The Story of Friendship and Betrayal: Zora and Langston (2019)

You might think you know a little something, something about the Black Literati of the Harlem Rennaissance but – trust me – you don’t know the half. This historical review of the letters (drafted, mailed, and published) between literary giants Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes reveals a shared White patron, (maybe) a love-ish triangle with a typist, and a play that never made it to the theatre. These issues, rather than Hughes and Hurston themselves, would be the main characters in this comedy of errors. As if that weren’t drama enough, there all sorts of supporting actors, like Arna Bontemps and Alain Locke, who pepper this pot with artful insults and colluding collaborations, making this a true exposé of what it was like to be a member of this sacred society of Black poets and writers in the 1920s.

I was wholly unaware of the feud between Hurston and Hughes that would ruin their very unique and productive friendship, but Yuval Taylor captures the dispute – and all of its ambiguity – with striking clarity. The action picks up mid-book with a rapid descent into chaos, followed by an erudite “he said, she said” that was truly one for the books.

This intimate depiction of the writers, de-cloaks them, shares their vulnerability, and frames their intense emotional fragility. Hurston lied about her age by over a decade in order to study in college, and Hughes spoke Spanish fluently because he had lived with his father in Mexico during his childhood. Quirks to us, life to them – this book uncovers the (wo)man behind the mask of these epic Black voices of 20th century literature.

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