A celebrated novelist, anthropologist, essayist, and central figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) remains one of the most important African American writers of the modern era. With the publication this month of You Don’t Know Us Negroes And Other Essays (Amistad)—a comprehensive collection of Hurston’s essays co-edited by the noted Harvard scholar and author Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hurston scholar Genevieve West of Texas Woman’s University—the editors seek to elevate Hurston's work as an essayist to equal footing with her novels, autobiographical, and anthropological works.

Publishers Weekly talked with the book’s editors about collecting and editing this volume, in addition to discussing Hurston’s writing on race, politics, the arts and literature, her embrace of the full range of African-American culture, and her far-reaching influence on generations of Black writers.

Publishers Weekly: This anthology features over 50 essays written between 1922 and 1960, with seven of them published for the first time. What was the genesis for this project?

Henry Louis Gates: Years ago, I was working with Hurston’s estate, to bring out new editions of her published works, starting with Their Eyes Were Watching God, and including Jonah's Gourd Vine, Mules and Men, Seraph on the Swanee, etc. with new introductions and beautiful covers. I also edited an edition of those short stories and collected essays, and Genevieve edited the definitive, complete edition of those short stories, because several more were discovered that weren't known when I did my edition. Then the estate contacted me and asked me if I was interested in [publishing this compendium]. And I said, yes, on the condition that I could do it with Genevieve, and that was their belief as well. Hurston was a provocative, original essayist. And [in this edition] readers will get a more complete understanding of her genius. That's why we're here.

Why did it take so long for these selections to appear in one book?

Genevieve West: I think part of the challenge was that a lot of the work has been scattered here and there in various periodicals. I've even had other academics reach out to me and say, you know, I can't get this particular essay, do you have it? [So we’re able to] provide that, both for her academic readers, and for her legion of popular readers: everybody should have access to these writings.

Tell us about “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” one of Hurston’s most celebrated essays.

HLG: I’ve taught that essay. It’s almost like a definition of her own poetics, her theory of Black literature. So what we've done by assembling those essays, is enable readers to see how sophisticated her theory of Black culture was.

Hurston influenced a wide variety of writers, including novelists/essayists Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. How so?

HLG: She is very much a predecessor to Ellison and Murray. They both were talking about the Negro idiom all the time, and that’s exactly the same thing that Hurston was talking about, except that she called it by a different name. For her, the Negro idiom was African American folk culture/dialect, or African American Vernacular [which contained] the authentic soul of African American culture. Which makes it so ironic that Ellison wasn't a fan of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s essays “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” “Characteristics of a Negro Expression,” “Art and Such …” they’re very Ellisonian, or another way to put it, would be to say that Ellison is Hurstonian [Laughs].

Both of you assert that Hurston’s work sets the stage for the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.

GW: Yes, I think it's the idea that there is such a thing as a Black aesthetic, right? And that the right, and the need for the value of Black art, of Black life, and Black materials without regard for what a white audience thinks, I think that's really central to her artistic aesthetic, [which] really reaches fruition in a cohesive, organized way, with the Black Arts Movement.

HLG: She has a cultural nationalist agenda, as you've said before, Genevieve, and you can also see her theories reaching the zenith in artistic manifestation in the works of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

Morrison also wrote about how Black writers have to deal with “The White Gaze” of racial censorship.

GW: I think that idea of The White Gaze, that acuteness of knowing that you're being seen in a way that is not consistent with who you feel yourself to be or know yourself to be, is really important in Hurston’s work. Working at Columbia University with [anthropologists] Franz Boas, and even Melville Herskovits, who—when she was working with him, also saw her as a subject of study—made her acutely aware of The Gaze. And you see Hurston, in her aesthetics and her essays, trying to shed it, and encouraging other writers to shed it, to stop worrying about what white folks think.

HLG: She just took it for granted that Negroes are human beings like everybody else. And one of the interesting things about “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” is that she says, as we would expect her to say, that white writers had failed to capture the authentic Black experience. But not only that, so had Black writers: She critiques them both. She said that they both have created an artificial Negro in fiction with white writers, either exoticizing Black characters, or demeaning them in racist stereotypes. And, on the other side, Black writers because of racism, were forced to think of their fictions as another weapon in the fight against white supremacy. So they had to create characters who comported themselves in certain ways—wearing three piece suits, speaking the King's English, [being] sensitive doctors and lawyers, instead of just real people.

She said politics be damned. You just have to write with as much complexity as the African American people that you grew up with; that you fell in love with; that you went to school with. Don't censor yourself, Let your own authentic Black voice shine through. That's what she does in the essays that Genevieve and I have collected.

What about feminism? Hurston has always featured strong Black women in her work, but does that feminist aesthetic come through in her essay, “The Lost Keys of Glory,” about male/female relationships?”

GW: There is this long running debate about whether or not Hurston is a feminist. There’s this photograph of her standing with a gun on her head. She's driving Sassy Susie, her car, across the Jim Crow South by herself, right? And that is such a radical idea right there. It's not safe! And yet she does it. And so I think a lot of us wrestle with the way that Hurston lived her life outside of gendered conventions. And so we want to think of her as a feminist. But then you read “The Lost Keys of Glory,” and it really is a challenge to figure out what it says about Hurston’s work, but also what it says about her as a person.

Hurston was very critical of the momentous 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision that made school segregation unconstitutional, asserting in the essay, “Which Way the NAACP,” it is “a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association.”

HLG: She’s right about Brown vs. Board. Her argument is subtle, but it boils down to this: You can't say that inherently, separate is unequal. If you say separate is unequal, you're throwing the baby out with the bath. You are saying the Black people are not on their own, competent and capable of creating equal or superior educational institutions or any other kind of institution. In effect, as we say in the introduction, she said lift the veil behind the veil as Du Bois defined it. When the color curtain came down with Jim Crow, people behind the veil didn't capitulate: they created a world and whether it was Black churches, Black colleges and universities, The Divine Nine, Black Golf Associations … whatever we were excluded from, we replicated it. And she says that is the world that the artist needs to explicate.

Will there be a sequel to this collection?

HLG: My initial proposal was to do a collection of these essays, and then have a separate collection of her essays on anthropology and folklore. And that might be in the works. We'll see how well this edition does.