IT ALL STARTED WITH A PHONE CALL Guest Post by Bill Griggs

Ms. Brown, this is Bill Griggs from the Portsmouth Notables Occasion.  That is how our nearly 20 year friendship started in 1987.  You are the only singer on the dais.  Would you like to sing a song for the event?  Baby, Ruth said, I’d be happy to.

Little did I know, that I had called at one of the low, transitional points in her career.  In 1986, she had returned from Paris where she was performing in Black and Blue which would not be a hit on Broadway until January 1988.  She had closed an off Broadway show called Stagger Lee which led to her role as Motor Mouth Mabel in the film Hairspray.  The film at this time was yet to be released.  And her dear compatriot, Howell Begel was helping Ruth fight Atlantic Records for her long overdue payments on recordings not only for Ruth, but for all of Atlantic artists.

At this point, she had four eyes on the stove setting on simmer.  Later Ruth said that receiving the Notable Award from Portsmouth was the fuel that helped to fan the flame on her simmering projects.

After the Notables was over, Ruth and I stayed in touch by phone on a regular basis.  We enjoyed chatting about her latest performances and upcoming events or just talking about family.

She always asked, Baby, what’s going on back home?  We began meeting wherever she was playing: On Broadway at the Blue Note, at Wolf Trap and once at the Cinegrill in Hollywood.  There I arrived without her knowledge.  She spotted me in the second row, stopped the band and introduced me to the audience. With Ruth, I shared many great moments. I want to share with you, a few of them over the years.

The Palms

In January 2002, I asked Ruth to dinner at the Palms Hotel in Vegas.  This would be her first venture into the public after spending over a year and a half learning how to speak again.  Ruth said she would be there and that her son and manager Earl would bring her to the hotel. We agreed to meet at the entrance at 7 pm.  When my good friend Claus Ihlemann and I arrived at the front entrance there she was, draped in a black cape with fur.  She looked stunning.  There was the queen of rhythm and blues sitting at the slot machine in the center of the main entrance.  We had a wonderful dinner at the top of the Palms.  The patrons who came by the table to wish her well was an early birthday present to Ruth.

Caesar’s Palace at Terrazzo

In February of 2004, I once again found myself in Vegas on business.  Again, I called Ruth and asked her to join us for dinner at the restaurant of her choice.  She chose Terrazzo’s at Caesar’s Palace.  Ruth told me of a great pianist named Galeebe Galab who played at the lounge there.  I met Galeebe the day prior to the dinner and we arranged for a private table in the restaurant behind Galeebe’s lounge.  After another two hour dinner, Ernie Warinner and I escorted Ruth to the lounge, coming in the back behind the audience.  As we reached the half way point to our table in the back, Galeebe announced: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Queen of Rhythm and Blues, Ms. Ruth Brown.  All of a sudden, a surge of strength came over Ruth and she headed to the stage.  She sat at the edge of Galeebe’s piano bench and began to sing lyrics to the blues riff that he was playing.  For four minutes she glowed and sang.  There was not one hint that she was recovering from a stroke.  When she brought the song to a close she said, I don’t know what I just sang, but they call it The Blues.  The audience rose in applause.

In the fall of 2003, Lightning in a Bottle, a film about the makers of the Blues had just been filmed at Radio City Music Hall.  Director, Martin Scorcese was very pleased with the success of the film and wanted Ruth to front a show of the fellow blues artists for a 40 city bus tour of the US.  She was thrilled.  A few months later, I asked how the tour was.  She said, Oh baby, we didn’t go.  With the ages and the conditions of all of us, Martin found out it would take too long to load and unload the bus!

I called Ruth in mid 2004 to check on her.  She was happy and sounded terrific.  Guess what, she said, Ray called me.  He said Ruth they are making a film of my life and you are in it.  I am!  Well, honey, I want Holly Berry to play me, Ruth replied.  Ray was quick on the uptake, Ruth I’m blind, but I’m not that blind.

In the fall of 2004, I called Ruth with some good news.  WHRO and the Virginia Arts Festival want you to appear at the restored Attucks Theatre in Norfolk.  Oh Baby, that’s where Daddy pulled me off the stage.  I’ll be there.

Ruth is there anything you want?  Baby, there are only two things I don’t have.  You know B.B.’s got a blues festival named after him.  I would love to have the Ruth Brown Rhythm and Blues Festival.  What’s the other, I asked.  One day a club called Ruth’s Place.  Well, I replied, we can do a test run at the Attucks.  That night at the Attucks was magic.  A cameo moment as her fan Cabot Wilson called it.

