Zora Neale Hurston and the Linguistic Documentation of Black America (by deandre miles-hercules)

Our guest blogger this week, deandre miles-hercules, M.A. (they/them), is a scholar of language who studies how social identification emerges through cultural and interactional phenomena, focusing especially on discourse(s) marking race, gender, and sexuality. Their past work includes publications on the semantic bleaching of intersectionality and virtue signaling, as well as expert consultation for such media outlets as CNN and Vox. deandre’s ongoing dissertation project examines contemporary discourses of controversy in the United States. They are currently a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

There has been a contemporary and resurgent interest in the language of Black America. Reports involving African American (Vernacular) English1 (AAE) can be found today in globally syndicated media outlets. The Washington Post, for example, published an August 2022 article for which I and my colleague Jamaal Muwwakkil were interviewed, detailing contemporary appropriation of Black American language. Many are discovering for the first time that the linguistic features often heard in Hip-Hop music or in motion pictures are not simply “slang” or “broken English,” but rather belong to a complex and systematic language variety2. Scholars of language, particularly in linguistics, have published copious research on the linguistic variety of Black America throughout the past 50 or so years, including technical descriptions, histories, and social implications of its use in such domains as housing, law, education, employment, healthcare, and beyond. The 2015 Oxford Handbook of African American Language contains an encyclopedic account of research on AAE. Scores of individuals—scholars, writers, artists, and so on—have contributed to the representation and study of AAE. In this regard, some of my recent research has focused on one early figure who is towering in some respects, yet underexamined in others: Zora Neale Hurston.

Zora Neale Hurston, photographed by Carl van Vechten in 1938

Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, but raised in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all-Black town3 in the United States. During her lifetime, she traveled widely, recording narratives and documenting linguistic and cultural practices in Black communities throughout the American South as well as in Haiti, while simultaneously publishing a number of novels, an autobiography, and a great many stories and essays. Zora attended Howard University in Washington, DC, where she discovered a passion for language. Of her HU experience, she wrote: “The teacher who most influenced me was Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner, head of the English department.” Turner, author of Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, is widely known among scholars of language as the first formally-trained African American linguist. This book represents the first detailed scholarly text to link language used by descendants of enslaved Africans in the U.S. to that of communities in West Africa. The oeuvre Hurston produced after studying under Turner’s tutelage remains among the most extraordinary representations of AAE ever penned.

Zora Neale Hurston, photographed in Washington, DC, ca. 1922

Zora Neale Hurston’s contributions to literature have been recognized—mostly posthumously—for quite some time4. Her significant work in anthropology has also been detailed and studied, especially by Gwendolyn Mikell (1983; 1999)5. However, her accomplishments in the documentation of African American English have been extremely understudied, in part evidenced by the persistent and widespread ignorance about the linguistic variety, both in popular and academic domains.

Hurston’s writing is unique, in historical terms, as it broke squarely from racist, nonsensical representations of so-called “Negro dialect” written in the minstrel tradition. You won’t find the “yessuh massah” type within Zora’s written remembrances or fictional characters. The language found in her work sounds through the page as that of my own family, whose American roots trace back to Carolinian plantations. Though many of Hurston’s Harlem Renaissance literary contemporaries generally employed AAE sparingly, as it ostensibly tarnished the “New Negro” image they sought to portray, it was important to her to depict African Americans with linguistic precision, doubtless informed by her later anthropological training at Barnard College of Columbia University. In the essay “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” she wrote: “The average, struggling, non-morbid Negro is the best kept secret in America.” James Weldon Johnson, an early 20th century multi-hyphenate, gave his take on the linguistic dimension of this problem in his 1922 introduction to The Book of American Negro Poetry: “Negro dialect is at present a medium that is not capable of giving expression to the varied conditions of Negro life in America, and much less is it capable of giving the fullest interpretation of Negro character and psychology.” (xli) To his credit, he charged this ostensible inability not to flaws in AAE itself, but in “the [racist] mode of convention in which…[it] has been set.” In any case, Zora Neale Hurston rejected this premise and set out to address, not a conventionally white audience, but a distinctly Black reading public.

Here are a few such contributions. In her collection of folklore titled Mules and Men, Hurston writes of a man named James narrating the experience of John, who died in a flood and went to Heaven. Upon reaching the gates, John says to Peter the Apostle, after inquiring whether or not it was dry in Heaven, “Ooh man! You ain’t seen no water.” (italics original). With this short statement, he employs a number of features from the AAE repertoire, including negative concord (i.e., multiple-negation), tonal-semantic intonation represented by italic font, and narrative introductory structure. Sure enough, James follows with “Y’all want to hear ‘bout de flood Ah was in down on earth?” He additionally employs the monophthong in the first-person singular pronoun that is characteristic of both AAE and Southern American English. The numerous AAE constructions Hurston uses here calls up the Black reading public in a straightforward way.

