Go Gator and Muddy the Water, by Pamela Bordelon (1999)

I ran into this book about someone I’d never heard of while spending the afternoon at a café. Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston from the Federal Writers Project, edited and with a biographical essay by Pamela Bordelon (1999), is a collection of writing by Hurston from 1938-1939, produced under the arts end of Roosevelt’s massive Depression-era public works program. This includes a handful of short fiction and non-fiction, most of which never were printed in Hurston’s lifetime, save a few short excerpts in a tourism guide – from Bordelon’s introduction, we learn that Hurston, a proud and fiercely independent woman, never mentioned being on federal relief during her lifetime (to friends, or in her autobiography), and so these texts languished in various official archives for years. Bordelon’s literary sleuthing brings us frank descriptions of a lynching and racial-motivated riot in a small Florida town, a description of the orange groves and turpentine plantations of 1930’s Florida (at the time turpentine was laboriously produced from the sap of pine trees), and other glimpses into the lives of poor Black communities that could only have been told by a fearless and outspoken Black writer. Hurston was ahead of her time, and not only lived off her writing while helping to create a Black literature, but also strove to shape it. The final essay (again, never before published) is a lengthy criticism of the state of Black writing, which Hurston saw as constrained by a need to deal first and foremost with race relations, as opposed to just recounting the quotidian lives of ordinary people. An ordinary Black life is necessarily a story of racial struggle, she wrote, and will describe the Black experience just as well as an intentional political polemic such as the writing of Frederick Douglass. Bordelon tells us that these short works were later developed into Hurston’s novels, which I’m sure are just as rich a source of stories of daily life.