Hughes crushed his spirits to such an extent that he had a nervous breakdown. When he learned in 1931 that Hurston had rewritten the play and was claiming sole authorship of it—by then he was in Ohio—the contretemps that followed included a threat of a lawsuit, an explosive meeting in Cleveland in which Zora accused Langston of “doing Spanish” with Louise while she was in another room, and a complete breaking off of all relations between the two former best friends.
For years afterward, Hughes turned his back on the ideology that had fed much of his most enduring work and turned instead to Communism for inspiration. Hurston, on the other hand, shaped her love for African-American folkways into a fully nuanced novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, whose Shakespearean power remains unabated almost eighty years after its creation.
In 1939, Hurston asked their mutual friend Bontemps to tell Hughes that “the cross of her life is the fact that there has been a gulf between you and her. She said she wakes up at night crying about it yet.” But Hughes did not respond. In 1940, he published The Big Sea, in which his portrait of Hurston drips with condescension (he calls her “a perfect ‘darkie’”). When it came out, she was very much looking forward to reading it and, halfway through, even offered to review it; but once she read what he had written about her, she never said another word about it and pointedly excluded Hughes from her own autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, two years later.
Hughes and Bontemps published The Book of Negro Folklore in 1958. Permission to include Hurston’s material was granted by J. B. Lippincott, her publisher. The authors of most of the pieces, including Hurston, were not credited anywhere but in fine print on the copyright pages. Twenty-seven years after the Mule-Bone controversy, a Hughes-Hurston collaboration of sorts had finally been published—with only his name on the cover. Hurston died, poor, less than two years later. She most likely never saw The Book of Negro Folklore. Carl Van Vechten remembered her fondly and wired money to help pay for her funeral; Langston Hughes appears not to have said a word.
Not long before I began my road trip, Zora and Langston visited me in a dream. The four of us—Karen was there, too—sat around in our bedroom, talking and planning like old friends. But I only dimly foresaw then what I found on my family’s trip: that almost all of the landscapes they viewed have been eviscerated. Downtowns and historically black neighborhoods have been demolished; cotton fields have been replaced by pine farms.
In Hurston’s 1939 novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, she famously wrote, “Well, the present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.” Sometimes I wonder whether, inside its pristine casing, that egg laid so long ago has gone bad. The future can have an odor of brimstone. It’s so easy to lose hope in America’s promise when each year sees more inequality, poverty, polarization, and brutality.
In 1927, for Hurston and Hughes, America was full of promise. Their road trip through the South now seems a halcyon journey of friendship, bonhomie, adventure, and intellectual challenge. They undoubtedly encountered prejudice and oppression, segregation and injustice, but they never noted those things in their writings about their travels. Instead, Hurston wrote around this time, “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a low-down dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. . . . No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
Was that promise, so palpable in the writing of the Harlem Renaissance, fulfilled? In some ways, perhaps; in others, perhaps not. But either way, Zora and Langston spent their summer journey, as we spent ours, being fed on “the company of good things.”
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