Two distinguishing features of AAE representations are regularly found in her work. First is the use of AAE in monologic prose, which remains relatively rare even today; it’s generally only represented in literary dialogue, poetry, or music. In her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, she described the following encounter: “She was really giving the particulars. She was giving a “reading,” a word borrowed from the fortune-tellers. She was giving her opponent lurid data and bringing him up to date on his ancestry, his looks, smell, gait, clothes, and his route through Hell in the hereafter. … [She said] his pa was a double-humpted camel and his ma was a grass-gut cow, but even so, he tore her wide open in the act of getting born…He was a bitch’s baby out of a buzzard egg.” Interestingly, this may very well be the first textual description of reading, a historically Blackfemme discursive practice that has by now been co-opted initially by the white gays6 and metastasized into mainstream (read: white and Normative) language use; it was also described famously by Dorian Corey in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. More to the point though, in the retelling above Hurston utilizes alliteration, consonance, and reduplication (“humpted”), all which contribute to the second feature of AAE that marks her writing—its musical quality.

Written representations of African American English often illustrate its morphosyntactic (i.e., grammatical)  and easily-inscribed phonological features without the suprasegmental qualities that confer what many recognize as its rhythmic character. In Talkin and Testifyin (1977), Geneva Smitherman describes the meaningful usage of prosody and intonation found in  AAE as “tonal semantics,” noting the immense difficulty involved in representing it orthographically as well as in studying it systematically. Zora Neale Hurston’s writing is unique in that she employs these tonal semantics, at least, for those that are able to comprehend them (i.e., speakers of AAE). Take this sentence from Dust Tracks, perhaps even read it aloud to yourself: “Sarah was struggling along with a husband for whom we all wished a short sickness and a quick funeral.” Do the final two noun phrases naturally have the same rhythm for you? They certainly do for me, and indeed other AAE speakers. They share what is called metrical parallelism, identical number of syllables and timing. In phonetic terms, it reads as such for me: [ʃɔt̚ sɪk.nɪs] (short sickness) and [kwɪk̚ fjun.ɹl̩] (quick funeral).7 If you are unfamiliar with the International Phonetic Alphabet and not an AAE speaker, you’ll just have to trust me on this one. Conversely, were the same phrase articulated with the sound system of most other Englishes, a lack of vowel harmony and matching syllable numbers would prevent the same metrical parallelism; thus, its musical quality is especially germane to speakers of African American English. These are the types of nuanced linguistic representations Hurston inscribed, mind you, in this case without even using nonstandard orthography.

Reading the work of Zora Neale Hurston often reminds me of a quote from another brilliant scholar. Saidiya Hartman wrote, “The archive is, in this case, a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, a medical treatise on gonorrhea, a few lines about a whore’s life, an asterisk in the grand narrative of history.”Given the trajectory from legally-mandated illiteracy among Black people as a pillar of chattel slavery to a present where Black writers and scholars are often inhibited in nefarious ways from publishing, the importance of Zora Neale Hurston’s work cannot be overstated. Her writing enshrines the product of centuries of Black creative expression and I simply couldn’t do without it. After all, as she tells us:

“The stark, trimmed phrases of the Occident [are] too bare for the voluptuous child of the sun.”


1 The language of African America has been variously named (e.g., Black English, African American English, African American Language, Ebonics), but contemporary scholarship avoids using “Vernacular,” except for in a few specific cases. As the word vernacular conventionally refers to a quality of informality, terms like AAVE imply that African American English is not used in formal speech, which is both anti-Black and a falsehood. Linguists such as Arthur Spears and Tracey Weldon have published research on Middle-Class African American English, which suggests quite the opposite.

2 Similarly, the term dialect is not preferred in many circles of sociolinguistic scholarship in that its use often reinforces a hierarchical relationship between an abstract, standardized linguistic system and others to which it may be closely related. Language/linguistic variety is commonly used instead.

3 In the United States, any incorporated municipality has received a charter from the state in which it resides, conferring upon it the right of self-governance. Insofar as it is currently attested, all-Black towns created in the aftermath of the Civil War—prior to Eatonville, Florida—had not received such formal recognition.

4 Walker, Alice. 1983. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Boston: Mariner.

5 Mikell, Gwendolyn. 1983. “The Anthropological Imagination of Zora Neale Hurston.” Western Journal of Black Studies 7 (1): 27-35.

—1999. “Feminism and Black Culture in the Ethnography of Zora Neale Hurston,” In Ira E. Harrison and Faye V. Harrison (eds.) African-American Pioneers in Anthropology. Urbana: University of Illinois. 51-69.

6 By which I mean all members of the white LGBTQ+ community.

7 As a native of the DMV (i.e., the Washington Metropolitan Area) with roots in the Carolinas and Guyana, my native language variety is a Southern-inflected Mid-Atlantic African American English.

8 Hartman, Saidiya. 2008. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 26 (12:2), 1-14.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *