The late great Zora Neale Hurston belted out a juke joint song called “Halimufack”: You may leave and go to Halimufack, but my slow drag will bring you back.
Hurston’s singing was just one of many offerings at the Radcliffe Institute’s celebration of Black History Month on Feb. 23. In her tinny voice—Hurston was a better storyteller than singer—the author whom Daphne Brooks, R.I. ’11, called “Sonic Zora,” sang to an audience of Radcliffe fellows, faculty, and staff in the Radcliffe Gymnasium. Brooks, whose book Subterranean Blues: Black Women and Sound Subcultures—from Minstrelsy through the New Millennium, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press, provided the recording, which Hurston made in the late 1930s when she was collecting songs for the Work Projects Administration in Florida.
The celebration, organized by the institute’s human resources staff, also featured Radcliffe fellows Angela Aards, the William Bentinck-Smith Fellow, and Gene Andrew Jarrett, the Walter Jackson Bate Fellow. Jarrett described his work on the biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), the first professional African-American writer, and Ards read an excerpt from the Schlesinger Library’s Black Women Oral History Project.
Ruth Hill, who coordinated the oral history project, which ran from 1976 to 1981, described the massive undertaking. Seventy-two black women from all over the United States—in fields such as education, government, the arts, business, medicine, law, and social work—were interviewed and their stories recorded, transcribed, and published in 10 volumes, now available at the Schlesinger and other libraries.
An audio clip from the Black Women Oral History Project, accompanied by a slide show, featured the “Black Rosies,” who worked alongside white women in factories during World War II. One of the black women factory workers reported, “In the choice of jobs, the women would naturally get the hardest jobs, the white and the black. But then there would be degrees of hardness. The lightest hard job would go to the white women; the hardest and the dirtiest jobs would go to the black women.”
Closing out the event, Jarrett read a poem by Dunbar called “Ode to Ethiopia,” published in 1890, in which the poet reflects on a past of slavery and suffering and looks ahead to better times.
Sad days were those—ah, sad indeed!
But through the land the fruitful seed
Of better times was growing.
The plant of freedom upward sprung,
And spread its leaves so fresh and young—
Its blossoms now are blowing.
If you’d like to learn more about Gene Andrew Jarrett’s work, come to his lecture, titled “In Search of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Parents: Rethinking African American Genealogy, History, and Biography,” next Wednesday (March 2) at 4 p.m. in the Radcliffe Gym.