Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Story of Zora

I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows with a harp and a sword in my hands.

Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist and leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. But by the time of her death in 1960 she had fallen into obscurity. Her novels were disparaged by other African-American literati, who were primarily male, for their use of black dialect (long a contentious issue - see minstrel shows and Mark Twain) and focus on individual (particularly female) self-empowerment instead of pressing racial issues. Not until the publication of Alice Walker's article "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" in the March 1975 edition of Ms. magazine did Hurston finally receive the recognition she deserved. Her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was published at the height of her popularity in 1942.

I have read Their Eyes Were Watching God twice (first on my own, second for a book club) and saw that saccharine Oprah movie starring Halle Berry. Learning about Hurston's life illuminated quite a bit of it, starting with Eatonville, Florida, America's first all-black incorporated township and main setting for Watching God. Dust Tracks on a Road opens with the history of its founding in the 1880s by the black citizens of the Town of Maitland (itself founded only a decade previous by two former Union officers). Hurston grew up there and her father even served as its mayor for a time. Today, Eatonville stages a Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities each winter. (Actually, Zora claims, in Dust Tracks, that she was born in Eatonville but that that is not true - she is a native of Alabama.)

Zora's mother died when she was thirteen. Her father quickly remarried a real-life Evil Stepmother who more or less kicked his eight children out of the family home and stopped paying Zora's school tuition which resulted in her expulsion. (Years later, Hurston would come close to killing her in a fistfight.) Drifting from one domestic job to another, Zora eventually fell in with a traveling theater company, working as a personal assistant to a young white soprano. When she finally returned to high school she was twenty-six but somehow successfully posed as a sixteen-year-old girl. (I'm twenty-five and there is no way I could ever get away with that.) She would maintain the facade all her life, claiming to have been born in 1901 instead of 1891. She naturally presents herself as a typical teenaged student in Dust Tracks in the Road, even going as far as to brag about her and her female classmates' stealing of college boys for dances. Moving right along. . .

Zora attended Howard University and then transferred to Barnard College, a women's school where she was the only black student. She was thirty-six when she received her B.A. in Anthropology. Working with Franz Boas of Columbia University, she traveled extensively throughout the American South and Caribbean collecting black folklore and participating in local religious ceremonies. The recollections of her years in the field are vivid and closely tied to her portrayal of rural African-American life in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Among the backwaters of Polk County, Florida she became acquainted with the lively but dangerous world of itinerant laborers and was nearly killed in a saw-mill jook by the jealous lover of one of her male sources. Luckily, Hurston had had the foresight to befriend one Big Sweet, a formidable woman who knew her way around a knife fight, and lived to tell the tale.

Hurston would later attract considerable controversy for her views on segregation and Brown v. the Board of Education. Specifically: she supported the former and denounced the latter. Her reasoning was that living apart had allowed African-Americans to build up their own societies, their own language, and their own music, all of which she loved and which formed the basis of her fiction. Inspired by her research, Hurston was also instrumental in bringing authentic gospel singing to the New York stage. Still, despite their foundation in a deep knowledge and appreciation for African-American culture, Hurston's views in this regard are unfortunate.

It doesn't help that Dust Tracks on a Road seriously downplays the era's open, virulent racism. We're talking about a time, designated by some historians as the "nadir of American race relations," when the KKK ran free and Congress couldn't pass an anti-lynching bill to save its life. Hurston's interactions with white people are depicted as wholly amicable, even in the South outside Eatonville. Now here's where it gets sticky - as a white woman living in the twenty-first century, it is most certainly not my place to "correct" a black woman's book about her own life in the early twentieth century. But I could not help but observe a strong chord of paternalism in some of the relationships between Hurston and her white contemporaries, particularly in her younger years. For example, the "observers" of Eatonville, her time as a maid and depiction of one household's "mammy," and even her relationship with Miss M-, the soprano she worked for who became one of her closest friends. In the book itself, the dynamic between her and the latter makes sense since Hurston writes herself as ten years younger than she really was, which would have made twenty-year-old Miss M- at least five years her senior. Or could Hurston deliberately have created this younger-older sister vibe for the purposes of reinforcing her own myth that she was born in 1901? That's the trouble with autobiographies and memoirs - "We are what we pretend to be," as Kurt Vonnegut once said.

(I just kept thinking back to Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll and the latent violence of the seigneurial society.)

