Our love/hate relationship with Zora Neale Hurston.
Without a doubt, Zora's still messing with us. With her it's hard to tell from which afterlife locale she's throwing her voice. Not only has there been renewed interest in her life, works, and role in the Harlem Renaissance among scholars, but also HarperPerennial has issued a new series edition of her works, including Moses, Man of the Mountain, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mules and Men, Dust Tracks on a Road, and Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. (For a good working list of Hurston's novels, scholarly papers, plays, articles, and short stories, see Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography by Robert E. Hemenway, University of Illinois Press.)
Actress Ruby Dee powerfully performs Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mules and Men on audio cassette (Harper Collins Publishers). And the town of Eatonville is sponsoring a Zorafest in January 1994. Probably the most telling Zora revisited event occurred when, in 1973, Alice Walker waded through waist-high weeds" in the neglected, segregated African-American section of the Garden of the Heavenly Rest cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida, and placed a tombstone on a depression in the ground that may or may not have been Zora's grave. Ambivalence best describes the process and the conclusion of trying to make peace with Zora. But make peace with her we must, if we are to understand some of the intellectual dynamics motivating our own progress, or inertia, as a race of people struggling for identity and global and self-respect.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Eatonville, probably in 1901. Eatonville was the first self-governing African-American town in America, a fact Zora dismisses at some length with unconcealed pride in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Given white America's proclivity for killing African Americans for sport, it was an "uppity," highly dangerous undertaking. Amazingly though, Zora reports a relatively peaceful coexistence with neighboring white towns throughout her childhood.
Zora absorbed Eatonville's independent, risk-taking spirit into her own personality. She was a hotheaded free spirit who dared to talk back to her elders as a child and who had the nerve to smoke in front of white folks as an adult.
One of Zora's favorite childhood pastimes was eavesdropping on the "lying" sessions in Joe Clark's store. The townspeople, usually men but sometimes women, too, would gather to gossip and tell stories that would speak volumes on their feelings about slavery, their color, white folks, God and the devil, love and relationships, magic, animals--life. These stories kindled Zora's love for African-American culture and were the beginning of her lifelong interest in Southern African-American folklore.
After her mother died, Zora lived the life of a foster child, rooming in the homes of relatives. Eventually she made her way North. It was an uphill climb all the way, but her quick intelligence and willfulness finally propelled her to Howard University where she received an associate degree in 1920. Her short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea," was published in the May 1921 issue of Stylus, the campus literary periodical. She attended Barnard College in New York on full scholarship in 1925, where her love for African-American culture was intellectualized and systematized through the discipline of anthropology under Franz Boas. She was able to slip off the "tight chemise" of her culture and look at it from a somewhat more objective perspective.
Never wanting to escape her roots as other scholars tended to do, when Zora was offered the chance to return South to collect folktales, she jumped at the opportunity. She was also published and nurtured as a Renaissance artist by Charles S. Johnson, editor of the Urban League's organ, Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life.
Like Josephine Baker, who scandalized European audiences and embarrassed her people with her "neo-African" dancing in the late '20s and '30s, Zora irritated the African-American scholars of the day by refusing to dilute her folk art with a dash of their race consciousness. Zora was thus caught up in the whirlwind of the Great Debate that rages on even today.
Zora was anxious to get on with the business of living, of being an artist. She had no patience for the race men ("Negrotarians"), like W.E.B. DuBois and Richard Wright, who put racial issues over the integrity of art. Her philosophy was "art for art's sake." Her essay, "Art and Such," published for the first time in 1990 in Reading Black, Reading Feminist (Penguin Group), loudly proclaims her position on the issue. Zora, in turn, was harshly criticized by Wright for her "minstrel" interpretations of African-American rural life. Wright, a member of the Communist party, as noted by Hemenway, seemed personally offended by Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of the most beautiful, moving love stories in African-American literature. He wrote that the novel "carried no theme, no message, no thought," and during the 30 years that Wright dominated the African-American literary scene, Hurston's novel was out of print. Even Dr. Allain Locke, Harvard PhD, Rhodes scholar, and Zora's mentor at Howard, called her characters "pseudo-primitives." Today the Great Debate manifests in some critics' fury over Terry McMillan's, Alice Walker's, and others' lack of proportion in their African-American male/female characterizations and neglect of serious race issues.