I don’t have my friend to call anymore.  I do have her number.  She was honesty, sincerity, wisdom and determination.  R not only stands for Ruth, It stands for Resilient. She endured all the hardships of life, yet she rose to the top of it all.  Racism and segregation.  Poverty and constant leg pain.  Rejection and thievery.  There is no wonder she sang the blues as only she could.  The tears in her voice, the wailing of pain were her trademarks.  Trademarks of a life that only the power of Faith, Family and the adulation, applause and never failing acceptance of an audience could heal.

I know that today you are walking all over God’s Heaven, free of pain and as light in flight as the Butterflies that you loved.  When I hear the Robin sing and his voice begins to wail, I know you are singing just for me.  Know that you will always be in my heart.  Ruth, thank you for your song.

 

A TRIBUTE TO RUTH BROWN, MISS RHYTHM (1/12/28-11/17/06)

Readers, Windows 10 has struck again… and this time don’ run off with some of my saved documents!

Fortunately, I had a hard copy of my original post on Ruth Brown, but the guest post by Bill Griggs, local Renaissance man who knew and loved Miss B fiercely, along with comments from her long time Band member/friend the famed New York saxophonist Bill Easley is MIA.

Many of you who follow my posts know of my affinity for Music.  I am a listener/sing alonger/lover of all kinds of music especially Jazz, soulful R&B, Blues, Hip hop, Country… did she say Country… Yes. Country. Especially folk like local Black cowboy Angelo Mayo,  Sugarland, Brad Paisley, Zac Brown Band, Rascal Flats, Reba, Bonnie Raitt, Darius Rucker and even some Rap… T.Payne’s It’s a Circus, The Notorious B.I.G (my road song thanks to JoanG), Mos Def (did you know he has left the country?), Common, and on quieter, reflective occasions straight-ahead-jazz (thanks Daddy) and classical including my extremely talented cello/guitar/ piano playing grandson KhalifW, Regina Carter, and  Vivaldi, to name a very few .

My favorite music, of course, playing as I write, on my ipod (used to be CDs), are the renderings of various bluesy, jazzy, soulful Male and Female crooners, the latter ranging from Bettye Lavette, Phyllis Hyman, Ledisi, Oleta, Rachelle, Farrell, Fantasia, Nina, Billie and of course, Miss Rhythm herself, Ruth Brown.

When I was a pigtail and bang, crinoline slip, black patent leather shoe wearing puff of innocence living in Norfolk, Virginia…  Just across the river in Portsmouth, hometown phenom, Ruth Brown aka  Miss Rhythm was making a name for herself in the world of music. That bluesy, “torchy, church and jazz schooled voice” that helped build  Atlantic Records in the 50s to the music giant it would later become had her start singing in church and later won a contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater that propelled her to become winner of a Tony, Grammy ( 1990, 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award), W.C. Handy, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee during her long career.

Little did I know skipping up and down the streets of Marshall Manor and later newly built Victory Manor in Portsmouth that one day some 50 years later our paths would cross and this musical wonder would leave a lasting impact on my life/heart.

Ruth Brown became the voice of Atlantic Records making chart topping hits like So Long, Tear Drops in Her Eyes, and (Mama) He Treats your Daughter Mean.  Her more than two dozen hits, including Blues, R& B and later Rock and Roll, turned AR into a  record giant and  it was dubbed The House that Ruth Built. Her relationship with AR ended in 1961 following contract disputes when like so many black artists, Ruth discovered she was not being fairly compensated for the hits she was making.

Undaunted, Ruth Brown reinvented herself in the 70s and began recording blues and jazz again.  She won a Tony for her role in Broadway’s Black and Blue.  And had a starring role in the film Hairspray where she played the feisty DJ. She also showcased her hosting talents on two NPR shows, all the while continuing to perform at concerts and nightclubs in the U.S and overseas to throngs of adoring fans.

It was during the resurgence of her career in the early 2000s that I met the famed Miss Ruth Brown.  At 77, she was preparing a return to the newly renovated Norfolk Attucks Theater (where she had performed at age 16 without her father’s knowledge).  A friend, GregC, at local Public Television station, WHRO, told me that a California director, Don O. was looking for a local person to assist with research for a documentary  on Miss Brown’s life.  I quickly contacted Don and offered my services, and for the next few months was launched into a worldwind of activity researching the life of Ruth Brown from a variety of local sources.

