In The Furious Voice for Freedom, Forrest considers exemplary Black female writers who have employed this formulation in Billie Holiday’s shadow, just like her imperfect and rusty voice ripped of the strait jacket of expression society imposed on Black women against their nascent gifts. Forrest acknowledged 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 personal introduction to Billie, my introduction to Zora was obscured in 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. All this had to 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 Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston was not a name mentioned in my schools, not even during Black History Month. My knowledge of her arrived only after I came across a tiny, early-edition paperback copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God in the break room at one of my teenage jobs. It was a book passed around by women I worked with in a small town’s Catholic 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 something had drawn someone to buy a book they would rather pass around than discard. No one had read the book in its entirety yet because it always came with an unfavorable review: “Aw…she caint write.”
The preferred books to delve into on work and lunch breaks were mass paperback, bestselling romances and true-crime novels scattered about: popular genres which spilled 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 outsiders whose romances and horror stories were a version of our own but in different manifestations. Passion, heartbreak, disappointment, victimization, and the possibility of a happy ending were the hooks.
I soon gathered that all the ladies who had tried Their Eyes Were Watching God thought that Zora could not write because her work- just like Holiday’s voice-was not “perfect.” The conclusion Hurston could not write because they couldn’t understand the characters’ speech (characters who would actually sound closer to them than the characters in their preferred literature) explained the problem with her work as the inability to decipher a 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 pasted on the bulletin boards and written notices given with misspellings, standard grammatical errors. However, their messages were 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 King’s English we 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 busy, hot, crowded Midwest hospital kitchen. The possibility of reading what we had learned to be broken language- through interactions with the White world in public, work and school- was strange to do.
But 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 one 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. From that small teaser, the women would take it from there. Despite trouble with the look of the book’s speech, it was common practice for us 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 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 conversation about the book when a co-worker narrated how 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. It had a way for working-class Black women to insert the details of their own realities into conversations of politics, victimization, atrocity and spectacle. The idea of a relationship they could playfully imagine and talk about, even if they could not decipher a depiction of what sound looked like for people who talked like them, did not necessitate direct experience with Zora’s version of her novel. What ignited our spirits about the work was the awesome imagining of the unrecognizable language it presented in the midst of drama we could recognize.