Zora Neale Hurston and Pura Belpre
Zora Neale Hurston and Pura Belpré: Pioneers of Black and Latinx Folk Culture in Upper Manhattan
Join us for a talk about Zora Neale Hurston and Pura Belpré and their influence in Harlem. Led by Dr. Will Walker, Associate Professor of History at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta.
About the Talk:
In January 1932, at the John Golden Theater on 58th St. between Broadway and 7th Ave., the famed writer Zora Neale Hurston mounted a daring and innovative revue called The Great Day, which featured Black folk culture in all its splendor. A critical and popular success, the show included singing, dancing, sermonizing, and storytelling from various African diasporic traditions. Hurston had arrived in Manhattan seven years earlier in 1925 and had rapidly become a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Known for her short stories and novels, she was equally interested in using theater and oral storytelling to present Black lives and traditions.
In the same year as the debut of The Great Day, another significant folk cultural event occurred in New York City; a thirty-three-year-old New York City public librarian named Pura Belpré published a remarkable picture book titled Perez and Martina, the “first known Latino storybook published by a major English/American press . . . [and] the first known integrally bilingual (Spanish/English) children’s book in U.S. mainstream publishing history.” After migrating from Puerto Rico to New York in the early 1920s, Belpré had become the first Puerto Rican librarian in the New York Public Library system and, shortly thereafter, began telling stories originating in Latin America to audiences of children and families in library branches and other venues across the city, from the Lower East Side to Harlem. One of the programs she pioneered in these years continues today as a vital New York tradition: the Fiesta de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day celebration. For Belpré, library work, storytelling, and writing served the larger purpose of cultivating effective approaches to bilingual education and fostering cultural pride among Latinx New Yorkers.
This talk details the work of these two remarkable women during the vibrant and tumultuous eras of the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression. It shows that Hurston and Belpré were pioneers in bringing Black and Latinx folk culture to New York and cultural ambassadors who profoundly challenged negative stereotypes and misconceptions about communities of color.
Will Walker is the author of A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum and an editor of The Inclusive Historian's Handbook (inclusivehistorian.com). He is an active public historian who oversees a long-term community oral history project and often facilitates community dialogue programs. You can find him on Twitter @willcooperstown.