I spent hours searching dusty files tucked away in the rich archives of the Portsmouth Public library (thank you Mae H.) and the microfilm viewers at the Norfolk Public library,  hunting down pictures, newspaper articles, memorabilia, anything I could find on this Portsmouth native. Thanks to archivist Dr.TommieB at NSU library, I was able to obtain black and white photos from the 60s taken of Ruth Brown and radio personality Jack Holmes at a local event. I even stumbled across a beautiful 8×10 of her, at of all places, the Portsmouth Naval Museum…who knew? One of her most ardent fans (and high school sweetheart) even had a delicate, crumbling autographed B&W photo of her taken at Sunset Lake Park (remember that spot) hanging on his Portsmouth garage wall!

For weeks, I worked the phones talking to people who knew Ruth Brown, folks from her teenage days at Norcom High School who included the likes of Mayor Holley, Councilman  Whitehust, former School Supt. Horace Savage, jazz player Johnny Day, and distinguished, retired  Mr. Sanford (a former RB suitor) and a host of other likeable, gracefully aging seniors who all had fond memories of  Miss Brown. We made arrangements to have a surprise ‘class reunion’ backstage after the performance at the Attucks.

After immersing myself in all things Ruth Brown, I finally met the great lady as she rehearsed with her band a few days prior to the Attucks performance.  Don, the producer, introduced us and she graciously greeted me like I was an old friend.  She was delighted to learn I was a ‘hometown’ girl and invited me  to join her backstage on the night of the performance. It was at that time, I also met Bill Easley, her long time  NY friend, band member and sax player extraordinaire whose resume included recording with the likes of Issac Hayes, George Benson, Jimmy McGriff and other jazz greats including Ruth Brown. Our friendship continues today bonded by the initial connection to Miss B.

Despite needing a cane for support (she had injured her knees in a car crash years ago), Ruth Brown was still a fireball of energy, had an infectious smile, sophisticated style, and a voice that filled the 600 seat auditorium of the Attucks Theater.

On the night of her performance, I was busy greeting the ‘class reunion’ members and getting them seated, shopping for flowers for her dressing room, ‘rehearsing’ the presentation by her classmate that would follow Portsmouth Mayor Holley and Norfolk Vice Mayor Hester’s presentation of her cake, and overall just trying to be helpful to the staff of the Attucks.

When Miss Brown came backstage, her Assistant asked me if I would sit with her while she was waiting to go on.  I was both floored and honored and quickly pulled up a chair next to the exquisitely gowned Miss B. We held hands tightly and talked quietly as she ‘calmed herself’ for this ‘debut back in front’ of her hometown some 50 years after she had ‘left town’. When the band played her intro, she released my hand and said, “Honey, I got this…I’m walking out there on my own.”  She squeezed my hand and in true Ruth Brown style gracefully glided onto the stage.

The next time I saw Ruth Brown was about a month later when I traveled through the snow to join Director Don and his friends at a New York nightclub, Le Jazz Au Bar, where Miss Brown was performing. When we went backstage to greet her, she noticed me standing off from the group and said, “There’s my hometown girl, what you doing up here in the big city?” We both laughed and warmly embraced and spent some time catching up on Portsmouth goings on.

Sadly, almost a year later, following a stroke and heart attack while living/performing in Nevada, Ruth Brown’s light was extinguished. I along with hundreds of others attended her funeral services at Willet Hall in her beloved Portsmouth where she had returned on many previous occasions to see a street named in her honor, a scholarship established in her name; a star placed on Granby Street; and a parade and banquet recognizing her as a Notable.

Although, I only knew her a short time, this sassy, blues, R&B and Rock and Roll lady will always be in my heart and music collection! She was a survivor who  like my muse writer Zora Neale Hurston overcame challenges of  racism, sexism, and health to realize her dream.

And to my friends Bill Griggs and Bill Easley, if you are reading this, I am sure the Readers would love to hear from you!

Stay tuned and as always….thanks for reading!

