Disowned by the founders of the Harlem Renaissance for its association with the shambling, watermelon-eating mockeries of American stage convention, dialect remained an irresistible if highly self-conscious resource for writers, from Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown to Wright himself (whose use of the idiom Hurston gleefully dismissed as tone deaf).
But the feat of rescuing the dignity of the speakers from decades of humiliation required a rare and potentially treacherous combination of gifts: a delicate ear and a generous sympathy, a hellbent humor and a determined imperviousness to shame.
Against the tide of racial anger, she wrote about sex and talk and work and music and life’s unpoisoned pleasures, suggesting that these things existed even for people of color, even in America; and she was judged superficial. In Wright’s account, her novel contained “no theme, no message, no thought.” By depicting a Southern small-town world in which blacks enjoyed their own rich cultural traditions, and were able to assume responsibility for their own lives, Hurston appeared a blithely reassuring supporter of the status quo.
The death of Zora’s mother, in 1904, began a period she would later seek to obliterate from the record of her life.