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How Zora Neale Hurston Helped Her Readers Understand the World

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Today the work of Zora Neale Hurston is taught in schools and turned into movies. But the American author—who was born on this day 125 years ago, Jan. 7, 1891—wasn’t always a household name.

In fact, in TIME’s 1937 review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, perhaps her best-known book, the magazine’s unbylined critic noted that white Americans would likely avert their eyes instead. In North and South alike, the critic posited, people hesitated to confront the harshest realities of what life was like for their non-white neighbors. Southerners would “disregard” the truth they knew too well and Northerners would find it “embarrassing” and “indigestible.”

“But to white readers who object to their violent brushwork [Hurston and her colleagues] might truthfully reply: Negro life is violent,” the review continued—and literature was a valuable way to help those who were not personally impacted by that violence to better understand it. Tellingly for the era, the review does not even consider how non-white audiences might respond to the work of an author like Hurston.

Years later, two decades after Hurston’s 1960 death, a TIME essay on race relations in America examined how literature like Hurston’s could help the nation understand the relationship between past and present:

Yet if one surveys the body of black American writing from Reconstruction to the present, a remarkably consistent picture of black America, of America itself, springs to life. The mythology of that literature is a historical fact, the nation’s worst—slavery. Besides the moral damage that slavery did the nation, it also created a cultural framework at once so distorted and solid that we live within it still.

Its central distortion was that the enslaved man was not a man; he was the opposite of a man, whatever that might be. His very color was a sign of deviation, a sign to be carried by generations after him, like the mark of Cain. There are a dozen scenes in black American novels where a child is going along happily until someone (often a schoolteacher) points out the “difference” in his life, which is also the difference of his future. At that revelation the child flees in panic to a mirror in order to stare at himself, to see himself for the first time as the white world sees him, as something “other,” a vision of the negative.

From that point on, his life becomes a series of oppositions. A young black girl like Janie of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) may see that she is beautiful, but how can black be beautiful if the standard of beauty is to be white, blond, fair? How can black be good if cleanliness (whiteness) is next to godliness, if Satan is the Prince of Darkness, if there are blackguards and blackmail, black thoughts and black deeds? To be in the dark is one thing, but to see the light is quite another. Images of whiteness can be terrible too, of course (the white whale, whited sepulchers, death on a pale horse), but these are fairly concrete things compared with the general designation of black as the color of evil or chaos.

This work can create mutual recognition, the essayist, Roger Rosenblatt, explained. After that recognition comes the potential for something more significant. “Either [people of different races] can choose to treat that act as a mere acknowledgment, as a separate-but-equal nod, or they can elaborate on it—dress it up, fill it out, talk,” he wrote. “They know perfectly well what life is like when they do not do that; that is no great secret. The great secret is that they may need each other.”

Read the full essay, here in the TIME Vault: The Great Black and White Secret

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com