Happy Birthday Zora!

There are some people who you wish you could meet in real life. For me, that person is Zora Neale Hurston. My mother and I attended the Zora Neale Hurston festival in Eatonville when I was younger and I even have an oversized framed poster of her on my wall for creative writing inspiration. I talk to the poster from time to time. So what. I guess she’s my muse. Of course, there are other black authors hanging on the walls, but Hurston’s poster is the largest. It’s slightly damaged now, but I refuse to remove it. I will definitely replace it one of these days. As a matter of fact, maybe I’ll check eBay today.

While making one of my regular bookstore visits sometime back, I came across an amazing book on Hurston but after spending at least fifteen minutes flipping through the pages, I foolishly placed the book back on the shelf. This decision stayed on my mind, but when I finally returned to purchase the book some days later, I discovered that someone had already beat me to it. Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago, my mother told me that she’d bought me something. I figured it was one of her Family Dollar/Dollar General gifts and prepared myself for the necessary display of fake excitement (this is always very difficult for me). Instead my mother pulled the book from the bag and I sincerely lost my mind:

Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Lucy Anne Hurston — One of the most beguiling and captivating figures of the twentieth century, Zora Neale Hurston gained fame as a bestselling author, anthropologist, journalist, and playwright. Her remarkable life is presented as never before in SPEAK, SO YOU CAN SPEAK AGAIN. An interactive package tracing Hurston’s journey from Eatonville, Florida, to her student days at Barnard College, to her emergence as a literary star and bestselling author and cultural icon during the Harlem Renaissance and her subsequent decline into obscurity, it contains beautifully crafted facsimiles of historic papers, handwritten notes, photographs, and much more.

Readers will be able to hold in their hands the charred draft notes for the novel, Seraph on the Suwannee; open a Christmas card Hurston created for her friends; and read letters illuminating her relationships with intimate friends and fellow writers like Langston Hughes and Dorothy West. SPEAK, SO YOU CAN SPEAK AGAIN also provides the extraordinary opportunity to hear Hurston’s own voice talking about her life as a writer on several radio interviews, and, in a powerful interlude, singing a passionate rendition of a railroad worker’s chant she learned while collecting folklore in the Deep South.

As the description notes, this is an amazing book that allows you to feel like you’ve found an old trunk of Hurston’s belongings. It’s like being able to go to a museum and reaching behind the glass to touch historical documents without security blowing a whistle on you (this happened to me before at an outdoor art exhibit). Anyway, I highly recommend it, especially since I continue to pick up the biography Wrapped in Rainbows, but can’t dig it because of the page count. You know how I get to mumbling and grumbling when books are 500+ pages. A shame, right?

Wrapped in Rainbows: The True Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd — A woman of enormous talent, remarkable drive, and rare intellectual prowess, Zora Neale Hurston published four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, many short stories, and several articles and plays over a career that spanned more than thirty years. Although she enjoyed some popularity during her lifetime, her greatest acclaim has come posthumously. All of her books were out of print when she died in poverty in 1960, but today nearly every black woman writer of significance — including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker [and me—he he] — acknowledges Hurston as a literary foremother. And her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, has become a crucial part of the American literary canon. Yet, despite the recent renewed interest in Hurston’s work, she remains, as a friend and contemporary described her, “a woman half in shadow.”

Wrapped in Rainbows — the first biography of Zora Neale Hurston in twenty-five years — illuminates the complexities of an extraordinary life. Born in Alabama in 1891, Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, when she was still a toddler. In this close-knit community — the first incorporated all-black town in America — she spent a pleasant childhood, happily imbibing the rich language and folk culture of the rural black South. When Hurston was still a girl, her mother died, and her father’s swift remarriage led to the family’s dispersal. Hurston spent the next decade wandering in search of parental figures, working menial jobs, and charting her own course into adulthood. Reinventing herself at the age of twenty-six, she entered high school in Baltimore by claiming to be ten years younger — a fiction she wouldmaintain throughout her life. Hurston went on to attend Howard University and Barnard College, and during this time launched her writing career in the midst of the blossoming Harlem Renaissance. In New York, she developed relationships with luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, Fannie Hurst, and Carl Van Vechten. Hurston periodically left New York to travel the country (and the world) collecting black music, poetry, and literature — becoming one of the most important folklore collectors of her time, as well as one of the most enduring writers of her century.

Wrapped in Rainbows presents a full picture of Hurston as both a writer and a woman, shedding new light on her public and private lives. Drawing on meticulous research and a wealth of crucial information that has emerged over the past twenty years, Valerie Boyd delves into Hurston’s thirst for the limelight, her sexuality and short-lived marriages, her mysterious relationship with Vodou, and her occasionally controversial political views. With the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and World War II as historical backdrops, Wrapped in Rainbows not only positions Hurston’s work in her time but offers implications for our own.

Featuring more than thirty-five black-and-white photographs — including some that have never been published — Wrapped in Rainbows is an eloquent profile of one of the most intriguing cultural figures of the twentieth century.

Damn, that was a good summary. Ok, I might have to reconsider this book purchase. Sigh.

Happy birthday, Zora—and happy reading, ya’ll.

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3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Zora!

  1. I absolutely love her work. Her characters are so real and alive I couldn’t help but try to put their words on the faces of “characters” I know in life. Not a huge J. California Cooper fan however. If I may, I’d like to know your thoughts/views on Paradise by Toni Morrison?

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  2. Missy – No opinions on Paradise. I own the book, but haven’t read it. I have read Beloved like 8 times, so we can discuss that if you like. 😉
    I really enjoy J. California Cooper’s works. Certainly, she can get heavy handed with the narration, but I like the moral lessons. It’s like somebody’s grandma is telling you the stories.

    ksimpson – I hope you enjoy the hidden treats in the book as much as I do.

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