When Zora and Langston took a road trip


PHOTO/Library of Congress/Corbis Historical/Getty, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston gave Langston Hughes a lift to Tuskegee in her Nash coupe, nicknamed “Sassy Susie.” It was one of most fortuitous hangouts in literary history.

Yuval Taylor | An excerpt from Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal | W. W. Norton & Company | March 2019 | 30 minutes (8,692 words)

Ornate and imposing, the century-old Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Passenger Terminal in downtown Mobile, Alabama, resembles a cross between a Venetian palace and a Spanish mission. Here, on St. Joseph Street, on July 23, 1927, one of the more fortuitous meetings in American literary history occurred, a chance incident that would seal the friendship of two of its most influential writers. “No sooner had I got off the train” from New Orleans, Langston wrote in The Big Sea, “than I ran into Zora Neale Hurston, walking intently down the main street. I didn’t know she was in the South [actually, he did, having received a letter from her in March, but he had no idea she was in Alabama], and she didn’t know I was either, so we were very glad to see each other.”

Zora was in town to interview Cudjo Lewis, purportedly the only person still living who had been born in Africa and enslaved in the United States. She then planned to drive back to New York, doing folklore research along the way. In late 1926, Franz Boas had recommended her to Carter Woodson, whose Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, together with Elsie Clews Parsons of the American Folklore Society, had decided to bankroll her to the tune of $1,400. With these funds, Zora had been gathering folklore in Florida all spring and summer. As the first Southern black to do this, her project was, even at this early stage, clearly of immense importance. It had, however, been frustrating. “I knew where the material was, all right,” she would later write. “But I went about asking, in carefully accented Barnardese, ‘Pardon me, but do you know any folk-tales or folk-songs?’ The men and women who had whole treasuries of material just seeping through their pores, looked at me and shook their heads. No, they had never heard of anything like that around there. Maybe it was over in the next county. Why didn’t I try over there?”

Langston, meanwhile, had been touring the South for months, penniless as usual, making some public appearances and doing his own research. He read his poems at commencement for Nashville’s Fisk University in June; he visited refugees from the Mississippi flood in Baton Rouge; he strolled the streets alone in New Orleans, ducking into voodoo shops; he took a United Fruit boat to Havana and back; and his next stop was to be the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. It was his very first visit to the South.

When Zora invited him to join her expedition in her little old Nash coupe, nicknamed “Sassy Susie,” Langston happily accepted. (The car looked a lot like a Model T Ford, and could only seat two.) Langston adored the company of entertainers, and Zora was as entertaining as they came. Langston did not know how to drive, but Zora loved driving and didn’t mind a whit. They decided to make a real trip of it, “stopping on the way to pick up folk-songs, conjur [sic], and big old lies,” as Langston wrote. “Blind guitar players, conjur men, and former slaves were her quarry, small town jooks and plantation churches, her haunts. I knew it would be fun traveling with her. It was.”

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