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Wrapped in Rainbows: the Life of Zora Neale Hurston.

by Valerie Boyd Scribner, January 2003 $30.00, ISBN 0-684-84230-0

A misidentified photograph says it all. During the 1980s, as interest in Zora Neale Hurston's life and work began to gather speed, a widely-circulated photograph of a young black woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat and an enormous smile put a face to our fascination. But the face wasn't Hurston's. Even after the photographer himself, famed anthropologist Alan Lomax, notified the Library of Congress of this error in 1993, the image continued to circulate as an authentic Hurston likeness. It still does.

This is only one of the mistakes surrounding Zora Neale Hurston that Valerie Boyd corrects in her wonderful and engaging biography Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. Taking on the task of interpreting Hurston's life is, in itself, a brave choice. It is possible that no other African-American woman writer has been both source and object of such public anxieties, myths, fantasies and fears. In her biography of Hurston, Boyd manages to present us with a rich portrait of this icon, one that honors both the life that was lived and myths it produced.

Boyd accomplishes this in a gorgeous prose style that resonates. Her writing perfectly reflects the inventive linguistic playfulness of her subject, as well as the poetic gravity of the life she lived. Describing Hurston's approach to Harlem Renaissance gatekeeper Alain Locke, Boyd writes: "Zora seemed to take Locke's suggestions with a box of salt." Of Zora's disdain for bitterness, Boyd reasons: "It was, Zora knew, like drinking poison and expecting the other person--the resented one--to die." Introducing the hardest episode in Hurston's life, in which she was wrongly accused of child molestation, Boyd prepares her readers: "The charges came out of nowhere, like a puff of poisonous gas. Or like a sudden, savage thunderstorm on a cloudless day." The biography is rife with moments like these, in which Boyd achieves something rare and remarkable, which is to produce a biography that is at once sound in its scholarship and luminous in its language. That she accomplished it with such a complex and difficult subject is awe-inspiring.

Boyd's own talents do not interfere with her delivery of Zora Neale Hurston to readers in her own, majestic, inimitable words. Of a failed research jaunt, Hurston wrote: "I went back to New York with my heart beneath my knees and my knees in some lonesome valley." About white opportunists who routinely "borrowed" from black culture: "It makes me sick to see how these cheap white folks are grabbing our stuff and ruining it. My one consolation being that they never do it right and so there is still a chance for us."

Throughout Wrapped in Rainbows, Hurstons words can wound like razors and soothe like the gentlest touch, Zora Neale Hurston's linguistic powers are nearly magical, and are artfully represented and complemented by Boyd's own creative skills.

Hurston is not simply the unappreciated daughter of the Harlem Renaissance here, as she has often been depicted by scholars and biographers. The Zora Neale Hurston in Wrapped in Rainbows is a committed, passionate anthropologist, whose creative ambitions make those of several other Harlem Renaissance writers and artists seem puny by comparison. Hurston loved Harlem, but was also beckoned throughout her life by the Bahamas, Haiti and, of course, the American South. Through multiple heartaches, betrayals by friends and colleagues, and episodes of poor health, Hurston remained steadfast in her commitment to recording the lives of the "Negro farthest down."

Popular wisdom has it that Hurston died penniless, in poor health and ignored by the world. Hurston was poor and sick at the end of her life. But Boyd's readers will not find these facts coated in a weepy lament. In fact, Wrapped in Rainbows is a sobering portrait of a woman determined to live by her writing in a society that had other, lesser plans for her. Truly crushing moments in Hurston's professional life--the various ways Hurston was mishandled by the Rosenwald Fund and the Guggenheim Foundation--reveal the internecine nature of the racism that Hurston faced in a professional world that purported to believe in her. But what is salient about these episodes is how valiantly Hurston survived them. What's tragic about Hurston's life is how much it reflects our own negligence when it comes to our geniuses--at least while they are alive. The tragedy is not Hurston's; the tragedy is ours.

--Emily Bernard is the author of Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten 1925-1964 and an assistant professor of English at the University of Vermont.

Emily Bernard is the editor of Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, a 2001 New York Times Notable Book. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Bernard currently lives with her husband in Burlington, Vermont, where she is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Vermont. Bernard is currently working on Some of My Best Friends, an anthology of personal essays about interracial friendship to be published by Amistad/HarperCollins in 2003. In this issue, Bernard reviewed Wrapped in Rainbows, the first biography in 25 years of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. She also interviewed the book's author Valerie Boyd (page 50).
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Author:Bernard, Emily
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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