 

Talking About a Revolution 

IMG_0094Don’t you know
They’re talking about a revolution
It sounds like a whisper…
While they’re standing in the Welfare lines/
Crying at the footsteps of those armies of salvation/
Wasting time in unemployment lines/
Sitting around waiting for a promotion/
Poor people gonna rise up/
And get their share.
c1982. SBK/purple rabbit music

Many folks think that we have come a long ways Baby and that the circumstances of America’s poor, disenfranchised, Not the talented 10th (or the Well heeled 10%) has improved since Tracy Chapman penned this song in the 80s.

I wonder.

Having been a card carrying member of the Movement during the 70s, And a poor person (I was a college student in Los Angeles working 3 part-time jobs, an unwed mother (now pc term Single Mom), a culture seeking, I love My People sistah who volunteered many wee hours growing food, cooking stew , sewing dashikis, teaching reading, tutoring and Workin’ for the People of Watts.

Often in the company of members of the Real Black Panther Party who were laser sharp serious about feeding hungry children in the city of the Angels only a stone’s throw from Holly weird, Shoppers- paradise-Rodeo Drive and right up the road from the Happiest place on earth.

Is it possible that things really do change while remaining the same?

Fast forward to 2016 and the country is immersed in holiday cheer, spending $ like water for a day that is supposed to honor a King/healer/leader/ Teacher and not an obese man in a redsuit.

Uh uh, here she go humbugging Christmas.

Readers, Like many of you, I luv the holidays and all the lights and carols and decorations and eggnog and gift giving/receiving and baking and hosting and TV specials and excitement on the faces of little ones opening their gifts on Christmas eve…

Remember I’m a Boomer and grew up in a Black household modeled after Leave it to Beaver, Father knows Best, and My3Sons. We DID Christmas thoroughly and enjoyed it.

But that does not mean we and America get to take a pass just because it’s the Holidays and the cofers of capitalism need replenishing.

And before you think it..I’m not talking about the seasonal well meaning middle class gestures of throwing some loose change (do they take debit cards now) in the armies of salvation kettles, or buying a pair of socks for the angel tree.

Hunger, Virginia is a 24/7 proposition. Being poor for too many children is a lifestyle handed down from previous generations and like crack, it’s hard to break the cycle.

Like Dredlocked wearing, folk song singing, visionary Tracy Chapman says…
Oh you better run/run/run//run/run …talkin’ bout a Revolution.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good nite!

Negro History/Black History/African American History?

 

Okay, it’s finally here, February…the month I love to hate. And no, it’s not the 25,000 calorie consuming Super Sunday event that makes folks fanatical and grown men cry. Nor is it that cutesy bow and arrow kid all dressed in red taunting us to Buy, Buy, Buy even when there is No Significant Other for some of us to buy for. And it’s not even the days spent watching the weather forecast, checking the Farmer’s Almanac praying that the cold front from Canada doesn’t descend on Virginia and kill all my early budding perennials.

It’s the celebration of history and culture in February that has me wondering just who the *** am I ?

Lawd, this gurl done only wrote 10 posts this year and she already threatening a breakdown…

Reader, The 28 or 29 days of remembrance/activities associated with the history and culture of My people, frankly causes me to ponder. And now that I have left teaching and begun this journey as a writer, it has given me even more pause.

You see, in the early years, Black History Month was a time when I could legitimately get away with talking about the contributions of Black authors, poets, playwrights, rappers, etc. in my classroom without getting those raised eyebrows from an administrator who happened to stroll by my door.

Okay, I admit, I was a radicaluncoventionalgetitdonebyanymeansnecessary kinda teacher and culture abounded in my English class…year round. My walls were covered with the requisite grammar/writing/poetry/nod to Shakespeare, Keats posters. But they were also decorated with pictures of Zora, Langston, Alice,  Baldwin, Tupac and Alicia Keyes. I practiced equal opportunity teaching every chance I got. And Every good teacher knows in order to Really teach and reach your students, said students must be able to identify with the subject matter. And I knew/learned how to accomplish that.

In fact, the walls not only reflected African American artists, but artists from all ethnic/racial demographics…and not just in the month in which this Society has allocated for their recognition.

The result: My students were the liveliest, most well informed, high scoring, inquisitive make the school look good bunch (I and Principal W. knew). And They actually looked forward to coming to Rm 10, 3rd period English.

We got to talk to her about this horn tooting…do you think we should have an Intervention…call Dr. Oz? Oprah?

