By Lily Rothman
January 7, 2016

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:

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

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

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