A historian hoping to reconstruct the social world of all-black towns or the segregated black sections of other towns in the South finds only scant traces of their existence. In Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life, Tiffany Ruby Patterson uses the ethnographic and literary work of Zora Neale Hurston to augment the few official documents, newspaper accounts, and family records that pertain to these places hidden from history. Hurston's ethnographies, plays, and fiction focused on the day-to-day life in all-black social spaces as well as "the Negro farthest down" in labor camps. Patterson shows how Hurston's work complements the fragmented historical record, using the folklore and stories to provide a full description of these people of these towns as active human subjects, shaped by history and shaping their private world. Beyond the view and domination of whites in these spaces, black people created their own codes of social behavior, honor, and justice. In Patterson's view Hurston renders her subjects faithfully and with respect for their individuality and endurance, enabling all people to envision an otherwise inaccessible world.
"In this smart, well-written study of the brilliant, free-spirited writer of Harlem Renaissance renown, Zora Neale Huston, historian Tiffany Patterson deepens our understanding of the, often unexplored, interior lives and culture of residents of early 20th century southern black communities. This is a gem of a book! Tiffany Patterson adroitly captures and illuminates the fascinating complexity of Hurston and the places she represented, inhabited, and imagined."
—Darlene Clark Hine, editor, Black Women in America 3 Volumes, Revised and Expanded Edition
"Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life is a blockbuster book which gracefully and convincingly challenges established views of Hurston and her region. Especially impressive is the placing of Hurston's life, fiction, and folklore within the history of all-black towns, maroon societies, and nationalist traditions. Patterson portrays a cultural naturalism not obsessed with whites at every turn, and expressive of both love and gender conflict, unity and class/color tension. This book's achievement far transcends the recovery of new sources and hinges on an ability to deploy those sources in a way that makes new our understanding of Hurston, and of the early twentieth century rural south."
—David Roediger, University of Illinois, and author of Working Toward Whiteness
"Enthusiasts for the work of Zora Neale Hurston will not be disappointed in Tiffany Ruby Patterson's excellent study of Hurston's work.... her precise recasting of history through the eyes of one of our most careful observers is a book that never fails to inform or delight.... This is a valuable and long-overdue addition to scholarship on Hurston and black life in the South."
—Black Issues Book Review
"Patterson provides a thorough and profound history... (her) efforts are significant for Hurston scholars, but this text is also a valuable literary reference."
"...gracefully written and compelling... this (is a) fine work... Highly recommended."
"This is an ambitious and deftly executed study of the 'negro farthest down.' ...Patterson's thoughtful book (will reward) serious scholars and informed casual readers."
—The Journal of American History
"Intriguing...In addition to readers interested in Zora Neale Hurston, southern literature, and the Harlem Renaissance, Patterson's book will appeal to any reader interested in the history of all-black towns in Florida...She provides excellent chapter length studies of how each of these industries developed as well as the impact they played upon the lives of the laborers..."
—The Florida Historical Quarterly
"The book is most successful when Patterson urges her readers to rethink the cultural and political situation of Hurston's writings. Patterson argues that Hurston refused to see African Americans as victims and objects, making them the active subjects of their own stories, and Patterson challenges historians to shape their understanding of the past through such Afro-centric perspectives."
—The Journal of Southern History
"Readers will find Patterson’s book useful for charting Hurston’s literature with elements of late 19th- and early 20th-century southern history."
—African American Review
"(The) careful contextualization is one of the strongest aspects of the book. Patterson not only offers detailed accounts of the daily lives of workers on turpentine, sawmill and railroad camps, but also uncovers new historical sources to demonstrate that all-black towns...were much more widespread than has previously been acknowledged."
"Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life is an important addition to an already rich collection of books on Hurston’s life and the place of her work in the American literary canon and the history of the American South. With its focus on the agency of African Americans, especially those who chose to establish and live in all-black towns, this study is at once a narrative of black self-determination, self-help, and independent thinking not often associated with the history of African Americans in the Jim Crow South."
—The Journal of African American History
Critical Perspectives on the Past