These same students in the person of an intensely serious 7th grader named Janeen (who announced during her introduction the first day of class that she was going to be a Medical doctor) inquired politely during our yearly study of Greek Mythology why we weren’t learning about the Egyptians whom her dad said really had the first myths. And nearly took over my laser pointer that day and challenged me to find the stories of mythological figures whose faces looked like theirs. This challenge by Janeen and the entire class..you always tell us to search for information, Ms. Goss ..led to the writing of my/their first book. (The book Dedication, accordingly was ascribed to that class and the cover drawing credited to a student who didn’t care much for writing… but enjoyed hearing about those Egyptian myth guys.

So, with 25 days left to go, Reader, and a calendar that’s overflowing with all kinds of delightful cultural offerings (only someone on speed could conceivably attend them all), I have to question why this Celebration has to be squeezed into OnE month and can’t be spread out all over the entire year. I mean we are Black every day, aren’t we?

Mercy…This chile need help…Can’t be her upbringing..des Presbyterians..umph, umph, umph.

 

Bye y’all!

Blogging: Lesson Learned

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Songstress Alicia Keyes’ melodious lyrics filter into my pre- dawn bedroom.  Yes, I was burned but I called it a lesson learned. Mistakes overturned So I call it a lesson learned. My soul has returned So I call it a lesson learned. Another lesson learned.

My three year journey into the world of Blogging has certainly been filled with lessons learned.

For someone who has authored 4 nonfiction children’s books and edited many more; completed a 300 plus page fiction/memoir about a 20 somethings R rated adventures/life in Los Angeles in the 70s; published journal articles in everything from the Ohio Middle School Journal to Afro Americans in New York Life and History; mastered the art of researching/writing complex legal pleadings (for lawyers); taught countless middle, high and college level students the joy of writing; successfully written federal/national/ and local grants; and conducted workshops/seminars on the teaching of writing to folks from 6 to 60– Blogging is by far the most challenging writing I have ever done.

A fellow Blogger (and English teacher) opined in her post that Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay. She provides a logical argument for this premise asserting that Blogging has the potential to reach and influence many, both in and outside of the classroom. Blogging represents a 21st century skill with real world uses. When was the last time your boss asked you to write a narrative essay? (S.Wright, Making the Shift)

After reading this Post and the comments (and they were numerous), I realized that I too have come to some startling truths about Blogging.

The idea of sharing your writing with others in a public forum sounds harmless but is certainly not for the thin-skinned. It is one thing to have a publisher reject your work (isn’t that what they are paid to do?) but to have an anonymous reader question your word choice, your style, your editing, your grammar, your font, your raison d’etre…well it can be, let’s say, a bit daunting.

 Blogging, despite what some hard working people think, is WORK. It is a most intensive type of writing-writing on demand- for an audience that you are totally unfamiliar with (age, gender, race, politics, etc.). And while you may be familiar with some of the readers, once the post gets passed on to a friend of a friend or available to the www public ..the audience issue becomes a slippery slope.

 Blogging can cause you to question friendship with people you thought really had your back and were supportive of your efforts to get your voice heard. After a few conversations with them and not once do they mention ANYTHING that was in any of your last 20 posts, you realize they have not taken the time to even peruse your site. You then begin to question the true nature of this relationship since you can literally make lists of the times you have been there for that person over the years providing money/advice/meals/a shoulder/a ride/late night phone calls/a ride/money..I digress.  There she go….grinding that axe..hmph

Blogging can make you realize what you already know… that ultimately writing is a solitary endeavor…best done in the privacy of one’s home/office/cabin. And only shared when it is finished…in final form… as in A Book.

But… on the other hand…

Blogging can bring together like- minded people who share common interests and who are there to uplift each other as they all struggle to find their Voice. Many Bloggers on WordPress actually read each other’s blogs and post thoughtful comments/questions on their site.

Blogging can inspire, challenge, inform, entertain and even delight the Readers who take the time to read your Blog.

And  finally, for many creative types who suffer from the curse of insomnia, Blogging can give you something to do when the whole world except you and the people in another time zone are all fast asleep.

Does this girl have a man?  She need a boy toy or something!

Bon soir  

 

THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD: A Search for Self

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.  Some come in with the tide.  Others sail forever on the horizon…That is the life of man.

Now women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget.  The dream is the truth.

And so the novel opens.  The storyteller begins to weave the tale starting at the end and bringing us back circuitously to the beginning

Janie, dressed in muddy overalls and weary from her journey relates her story to friend Pheoby.  This sharing of her tale is not only an affirmation, but evokes the age old practice of sharing or confessional which has now evolved into the Talk Show. (think Oprah, Ellen, Steve Harvey)

Janie saw her life “like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches”.

