Zora Neale Hurston’s “Black Death”

by Rhonda Cooksey

Born in Alabama in 1891, Nora Neale Hurston set out to study African American folklore in search of the commonalities between races. As one of the first black, woman anthropologists, she travelled through the South collecting African American folktales. Bullied by white anthropologist, Franz Boaz, and others during graduate school, her fiction features strong, assertive women who refuse to submit to male domination. Known for her battles with fellow artists such as Langston Hughes, she is considered one of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance and an early proponent of black feminism. Hurston’s stories celebrate subtleties and overtones that illuminate how survival techniques give power to those in powerless positions. Her conjure stories combine folklore and fiction in ways that defy dominant ideologies and restore pride in her cultural heritage from Africa and slavery.

Hurston’s short story, “Black Death,” tells us that whites consider the negroes in Eatonville ignorant and superstitious, but it is the black community who knows—knows their witch doctor, Morgan, is armed with skills the whites can’t see. We get a captivating list of testimony by the Eatonville villagers to substantiate Morgan’s magical abilities: “White folks are very stupid about some things. They can think mightily but cannot feel.”  While religion centers on proper behavior and supplication, magic manipulates reality with invocations and spells. Even in the 21st century, folk healers use spells, chants, poultices, concoctions, and charms. I once met a man in the Ozarks who has healing abilities because he is the seventh son of a seventh son, and I interviewed a granny woman who asks plants to become the medicine she needs. Her belief that plants respond through the bio-photons in their DNA combines magic with science. Folk healing tourism is still big business and so is hoodoo and voodoo.

Hurston subverts the dominant white point of view prevalent during the 20th century. By telling us that whites believe in what their eyes and ears tell them, not in hoodoo, while black people “see with the skin,” she validates black feelings and agency. Her short story voices the triumph of black women during the Jim Crow era who not only suffered economic and social disadvantage but domination by white and black men. Folklorist Roger D. Abraham’s African American Folktales, includes a story called “The Man Makes and the Woman Takes” about a woman constantly beaten by her husband. She asks God for the same strength as a man, but he refuses. She turns to the devil who tells her to ask God for a set of keys. They turn out to be the keys to the kitchen, the bedroom, and the cradle. The man complains to God about being locked away from food, sex, and his progeny. He asks who gave his woman the keys. God says, “I did man, I gave her the keys, but the devil showed her how to use them” (44). Folktales use magic, religion, and humor to bring meaning, relief, and possibility to difficult situations.

In “Black Death,” Docia Boger is misled by Beau Diddley, a name that implies a suitor with “diddley squat” to offer. Docia is pregnant, a fallen woman with few prospects. It initially seems that Northern born Beau holds dominance. He brags to Docia and her mother that he is not a “Southcounty” sucker. He brags to the other black waiters about his escape from marriage, and the community of men agrees “the worst sin a woman could commit was to run after a man.” Although Mrs. Boger cries when she learns that her daughter is pregnant, her tears give her the heart of a tiger, and “all Africa awoke in her blood.” She takes power into her own hands by purchasing a magical solution. The witch doctor, Morgan, makes her look in the mirror to accomplish her goal. The mirror reflects a woman empowered; a woman holding a gun and not just another victim of skin color, gender, and heritage. Beau’s reflection moves from “glaring and sneering” to fear as he faces the angry mother in the mirror and her conjured gun. When he dies from heart failure the next day with a mysterious powder burn over his heart, “the Negroes knew instantly.” Morgan’s spells galvanize the community during a time of cruel segregation and Jim Crow slavery. Docia, Mrs. Boger, and the black Eatonville village accomplish justice with the help of an unseen power.

It’s a story about racial and gender struggle that has an especially happy ending for the Boger women and the story’s female audience. White folks never know, because “he who sees only with the eyes is blind.” The black community asserts agency over their destinies in ways the white people can never see, and even black women can take vengeance on a man who wrongs them. In an act of ultimate revenge, “Mrs. Boger and Docia move to Jacksonville where she marries well.” This conjure tale voices the possibility for African American women to find and make their own justice in a society that places them at the bottom of the rung under white men, white women, and black men.

Hurston was a pioneering ethnographer and recorder of folktales and hoodoo stories in America and the Caribbean. She published numerous books and produced her works in film and on the stage. Sadly, her genius was underpaid and underappreciated. She died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave. Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) discovered her grave and had it marked in 1972. Hurston is now celebrated as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Black Death,” Hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick: stories from the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Genevieve West, Amistad, 2020.