Two of the most vibrant voices of the literary Harlem Renaissance were best, if unlikely, friends. Why and how they loved each other, and how they fell apart, famously and publicly, is the story at the center of the new biography, Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal
(W.W. Norton) by Yuval Taylor.

Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes met in 1925 at an awards dinner hosted by Opportunity magazine in New York City. Founded in 1910, its full title was Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, and its main purpose was to help blacks who had moved north in the Great Migration. It was also a showcase for the explosion in the arts this movement generated, and the dinner was, according to Taylor, “the largest gathering of African American writers in history.”

Both new to the New York literary scene, Zora and Langston collected two prizes and two honorable mentions each, more than any other winner. Zora’s “Spunk,” a short story about love, jealousy, death and ghosts in the Deep South, won second prize in that category. Langston won first prize in poetry for “The Weary Blues,” in which he captured the blues as literature.

Born in Mississippi, all four of Zora’s grandparents had been slaves. She grew up in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, where her father was a minister, and later mayor. She escaped a life of menial jobs by lying about her age to graduate from an all-black high school in Maryland, then went on to Howard University and Barnard College where she studied under Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology.

Langston hailed from a respected family and grew up in largely white Lawrence, Kansas, attending mostly white schools. His ancestors included a Revolutionary War hero and Virginia plantation owner who fathered children with a slave; a grandfather who was an abolitionist; and a great uncle who was a congressman, the dean of Howard University’s law school, and the first president of what would become Virginia State University.

Zora was “the life of every party,” writes Taylor, and Langston was “thin, muscled, and enviably handsome…. They were each inimitable characters and terribly attractive,” and they shared a “vision of black art and identity.” 

Soon they were going to New York parties and clubs together, accompanied by other poets and writers of the groups that formed and reformed around them as African American arts and letters blossomed. Soon they had co-founded a literary magazine, Fire!!, that explored sex, race and prejudice, but published only one issue before its office burned down.

Both Zora and Langston became the protégés of Charlotte Osgood Mason. This wealthy widow funded work by American Negroes and Indians and personally believed that their energies and art would revitalize white society. Controlling their artistic impulses, Mason directed Langston to write a novel (his award-winning Not Without Laughter), and Zora to collect African American folklore, work which remains relevant and valued.

When Mason added a woman to the mix, a typist to assist Zora, things began to go south. Louise Thompson was an intelligent, light-skinned beauty who soon began to work with Langston as well, and became close friends with both. Zora grew jealous of the time Langston spent with Louise, and her relationship with the man she considered her soulmate suffered.

Zora and Langston had started writing a play, “Mule Bone,” that drew on Zora’s vast knowledge of black folktales and character tropes. Both she and Langston copyrighted separate versions of the work, and argued over credit and ownership. By 1931, there were lawyers, arguments, letters flying back and forth, and friends and colleagues taking sides. Afterward, there were feeble attempts at reconciliation, but both died before they could reignite their original spark of inspired collaboration.

Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal will be available to purchase March 26, 2019.

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Photo by Kathryn A. Duys

Yuval Taylor is a senior editor at the Chicago Review Press who previously coauthored Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop and Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music; he also edited three volumes of African American slave narratives. In writing Zora and Langston, he had access to unpublished papers and interviews at various universities, traced Zora’s road trips through the South, and visited the locales where drama and passion unfolded between the two authors.

Zora’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God is the most widely read book written by an African American author. Langston’s poetry, novels and plays added unprecedented depth to issues of race and culture. Taylor’s new book provides details never before revealed of how both left indelible marks on American literature and each other.