From an historical standpoint, it's very jarring how just about the only time racism comes up is when Hurston was working for a black-owned barbershop in Washington, D.C. that catered to white politicians. A black man came in for a shave and was kicked out! (The paternalism also seemed really strong here - in my opinion, anyway. There's an exchange between a white journalist and a black porter that would likely be considered highly problematic if related by a white author.) We could have united as a race and nobly stood up for him, Hurston writes, but reality is, everyone's gotta earn a living. It's the main motivation of the human race - pull yourself up, take what you want, conquer, move forward. She had a certain amount of disdain for "Race" men and women, who allegedly "make whole careers" out of "Race Consciousness," as she believes individual people are much too varied to be represented as a single bloc. I do agree with her to an extent, but I also don't think it's possible to tackle issues of oppression from a strictly individual standpoint. Reality is, people are marginalized due to factors like race, gender, disability, sexuality, and so forth, and are likely to share experiences with other members of their communities.

Hurston did lead an unconventional and successful (in 1942) life, achieving and experiencing far more than many women of that age, regardless of race, ever did. And she did this in spite of some considerable setbacks that would have ruined others. Through her constant reading she maintained in her mind a vision of a world where she knew belonged - that of intellectual growth and stimulating friendships - and did everything within her power to earn her place there. So perhaps it is not surprising that she came to the conclusions she did about individual self-reliance since that so clearly worked for her. But this is still 1942, however, and Hurston had yet to encounter the troubles that would knock her back into obscurity. She never sold many books, to begin with, and was falsely accused of molesting a ten-year-old boy in 1948. Although she was able to prove she was in Honduras at the time the alleged incident took place, the scandal caused irreparable damage. She spent the last decade of her life as a substitute teacher and writing freelance articles that demonstrated strikingly reactionary opinions (coming from an African-American, no less) regarding segregation. Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960 in St. Lucie County Welfare Home in Florida and was buried in an unmarked grave.

You can argue that Hurston's steadfast faith in her own individual power failed her in the end. But I have to hand it to her - she stuck to what she believed in despite the criticism and seems to have remained true to herself throughout it all. Many writers fall of the radar in their lifetimes for a variety of reasons and earn the recognition they deserved only after their deaths, including Hurston's contemporaries H.P. Lovecraft and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose works I also enjoy. While it's easy to pity her the end of her life, everything turned out right in the end and Hurston has regained her rightful place as a major American and African-American woman author of the twentieth century.


Anonymous said...

I didn't know about the high school years, and passing herself off as a teenager. Or her beliefs about segregation...the mini-biographies I've read just gloss right over that!

Emily said...

Hurston is such an interesting character. Their Eyes Were Watching God is up there with my favorite novels of all time, and I think it's fascinating that much of what makes it work for me (the strong authorial voice and use of dialect, the emphasis on individual growth and personal relationships) become problematic (as you say) when translated into a political platform. Of course, it's still possible to read political protest in the book, but it's more subtle and complex than the overt political protest in authors like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, who I tend not to like as well, largely because their "characters" seem like just standard examples of a type, rather than individuals—they go to the opposite extreme from Hurston. I suppose my ideal would strike some balance between the two stances.

Anyway, I've been meaning to read Dust Tracks on a Road for a long time, so thanks for the reminder to pick it up. Next year for New Years I'll be visiting my friend who lives in Gainesville, & we're thinking of doing a field trip to Eatonville.

Amy said...

This would be an interesting book. I have yet to finish Their Eyes Were Watching God, but I did see the movie. She certainly had different ideas, but good for her, I guess, for sticking to them.

E. L. Fay said...

Softdrink: Well, the stuff about high school and passing herself off as ten years younger is stuff she would have preferred not to get out. Still, it's quite interesting and I'm surprised even a mini-bio won't mention it. If her views on segregation are generally glossed over, I would guess it's because she is such a seminal black author and people don't like to acknowledge that she believed such things.

Emily: Yes! That's precisely a criticism you can make about overtly political novels - that their characters are mostly mouthpieces for the author's beliefs and have to conform to certain types fitting the proper ideology. (The only Ellison book I've read is Invisible Man but that was awhile ago. I do remember liking it, though.) Do tell us all about Eatonville if you get to go.

Amy: Yes, everything did work out for her in the end - she has that lasting fame that is really more important than transient lifetime success. But it's still sad how her final years turned out.

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