We learn that Janie’s journey of self has taken her through three marriages and many struggles.  Walker notes that Eyes is generally thought of as a love story, but its theme, she believes, is Janie’s search for identity which finally takes shape when she throws off the images thrust upon her because she is both black and a woman in a society where neither is allowed to exist naturally and freely.

Literature is replete with stories of this search for identity. The Bildungsroman is a novel that traces the development of character from childhood to adulthood, through a quest for identity that leads the protagonist to maturity.

The story of Siddhartha often comes to mind when I think of the protagonist of Eyes. Like Siddhartha, Janie’s world is full of natural images that symbolize the role of nature in the character’s quest for a better understanding of self.

In trying to decide whether marriage to Logan Killicks and his oft mentioned thirty acres was the answer, Jane was back and forth to the pear tree…continuously wondering and thinking.

She looked to the horizon for answers.  And she soon realized that marriage to the lackluster Mr. Killicks, despite his financial security was not her idea of love. Nanny, however, thinks that marrying Mr. Killicks will be the answer. She tells, Janie.. The ni**er woman is de mule uh de world so far as Ah can see.  Ah been prayin fuh it tuh be different wid you.

But Janie realizes marriage to Mr. Killicks is not the answer. Ah wants things sweet wid mah marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think. She ends the marriage when she hurries out the front gate and turned South.  Zora writes, Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.

Janie’s second husband, the domineering, boastful Joe Starks from in and around Georgy represented newness and change. Janie knew that Joe did not represent sun up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon.  To Janie, this represented another rung on the ladder of self fulfillment.

Marriage to Mayor Starks, however, proved to be demoralizing as Janie realized that he wanted her to play the role of the submissive wife keeping her thoughts and opinions to herself…Mah wife don’t know nothing ’bout no speech-making, he tells a crowd.  Ah never married her for nothing lak dat.  She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.

After twenty years, the marriage ends with Joe dying from a longterm  illness, during which he refused to see Janie.  Finally, Janie confronts Joe on his death bed..All dis bowin’ down, all dis obedience under yo’ voice-dat ain’t why Ah rushed off down de road tuh fund out about you.

At Joe’s funeral, Janie ...starched and ironed her face and came set in.  She sent her face to Joe’s funeral but herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world.  Janie’s journey for self discovery continues.

It is here that Zora’s fictional life and real life seem to intersect (this often happens in a novel).  Zora meets and falls in love with the real love of her life.  He was tall, dark brown, magnificiently built with a beautifully modeled back head…And he was an Alpha man. However, Zora notes, she did not fall in love with him because of looks..he had a fine mind and that intrigued me.

He was a man who wanted to do for her...But nothing, she writes..must be in my life but himself.  Zora’s career and fierce independence began to interfere with their relationship. Finally, Zora found escape from the struggle to maintain her ‘self’ in the relationship in the form of a Guggenheim Fellowship.  For two years she was to study/research out of the country.  Eyes was published in 1937 while she was in the Caribbean . She wrote it in only seven weeks.  This was my chance to release him and fight myself free from my obsession.  So I pitched in to work hard on my research to smother my feeling.  

Similarly, Janie’s love affair with Vergible Tea Cakes Woods, an easy going laborer, ten years her junior, represents her fulfillment in a union.  Tea Cakes teaches Janie ...de maiden language all over.  He is man enough to treat her as an equal and they spend their days traveling from job to job working the land, in unison with nature. The novel ends on a bittersweet note as Janie’s dream fades into reality and she realizes the journey one must travel to distinguish role from self.

Many literary critics say that Eyes is the quintessential love story. However, like Zora’s own real life, Eyes is also a story of survival and realization of self. In her autobiography, Zora writes…Be that as it may, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have loved and been loved by the perfect man.  If I never hear of love again, I have known the real thing.

And in true tongue-in-cheek Zora fashion, quips: But pay no attention to what I say about love..it may not mean a thing…Just because my mouth opens up like a prayer book, it does not just have to flap like a Bible.

Love. Life. Identity. Illusion. Reality. Dream. Truth. Roles. Self. Nature. Struggle.  Their Eyes Were Watching God is all this and so much more…just turn the pages.

FOR ZORA

IMG_0094

(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!