Today, we celebrate the 123rd birthday of one of the most influential women in American history. I have to say that I am so grateful to Alice Walker, who went on a vigorous journey through the heat of Eatonville and Fort Pierce, Florida—dodging snakes and insects, all the while, acting in disguise as Hurston’s niece, in order to revive Hurston and her story in the early 1970’s. There, under the searing golden rays, Walker was able to find Hurston’s grave (or the general vicinity) and place a plain gray headstone that read:
ZORA NEALE HURSTON
“A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH”
Zora Neale Hurston, being all those things above and more has taught me about my own history as a woman of color and to not be ashamed of our varying accents and dialects, our way of telling colorful and vibrant stories, our way of still prospering in spite of white folks’ best efforts of striping our culture, history, and humanity. Living most of her life in an all-black town (Eatonville), Hurston never experienced discrimination because of her color growing up. In this light, I believe she was able to have a real sense of pride in her color and people that blossomed in every space she stepped foot. Hurston was vivacious, “funny, irreverent (she was the first to call the Harlem Renaissance literati the “niggerati) [and] loved to dance” (Walker, 87-88). She measured the size of black people’s head in Harlem to see if there was a correlation between the size of their heads and their intelligence. During that time, white folks perpetuated this idea that blacks were unable to hold the capacity of intelligence because their heads were too small. She was adventurous, traveling to Jamaica, Haiti, and Honduras for her studies.
Most importantly for me, she opened up dialogue with my grandmother. Just over this past summer, I had the pleasure of finally picking up Their Eyes Were Watching God. A book I’ve been dying to read, but with the stress of classes, assigned readings, essays, research, thesis, and working 30+ hours a week, needless to say, I never had the time. What I love about Their Eyes was the vivid language of the dialogue which makes up about 50% or more of the entire book. Though difficult to get through the spelling in the first chapter, I quickly caught on, because little by little I was being reminded of how my grandmother speaks:
“Dey gointuh make ‘miration ‘cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore” (Hurston, 182).
On a visit to see my grandma in NE, Washington DC, I told her that these characters especially Jane, the main character, reminded me of her. Though, never hearing of Zora Neale Hurston or the famous novel before, she went on to tell me about how it was growing up in racist Fredricksburg, VA in the 40s and 50s. She told me how she slapped a white girl that called her a “nigger,” but then later on became the babysitter for her child in her late teens. She laughed at the irony. She continued into the night about her friends, and how she would go on base to meet military men. My grandma just like my mother and me never knew her father. “And donchu know, I walked err’day passed ‘im? Yis, chile, err’day walkin’ to school. ‘Til uh neighbuh toll meh. I askt ‘im and he said ‘yea’ and kept on workin’.”
Not to say this conversation wouldn’t have taken place if I hadn’t brought up Their Eyes, but I know in that moment, I was so thankful for this novel, so thankful to be able to get pieces to a puzzle that I didn’t even know needed fixing.
We live in the kind of society where it’s acceptable and expected to try as much as possible to get away from our black history. No one wants to be descendants of slaves. Rarely is it acceptable to embrace our colorful vernacular so we code-switch in order to get a good job or wear our hair straight because it’s unprofessional to embrace our natural coiled and spiraled locks. They tell us that we have to speak, act, and be a certain way in order to be a “decent/proper” person. But Hurston didn’t care about all that. She loved her roots, searched for them, collected them, and gave us something to be proud of.
So Happy Birthday, Mama Zora. You are ever-changing, never lost, and beautifully infinite.
–Luecretia, the esoteric ❤
(NOTE: I know this is a day late. I was so looking forward to getting it on January 7th)
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, 1937.
Walker, Alice. In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harvest Books, 1983.