In his consideration of exemplary black female writers who have employed this formulation in Billie Holiday’s shadow, with her imperfect and rusty voice ripping the strait jacket of expression society imposed on black women against their nascent gifts, Forrest acknowledges Toni Morrison as the leader of such significant writers as Gloria Naylor. But he leaves out mention of the one who was always left out: Zora Neale Hurston. Like my introduction to Billie, my introduction to Zora was obscured by phantom representations passed along by women who applauded something other than the artist’s characteristic style—something deeper which was felt due to themes, ideas, situations and possibilities in the work which hit hardest at their hearts.
Unlike Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Nikki Giovanni, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and only recently, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston was not a name mentioned in my schools, not even during Black History Month. My knowledge of her achievement as a Black American author existed only because I came across a tiny, early-edition paperback copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God in the break room at my teenaged job. It was a book passed around by women I worked with at the local hospital kitchen, a kitchen run and supervised by black women. I don’t remember the description on the back of the book, nor can I recall what image the cover held. However it was clear that something had drawn someone to buy a book that they would rather pass than discard. No one had yet to read the book in its entirety because it always came with an unfavorable review: “Aw…she caint write.”
The preferred books to delve into on work and lunch breaks were the mass paperback, bestselling romances and true-crime novels scattered about: popular genres which spilled the inside secrets of lily-white domestic spheres and scandalous life. While I finished after-school homework, these were the books women around me read. They were dramatic narratives about foreigners whose romances and horror stories were a version of their own but in different manifestations. Passion, heartbreak, disappointment, victimization, and the possibility of a happy ending were the hooks. The subjects were of a different color, the least bit of details from their own reality to have to look at, as in a mirror, to reflect back on the pain which causes one to sink into a book as a means of escape in the first place.
I soon gathered that everyone who had tried the book thought that Zora could not write because her work–like Holiday’s voice–was not “perfect.” By concluding Hurston could not write because they couldn’t understand the characters’ speech, characters who would actually sound closer to these readers than the characters in their preferred literature, explained the problem with her work as being unable to decipher to Hurston code of language which signaled sound. Yet a version of the black language present in Hurston’s altered spellings carried out in the everyday in speech, and writing, of our reality. Announcements were often pasted on the bulletin boards and written notices often given with misspellings, standard grammatical errors, and yet the message was still interpretable (“If any one know where the key to the stockroom is…” or “We havin a meetin at 1,” for instance). Nobody ever said those writers could not write.
Hurston’s was not the language we had learned to read even though it was the one more closely spoken. A literary text devoted to and concerned with suggesting speech, resounding voices from their everyday realities and interior lives, was not welcome on their 15-minute smoke break from work in a large, busy, hot, crowded Midwest hospital kitchen. These women’s practice of reading what they had learned, through interactions with the white world in public, work and school, to be broken language that must be corrected was strange to do. Yet even so, the text rooted in rich black oral tradition propagated that tradition by not being read. Their Eyes Were Watching God may have never gone missing or been altogether discarded because it was an animating conversation piece. While the other books were read, passed along and quietly recommended, the book that was never read was certainly the book most discussed.
Its legend was that it was about an “old woman” who is “going with” a young man, and from that small teaser the women would take it from there. Despite their trouble with the look of speech, it was often common practice for them to open the book up to its funnier passages of dialogue and conversation; a popular one was the description of Janie Starks’ first husband’s smelly feet. The exact details and developments of the story were not pursued by close reading as with the other books, however, what appeared appealing to them about the text was the sensationalism of its story and certain symmetrical details rarely found in the narratives of white realities. There was no photograph of Ms. Hurston on the book. Yet just from the tidbits her “readers” most remembered of their perusals of the story—that she had had to shoot her young lover, who had been bitten by a mad dog and gone mad himself—her ability to recount this story would have guaranteed her a place at the table.
Like Holiday, Hurston had exhibited the ability to resonate thematically, not stylistically, with the audience, and not through belabored style but through resonant stories we could relate to from happenings and remembrances in our own lives. I remember one woman claimed her ex-husband shot their 9-year old German shepherd in the back yard after suspicions he had gone rabid. This was the story she told, from which another picked up on a tangent. Thus Their Eyes Were Watching God, moreso than the other books with their unfamiliar locales and depicted ways of being, incited a playful tit-for-tat, with a way for the women to insert the details of their own realities into conversations of politics, victimization, and atrocity. The idea of a relationship they could playfully imagine and talk about, even if they could not decipher a depiction of what sound could look like for people who talked like them, did not necessitate direct experience with Zora’s version of her story. What ignited our spirits about the work and caused us to recall stories of our own was the awesome possibility for the unrecognizable love it presented in the midst of drama we could recognize.