| By Sarah Robertson |
In 1960, a woman who had been a writer and scholar all her life died in relative obscurity in a welfare home. Her remains were buried in an unmarked grave, where they were forgotten for more than a decade. Today, that woman is considered a central figure in African American literature.
Zora Neale Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925 at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. The granddaughter of slaves, daughter of a Baptist preacher, and a child of the Deep South, Hurston is now synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance, her most popular work being Their Eyes Were Watching God (Novels for Students, Volume 3 and 60). Despite her extensive literary contributions during her lifetime, Hurston’s works faded into obscurity upon her death.
In 1973, writer and activist Alice Walker set out to revive Hurston’s works. Walker traveled to Florida, found an unmarked grave in a location Hurston was thought to be buried and marked it as Hurston’s final resting place. Hurston’s rightful place in the literary canon was reclaimed.
The same year Hurston arrived in Harlem, Nella Larsen, a mixed-race woman from Chicago, began writing about her experience of “passing””— the liminal space she occupied as both a black woman and a white woman. An active member of Harlem’s literary circles, Larsen published Quicksand (Novels for Students, Volume 48) and Passing (Novels for Students, Volume 58), which were met with praise among her contemporaries. Later she struggled with depression and stopped writing, largely fading from literary circles. Larsen died in 1964, but the New York Times would not publish an obituary for her until 2018.
In his poem “Harlem” (Poetry for Students, Volume 1 and 61), Langston Hughes called the African American experience a dream deferred. Hurston and Larsen reinforce Hughes’s point, as their powerful voices faded with their deaths, one day to be revived and to receive posthumous, and deferred, praise. For African American history month, we want to highlight these deferred dreams and celebrate the body of African American literature as integral to American literature.
This African American history month, the For Students series is pleased to announce our first volume of African American Literature for Students. AALFS 1, set to publish later this year, will include entries on poetry, novels, short stories, and drama. This new series includes works that have not been covered in previous For Students volumes and complements the numerous pieces of African American literature that the For Students series has covered over the years. The volume will consist of studies of early twentieth century works, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Haunted Oak,” as well as contemporary works, including Jason Reynold’s 2017 novel As Brave as You.