“Zora Neale Hurston? Aw, she caint write.”

Florida Today

Zora Neale Hurston, courtesy of Florida Today

As a black male writer, one whose first three trilogic novels Toni Morrison edited, the late novelist Leon Forrest (Divine Days)finds a juncture towards a shared aesthetic—on the basis of thematic content and, to a certain degree, style—with the black woman through the black music of the black church. The gospel music’s ubiquitous role in African-American cultural production is, at its heart, centered on the search for happiness and hope, despite it all. This is a goal black men and women are bonded by and can certainly agree on, in the face of having unique gendered challenges, and this is where Forrest is able to enter into a shared dialogue with his sister cultural carriers. With differing political positions and fractured domestic relations, black men and women meet largely on the common ground of hope and survival, the common ground transcending identity and bonding them, beyond classifications, with the human race.

The Furious Voice for Freedom

The Furious Voice for Freedom: Essays by Leon Forrest (Asphodel Press, 2010)

Leon Forrest

Novelist and Professor Leon Forrest, author of Divine Days

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.” Their Eyes Were Watching God

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.

Zora

Photo by Carl Van Vechten

6 thoughts on ““Zora Neale Hurston? Aw, she caint write.”

  1. I’m surprised you did not encounter Hurston in your studies–Their Eyes Were Watching God was one of the texts in a college course I took almost 20 years ago, and, more recently (last year), the author appeared on a list of historical black women to be researched for Black History Month (along with Oprah, and Michele Obama, and a few others. I was mostly disappointed that women were not better represented, but Hurston was there) in my daughter’s fifth grade class. Anyway, I was reminded of how much I loved the book when I saw her name on the list, and I read it aloud (skipping over the racier and more harrowing bits) to my two school age daughters over the summer. The dialect is difficult for the modern reader; reading Mark Twain presents the same problem. After a few pages, though, you get used to it, you get used to hearing these characters talk this way, so it becomes less of an obstacle. It’s a great book, very, very funny at times, poignant at others, and my daughters and I got into a lot of interesting conversations discussing the choices Janie Crawford makes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Karen,

      I thought I said I was a teenager in small town America and Zora was not part of my high school’s scant focus on black writers, usually concentrated most in Black History Month, so I found her on my own through black women at work. Certainly by the time I got to college focusing on black and women’s lit, she came up pretty quickly. I am going to get into that part tomorrow.

      I love the novel as well and it is one of the most hilarious ones from that time, so much happiness in middle of whatever pain she wrote through at all times. I do believe she belongs up there with the likes of Mark Twain, as a master of humor, but many obstacles exist to her being seen as such so thank God we celebrate her today. Many Blessings, Kalisha

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  2. What a wonderful post. I love some of the authors you mentioned and Langston Hughes’s, complete book of poems is on the table, waiting to be read. Grew up reading Baldwin and many other of the authors you mentioned. Their words helped me become who I am. Again. outstanding post, enjoyed it so very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you and please look forward to more on her this week! I am glad the powers that be finally got Zora into that Hughes and Baldwin mandatory bunch….Happy writing, Kalisha

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  3. Kalisha,

    Thank you for writing this! As a writer it always upsets me when I look back at my high school English studies being in honors lit classes and such the lack of black author representation especially Black women. We did read Toni Morrison’s Beloved and I found myself most in Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” That essay really opened my eyes. I’m hoping to read some of her novels some time in the near future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello and you are so welcome. Yeah, we had it kind of bad back then. I am inspired by more and more black women who teach English in charter schools, urban areas, etc…who have bookshelves now in their classroom that I could have only dreamed of back then. Thank you for reading! Many Blessings, Kalisha

      Liked by 1 person

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