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Wrapped In Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston

by Valerie Boyd. New York: Scribner, 2003,

528 pp., $30.00 hardcover.

The critic is wise, upon receiving a book for review, to toss the cover of that book aside: thoughtfully Out of reach for preservation should the volume be fit to travel from the stack of things read on duty to a spot in her pleasure library; or (if the critic is me) relegated to the black hole next to her desk, atop other detritus of the trade, including (but not limited to) other book covers, bound galleys not worth the paper they're printed upon, and semi-literate press releases thick with gushing, bribed blurbs.

Disposal did not cross my mind when contemplating the cover of this latest book, Wrapped in Rainbows, the new biography of Zora Neale Hurston. Never mind what is said about judging, books, and covers: the exterior of this tome poses a vexing riddle. Is it real? Or rather, is she real? She is, one presumes, Zora. But here she is shown in full color: a face ripped out of the sepia past, made contemporary with honey colored skin and red lips framing the immortal smile. Zora as she may have looked in dreamy Technicolor gives a shock to the historical sense. Forgiving the rather literal rendering of the book's title, the cover image seems perfectly to animate the hefty proposition (and dilemma) of the pages within.

The first Hurston biography in over 25 years bears a peculiar burden. Its subject; whose existence was once little more than a rumor, was this year commemorated on a United States postage stamp. Marched out of anonymity and into the canon by brigades of feminist; womanist; and multiculturalist culture warriors, Zora Neale Hurston is now Zora-Icon. Everyone is on a first-name basis with Zora-Icon, and everyone knows her story. The colorized Zora of Wrapped in Rainbows seems perfect for a moment when Frida and Virginia, those other one-name heroines of the second wave, suffer on the big screen, all furrowed brows and pursed lips in a fever of feminine creation. Zora: The Movie will have all the crucial scenes: There she goes dancing around Harlem measuring Negro heads; now she is tromping through the American South toting pistol and tape recorder; she trembles with visions, seduces every man, woman, and child in sight, makes the scene and then disappears entirely, lost in cruel poverty. Ironically, Zora-Icon is the fruit of the earnest toil of a past generation whose rediscovery, or as this book prefers in its hagiographic mode, "resurrection" of Hurston was done against the tide of a hostile mainstream. It was necessary in order to validate the very existence of a black feminist lineage. The famous mandate from Alice Walker's essay "Looking for Zora" encapsulates the task: 'We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if we do, it is our duty as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children. If necessary bone by bone." Now that the work of the bone collector is done (Walker took her own words literally, locating the unmarked grave of Hurston and providing it with a headstone), the children find the remains perfect for ancestor worship, in a sort of cultural necrophilia. A heroine whose tumultuous life is high on entertainment value is inevitably flattened in death. Zora is a byword for sassy, romantic, black girl bohemia, the Queen of the Harlem Renaissance. She has become a wax-figure mascot. Her legacy is determined, her place in history confirmed, and the ways to feel about her fixed.

The untroubled afterlife of an icon is a thing Hurston herself might have found quite pleasing, so active was she in the production of personal mythology during her own lifetime. Perhaps this is a luxurious gripe, made by a critic born after the first Hurston biography of 1977, who has never known a world without Zora, who knew that face on the postal stamp before she was old enough to understand it. But this is the point: How might a new biography of Zora Neale Hurston complicate the life of an icon for an audience that takes her existence for granted? As with all biographies, the main object is to make the subject come alive, in motion and in color.

Boyd ascends to the task, with impressive confidence. A seasoned journalist and former arts editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she writes with an ease, a grace likely honed by years under the pressure of deadlines. Her life of Hurston is achieved with equal urgency, and with the vigor of fresh discovery. Also refreshing is the absence of the trappings one might expect from a biographer writing after the triumph of cultural theory. Imagine lost or future theses on Hurston read through the lens of the various disciplines: feminist psychoanalysis making much of her fraught relationships with men; performance theory going wild with ever-shifting identities; revisionist anthropology questioning her methods in the South with that gun and tape recorder, or the veracity of her findings in Haiti, where she became an initiate of Voodoo. Any of these takes might be compelling, but such biographies also risk obliterating the lives they are meant to tell, leaving a paper doll where a person once stood. Boyd's boo k is not the work of a scholar pale from years chasing wraiths in the archives. In fact, its shape owes much to the genre of long profiles in glossy woman's magazines. This is a populist Zora, a book to be devoured by reading groups. Ably summarizing and contextualizing Hurston's major works, Boyd provides no fresh readings. Perhaps that is the overdue work of some future scholar: The party line on Hurston has changed so little since the middle eighties and is so widely agreed upon that students can consult online cheat sheets.

