I’ve been in sorrow’s kitchen and licked all the pots. Then I stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows with a harp and a sword in my hands. – Zora Neale Hurston
She’s a phenomenal, extraordinary, courageous and talented woman whose literary legacy stretches wide and deep. Zora Neale Hurston, a novelist, a folklorist, and an anthropologist, has inspired me for decades and has influenced the fictional stories of African-American and other women writers. I imagine her as a younger and beautiful gardenia sitting underneath a “shade tree” reading a book of Grimm’s Fairytales. And as an adult I imagine her gazing at a purple moon, pondering her next book, or maybe she’s in Haiti collecting folk tales for books of folklore. Regardless of my efforts towards imaginary grandeur, few descriptions transcend this one: “One of the greatest writers of our time,” said Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Toni Morrison who’s a great writer by any literary standard. Words like incomparable, formidable, larger than life define Zora Neale Hurston. I call her a woman ahead of her time, a woman whose controversial life dwarfed alongside her literary lights.
When I heard about her novel two decades ago, I marched right into the local bookstore and inquired about a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God. To my dismay, the bookseller clerk informed me that he’d never heard of her, and he was sure they didn’t carry an author named Zora Neale Hurston. “She’s the greatest writer of all times, and you don’t have a copy of her book?” I asked.
I stood there trying to gather myself. He told me to try Waldenbooks’ competitor, B. Dalton whose bookseller clerk seemed more lackadaisical. He just glared at me when I asked him about the book. Then he shook his head. “Now I know why my friends don’t buy books here. Can you talk to the manager about getting her book?" He said he would. (We didn’t have the big chain bookstores in Milwaukee yet.) The more I thought about the pathetic situation, the more livid I got. “They could be doing brisk business from this soon-to-be book addict and the rest of the black women dying to pick up a book that spoke to them.” I thought.
Both of them apologized profusely, but they couldn’t imagine how devastated I was and why I lied because at the time, I didn’t know enough to be a braggart. I was angry, hurt, and desperate to read a book about a character who looked like me. The book market for black women readers left a hole large enough to bury a dozen bodies. In fact, we had black women writers, but they must have buried them in the bottom of book bins (Oh, I forgot, these books were out of print or might’ve been out of print) That was hardly the case at defunct booksellers in our market because Hurston’s books had been re-printed.
Back to the bookstore. I flinched and left the store, my heart pumping like my hubby revving his hot rod – in another life -- and drag racing. Singer Ella Fitzgerald was scatting inside my head, but even she couldn’t soothe my body and mind. I never forgot that day I lost self-control over a Hurston book. You could’ve called me an angry black woman, and I might’ve laughed for a second -- if I had stopped for a second to think.
“Welcome to the so-called big city, Joyce,” I mumbled. “It’s preposterous.” I’d expect my hometown of Greenville, N.C., population 35,000, not to have such a book. “This is Milwaukee,” I thought, busily shaking my head and nearly running into a passerby. “What would it take to wake up these powerful, sleeping giants?” I thought.
Now I wonder if Zora’s spirit embraced me because I was calm and cool as a refrigerated cucumber when I returned to my office. A few days later, my co-editor of the opinion editor at the Milwaukee paper and book editor got in the usual shipment of books. As usual I perused every book and discovered Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I asked him if I could take it, and he said: “Any book you want, take it. And if you write a review for it, we’ll pay you $25.”
“Great. A review is on its way."
That night after dinner and a bath, I climbed into bed with Zora and read until daybreak. After a long day at the office, I reread it because I’d fallen in love with the love story of Janie and Teacake, which set off more fireworks in my head than Fourth of July revelers. I’ve read the book six times, and I’m still plowing through everything I get my hands on. Hurston has inspired me to get back on my childhood dream of writing after a long, long detour, a career which brought great joy but frustations -- at times. When my motivation and inspiration plummet, I take a stroll down Zora Lane. When I’m feeling purple or in physical pain, and that’s too often, I plug into her life story. I empathize with her – being from the South, growing up in poverty, having a dysfunctional childhood, and other struggles. She persevered, starting low and reaching the Harlem Renaissance period where she was a major writer. What’s sad was in the end, she died broke in a welfare home. I think she’d be proud and no doubt – rich.
Hurston’s stories teach women they have control over their own lives, dreams and expectations. She accomplished in life what eluded her in death, and we can celebrate Black History Month because of today's black writers' publishing success in comparison to Hurston's.
With outstanding narrative, plotting, imagery, Hurston’s wisdom and wit dominated through some works, and her themes were divine and human justice, love, and jealousy. She paid rapt attention to the black vernacular with strong women characters. She’s been called the standard bearer for black women writers for years to come. She’s been called the foremother to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Walker led a difficult and spirited journey to resurrect Zora from literary dust.
Because of Walker’s campaign, a writing icon's work is available for modern-day readers. Hundreds of literary critics, including Henry Louis Gates, and others have studied Zora Neale Hurston and her life's work with critical analyses from every angle. Scholars make it easy for more critical analyses and more books focusing on Hurston's work. And they won’t even run into each other because the subject range is so wide. They’ve written more books about Zora’s work than she wrote in her own writing career. Reading ubiquitous pages of books about her, I could only say, “That’s a fantastic compliment to a prolific writer who produced work in a male-dominated culture during a time when black women writers barely existed. A courageous Hurston prevailed in getting published -- mostly unrewarded -- without a compass or a roadmap. She wrote four novels, an autobiography, collections of short stories, three books of African-American Folklore, and two major biographies – one by Valerie Boyd – the first African-American to write it.
You know what? I often think of Walker whose laudable gift of Zora Neale Hurston, a literary gem. Zora's fans and critics would be poorer without Zora Neale Hurston's work.