(Reader, If this appears as one long paragraph, my apologies…working with a new computer and it apparently doesn’t respond to my commands)
This month marks the 125th birthday celebration of literary artist Zora Neale Hurston. Those of you who followed my original blog in 2013-14, know that I am a bonafide Zora Neale Hurston lover.
My first encounter with Zora was in the 90s during my grad school days at ODU where I was one of a few black students enrolled in an AA Lit course. The syllabus of which included the controversial Harlem Renaissance writer. After reading her autobio, Dust Tracks on the Road and then her novel Their Eyes were Watching God, I was hooked. My book budget was soon devoted to purchasing all of her works and a gaggle of literary criticism about her
I even applied for a goverment grant when the semester ended so I could study more of her writings during my summer off from teaching . My father fondly referred to this practice as “teacher welfare”. And I was a master grant writer back in those days. For six glorious weeks, I read books by and about Zora , communicated in person and online with other Zora devotees and immersed myself in all things Zora.
As we near the end of January, I often find myself re-reading her famous novel, Their Eyes were Watching God (made even ‘famouser’ by Queen Oprah who turned it into a movie). and reflecting on the paradoxical, complex life that was Zora Neale Hurston.
This post will provide some background on Zora and Part 2 will follow next week.
January marks the 125th year of Zora Neale Hurston remembrance.
Appropriately, Zora’s annual celebration in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida is about to ‘jump off’ (last week of January). And perhaps some of you will be inspired to take the trip down 95 to Eatonville, the oldest incorporated Black town in the U.S, OR at least buy/download a copy of Eyes and settle in for a good read.
According to writer, Mary Helen Washington, Zora lived her life ‘half in shadow’. And in referring to herself after viewing a series of her photos, Zora noted: I love Myself when I am laughing and then again when I am looking Mean and Impressive (this quote later became the title of a Reader edited by Alice Walker).
Walker summed it up: we love Zora for her work first, and then again (as she and all of Eatonville would say), we love her for herself.
Biographer Robert Hemenway spent seven years and 30,000 miles touring the country trying to gain enough insight to put pen to paper about this paradoxical woman.
So, who, you ask was Zora Neale Hurston?
For 30 years, Zora was the most prolific black woman writer in America. Always curious as a child, Zora wrangled a scholarship from a white benefactor to attend Barnard in 1925. She was the only black student at Barnard at the time. I became Barnard’s sacrificial animal, she once remarked. After Barnard, Zora evolved into her Self -Becoming a folklorist, anthropologist, novelist, feminist, and cultural revolutionary.
Zora was a complex person, adventure seeking, loved to laugh, throw parties, dance wildly, passionately sexual – a woman before her time. She did not believe in sexist roles. And according to Hemenway, traveled through the South alone with a handgun, a $2 dress, and a suitcase full of courage.
Zora was considered the darling of the Harlem Renaissance. But, conversely, Zora was the first writer to call the Harlem Renaissance literati, the ni**erati. Alternately heralded and criticized by her contemporaries, Richard Wright accused Zora of… an apolitical approach to art that ignored the toll of racial prejudice. In typical Zora fashion, she responded, “No, I do not weep at the world– I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife”.
Much like a modern day griot (she even wore a headwrap), Zora studied her culture, celebrated the people/traditions and translated all of it for an audience that did not speak her language. Refusing to separate herself from the common, ordinary porch people of Eatonville, her writing style was rich, full of the oral tradition transformed into written narrative. Zora celebrated the wit and expressive cadences of black cultures throughout the South and the Caribbean (Shapiro).
Alice Walker writes that the language of her characters…that comical ni**er dialect that has been laughed at, denied, ignored or improved so that white folks and educated black folks can understand it..is simply, beautiful.
So, how then did this prolific AA writer who published 4 novels, 2 folkores, an autbio and 50 short stories end up ill and penniless in a Florida welfare home in the late 50s… Dead by age 60, and buried in an unmarked grave in a weed filled segregated cemetery???
Unfortunately, Zora’s struggle for survival as a writer represented the norm for a generation of AA writers prior to the 60s. The sad truth is that she lived in a country that fails to honor its black artists.
Imagine this, one of her stories appeared in the Saturday Evening Post while Zora was working as a maid in New York! Alice Walker surmised that without money of one’s own in a capitalistic society, there is no such thing as independence. Amen to that!
Zora’s life is truly a cautionary tale.
In a final tribute to honor her spiritual mentor, Alice Walker, in 1973, traveled to the cemetary in Fort Pierce, Florida and put a tombstone in the area of Zora’s grave.
The tombstone read “A Genius of the South”, a line from poet Jean Toomer.
(Part 2, a literary essay of Their Eyes were Watching God that I authored several years ago..will follow next week).
Hmph…there she go tooting her own horn again..
Thank you for reading/commenting/sharing!