February Tempest Challenge Day 6

Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters | Tempest Challenge BHM

This entry is part 5 of 18 in the series Tempest Challenge: Black History Month

In addition to Black History Month, February is also The Month of Letters/International Correspondence Writing Month. The challenge there is to write a letter and send it through the postal service every day (except Sundays) and to answer all the letters you get during the month. I am a fan of letter writing for the nostalgia of it, but I’m a bigger fan of letters continuing to exist because they are a specific kind of window into history. A couple of years ago on NPR Books I wrote:

The loss of letters impacts our culture to the core, because letters are a chronicle of history. Through them, people of every age, background, social standing, and culture add folded and stamped rectangles to a historical tapestry shared by official accounts, news stories, and later revisions. Without letters, we lose an integral way of seeing and understanding history.

That’s an important problem to consider during Black History Month. As a black woman, I’ve always experienced and filtered my understanding of black history through multiple layers: What I learned in school, what I learned from books and documentaries, and what I learned from listening to my family. This last, more intimate view of history has always been the most valuable to me. And so I look for it beyond my relatives and ancestors — in collections of letters.

Reading letters is a great way to understand the giants of Black history beyond the narrow narratives they’re usually confined to and also beyond the narrative those people crafted themselves. For example, this book: Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters.

In her public life, Hurston was an unreliable narrator: She fudged or lied about details of her life — out of necessity as well as out of vanity — to the point that her autobiography has been dubbed a work of fiction by some. A different woman emerges from the personal letters found in this biography. Is this the more authentic Zora Neale Hurston, just because the words were never intended for the public? Even Kaplan says that “every letter is a performance,” yet still acknowledges that they provide an insight beyond what can be gleaned from her published works. The letters here cover her life from 1917 to 1959, through the Harlem Renaissance, her time with the WPA, her anthropological work, and more.

You should, of course, read all her works. But read this, too. It’s another lens into history, one we don’t always get, especially the farther back you go.