How to reconcile the very real issues concerning race with artistic integrity was, and is, at issue. If a writer is solely concerned with art for art's sake and has no grounding in self, community, and history, his/her work, though possibly technically perfect, will ring false, flat, passionless, empty. Mainstreamers may rush to fill the void with awards, accolades, opportunities, and money, but deep down, we know that the artist "perpetrated." Science fiction writers, though depicting imaginary worlds, must still ground their worlds in a reality that's believable, tangible, and identifiable. African-American writers who refuse to deal with the realities of race do so at their own peril because in America, race, fortunately or unfortunately, defines a great portion of who we are as people.
Although Zora's work was blasted by the race men of her day, arguably her work is an answer to the Great Debate. She was thoroughly grounded in an African-American consciousness through her love of folk tales and African religious expression. She completely understood the effects of racism on African Americans, but she preferred to subtly craft her narratives while overtly treating universal themes--love, hate, man's inhumanity to man, the ferociousness of nature, etc. She presents one interpretation of "Blackness," and that was her artistic prerogative.
Ironically, what irritated the race men of the Renaissance was the very thing that infused Zora's work with cultural integrity: African-American themes, images, characterizations, dialect. Fundamental to her "one interpretation" was a wholehearted acceptance of her African heritage. Zora was a pioneer in translating the oral art form of storytelling into literature. Although Europeans are excited by art that taps into the infinite well-spring of African images and ideas (they call it "primitive"), African-American bourgeois sensibilities were, in Zora's day, embarrassed by anything remotely resembling Africa. Zora, on the other hand, "abhorred pretense, and she had no desire to adopt a bourgeois respectability," notes Hemenway.
We are not as embarrassed today by Africa because even Kentucky Fried Chicken uses kente imagery in its advertising; however, many African Americans are still reluctant to substantively deal with the land of their ancestry. Tarzan accomplished his purpose. How different might "The Gloved One" look today had he made his journey to Africa before he altered his nose, lips, and hair! His was the extremist behavior mistake that many race people of the past and present make: they try to achieve a universalist consciousness without first making the trek to Africa, literally and figuratively. Worse, universalism is usually a euphemism for Eurocentrism. Zora, on the other hand, delighted in discovering, unveiling, and thrusting upon an unsuspecting public the hidden Africa in our culture.
That she died penniless and was buried in a pauper's grave was a travesty--but not surprising. Zora was a woman ahead of her time in her love of African culture. Zora stepped onto the scene during the '20s, a time when Madame C.J. Walker, the inventor of the hot comb, was the community's cultural hero. Zora's constant battles with the race men of the era didn't help her cause either. But she could have withstood all that had she, and other artists of the Harlem Renaissance, assumed ownership of their work. As Harold Cruse explains in his brilliant analysis, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, these artists blew the golden opportunity to own the culture they were in the act of producing. Zora was totally dependent upon the benevolence of others, mostly white people, to house her, educate her, feed her, clothe her, publish her, and fund her research. While some African Americans, like Johnson, did help her to a degree, her monetary support primarily came from white people. In the end, they all let her down. Along the way, she did attempt to stage spirituals and even co-publish a literary periodical, but the endeavors either barely broke even or lost money. As has been proven over and over again, from Billie Holiday to Zora Neale Hurston, it is not wise to depend on the kindness of strangers in a society where creative output is subjected to the realities of the dollar and the whims of a fickle public--not the true expression of the soul. Love her or hate her, Zora's lessons are our lessons, and no doubt she's wondering if we'll ever get the point.
Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (New York: Quill), 1984.
Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Chicago: U. of Illinois Press), 1980.
Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (New York: HarperPerennial), 1990.
Hurston, Mules and Men (New York: HarperPerennial), 1990.
Hurston, "Art and Such," and "The Darkened Eye Restored': Notes Toward a Literary History of Black Women,'" Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed. Reading Black, Reading Feminist (New York: Penguin Group), 1990.
Donna M. Williams is formerly senior editor of Third World Press and managing editor, Black Books Bulletin. Her book, Deprogramming Michael: One Mother's Battle Against the Media's Psychic Warfare, and her science fiction youth series, Latchkey Generation, will be released by Renaissance Press in 1994.
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|Title Annotation:||African World History; African-American novelist|
|Author:||Williams, Donna M.|
|Publication:||The Black Collegian|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1994|
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