Wrapped in Rainbows insists, above all, on being a good story. Taking cues from its subject-a master prose stylist-the pages seem blessed with the presence of Zora herself In fact, page after page features the actual words of Zora, through excerpted letters and substantial quotations from Hurston's memoir and her autobiographical fictions. At first, one is startled, though pleased, to find a biographer so at one with her subject. Boyd has crafted a narrative voice perfectly suited to Hurston's life and work; high-toned, elegant hyperbole slips into honeychile vernacular. The product seems a fulfillment of the benediction (quoted by Boyd in a recent interview) from Hurston's first biographer, Robert Hemenway, who said that a new life should be written, and by a black woman. The reasons for this are most evident in Boyd's language, and leave one to wonder if she has not indeed initiated a whole new model, ready for perfection, of how the lives of black women might be written. The intimacy achieved is admirable, but after a while one wants to feel some friction between the two. There is no resistance. Boyd seems to have written a book with full cooperation, as if she were a ghostwriter hired to tell the authorized story. (The book is dedicated "to Zora Neale Hurston, for choosing me.")

Boyd follows Hurston trustingly, acknowledging the obvious omissions and half-truths of Hurston's memoirs with the wink of a co-conspirator. While painting her as the ultimate yarn-spinner, inventive dreamer, and teller of tall tales, Boyd takes her neat episodes at face value, including her account of her life as the fulfillment of prophetic visions experienced during childhood-- although mystical beliefs aside, Hurston's visionary narrative has always seemed, to me at least, a literary device as artful as the one for which Their Eyes Were Watching God is now famous. Hurston, who in her fictions gave permission to tell the black, female, Southern life, also invented the convention by which all fictions black, female, and Southern are read by the wider society as wholly autobiographical. At the hands of Boyd, she suffers this herself; her words are taken as gospel. To paraphrase a Hurston quip: Her tongue is in Boyd's mouth. Quotations are so frequent and extensive that Boyd's narrative is almost ventrilo qui sm. The voice of the biographer and her struggle to comprehend her subject is completely lost.

Perhaps Zora was her own best biographer, and iconographer, and there are no words better than her own. In order to succeed as a black female professional writer before such a thing existed, Hurston had to become her own icon, her own myth, writing and creating herself while being subject to the often vicious creations of those for whom she was a novelty and a nuisance. By virtue of her times, Hurston's capacity for the real was compromised. The new treatment doesn't trouble Hurston's myth: Boyd has written, in part, a biography of Zora-Icon. If a critic wanted trouble, she might call it post-feminist. A post-feminist biography of Zora-Icon needn't wring its hands over questions of truth, representation, and subjectivity. It doesn't go pinching itself the whole time to be sure she really exists. It quotes at liberty because no one said it better. It doesn't see the need to make Zora into a cause, but could easily lend itself to making her into a movie. Boyd doesn't apologize for any of it, and one feels that Hurston wouldn't either. She might respond to the whole melancholic industry of Zora ancestor worship with a quote from the 1928 essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me":

There is no great sorrow damned up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature has somehow given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it.... No, I do not weep at the world--I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (p. 172)

Zora would reject the theoretical weeping over her bones, and want her life to remain a good story: Her bones are the words themselves, words so improbable that they still shock, and you wonder, how she could have said it, how she could have dared, and under what reprisals? This biography, with her words scattered so liberally throughout, sends you back to the work itself.

On the new postage stamp, Zora is shown in full color. It is a famous picture. She is looking over her shoulder out of the corner of her eyes, head cocked and mouth open wide in laughter. Colorized, she floats in front of a blazing blue, purple, and orange sunset. The same image in black and white is the one I associate with my first memories of finding her, on my mother's shelves, on the cover of the post-resurrection 1979 volume, I Love Myself When I am Laughing and Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive. The title, Boyd tells us, quotes Zora looking at herself, writing to Carl Van Vechten about a recent sitting that produced another famous portrait: Zora, the serious modernist, contemplative in front of a graphic backdrop. It is fitting that Boyd's most original contribution is the proper identification of yet another famous portrait which, as recently as the 2002 collection of letters edited by Carla Kaplan has routinely been misidentified as Hurston. Boyd sees the historian's mistake as a posth umous trick, Zora-Everywoman giving life to the anonymous from beyond the grave. One might also see the woman, anonymous again, as the opposite of Zora-Icon, some trace of what can never be known or collected. Studying the misidentified, impenetrable sepia photograph, one replaces it on the mantel, an ancestral portrait to be regarded from a comfortable distance.

SHARIFA RHODES-PITTS writes about books for, the Boston Phoenix, and Black Issues Book Review among others. She is originally from Houston, Texas.
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Title Annotation:Wrapped In Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston
Author:Rhodes-Pitts, Sharifa
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2003
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