Why We Still Love Zora

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by Lyndsey Ellis

Today marks the birthday of one of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most celebrated writers of twentieth century African-American literature. It comes about two weeks after I received the fifth rejection letter from a prestigious writers’ residency program that I’ve tried to get into for years.  I’ve stashed the ‘We-regret-to-inform-you-that-you’re-still-not-good-enough’ email with tons of other similar notifications from various writers’ networks and grudgingly returned to the never-ending madness of the submissions process. What little pride I have left as a struggling black female writer feels compelled to honor the late Hurston and what she means to all of us out there who can’t help but wonder if we’re doing it right.

Whether you're a writer or not, you'll find qualities about Ms. Hurston that you can appreciate and use as a guide to navigate through life’s challenges. Check out these facts that make us re-assert our love and admiration for a literary gem.

She Spoke the Language of the People 

Think about your grandmother or your best friend, and all the qualities that make them stand out as Grandma or BFF. Now, imagine all of those qualities put into a diary of theirs that that they permit you to read. Chances are you'll find the same wit, candor, and joviality that you'd find in Hurston's work.

This trademark use of colloquialism displayed Hurston's rare gift of making everything she wrote extremely heartening and personal. Her stories read as if she’s looking you in the eye, taking you by the hand, and leading you into the kitchen to listen to her latest fiasco over grits and coffee. As her story unfolds, it becomes easier to envision Hurston's varied facial expressions, the different sounds she might make with her mouth, and how she throws herself into character the way any bonafide orator would.

The "This-is-just-between-me-and-you" approach makes for a sacred text to the reader. Hurston's work becomes an experience rather than a book: a deep, hardy laugh from the pit of your belly, or the warmth lingering in the seat of your throat after eating the last kernels of buttered popcorn.

She Worshipped Folklore

It's important to take into account the time in which Hurston lived in order to understand why her use of vernacular language and folklore was significant. The bulk of the writer's work was published between the 1920's and 1940's when power, money, and education was especially scarce in the African-American community. Many blacks acquiring either of these assets were fond of showing off what they perceived as upward mobility and consequently, became estranged from the so-called common folk.

Although she was learned, Hurston set aside her formal education and delved deeper into the roots of the black culture by incorporating dialect—a down-home style—into her work which separated her from the elitist mentality prevalent in many black writers and artists of her day. It's quite remarkable that she chose to embody the core of racial heritage versus the intellect that so often flirted with pretension.

Let’s not be quick to confuse Hurston's method with a tendency to 'dumb down' prose. One could argue that she thought enough of her culture to strip the language into something far beyond the manipulation of standard literary devices. Reading her work is synonymous to putting your hand over her heart: the heartbeat reflects a common thud that sounds and feels the same to everyone, but the rhythm is totally left open to interpretation.

She Battled All the –Ism’s

Racism, sexism, ageism....you name it; Zora challenged it. After gaining national recognition on the literary scene in the 1930’s, Hurston was ridiculed by her contemporaries like Richard Wright and Sterling Brown for what they perceived as ‘Mammy-made’ dialogue, a reinforcing of the stereotypical African-American. She was also demonized for her exploration of intra-racial issues, rather than interracial issues, which was at the forefront of black literature at the time. Unlike Wright or Sterling, Hurston wasn't concerned with painting the picture of blacks being crushed by racial injustice. Instead, she explored the internalization of white oppression during the height of the Jim Crow era, a matter that was arguably much more complex than white supremacy.

Hurston didn’t believe blacks should be satisfied with being portrayed as the ‘angry Negro’. As a cultural investigator, she focused on the intricacies within black culture– the daily routines of African-Americans, their relationships with each other, and the evident self-aggrandizement among those who perpetuated the same abuses of power they were fighting outside of their own communities. Her work, a loose adaptation of Hurston’s life experiences, simultaneously revealed the struggles of women who were mistreated by their own communities for being black and female.

Age also came into play. The 40-something-year-old Janie, Hurston’s main character in the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, largely represents prejudices against older black females. Once past childbearing years, women were expected to ‘act their age’ and were scorned for taking up with younger men like Janie’s love interest, Tea Cake, or for things as trivial as wearing overalls and having long hair. Hurston’s writing served as a platform for women who endured these triple doses of discrimination.

She Dared You to Love Yourself

Hurston once wrote “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” Out of all her famous quotes, this one is undeniably my favorite. Why? Because that’s just what Hurston did despite criticisms, failures, and the last years of her life spent in obscurity before Alice Walker’s re-discovery of her. Armed with a courageous spirit and a sharp mind, she fought to retain her identity in a society that had little regard for anyone who challenged mainstream values.

That's not to say that Hurston was never afraid. A woman who didn't complete her formal education until her late 20's, who was falsely accused of sexually molesting a young boy, and experienced bouts of poverty throughout the course of her life obviously had reason to flinch in the face of adversity. Still, she didn't allow fear to paralyze her love for living life in full bloom, or her quest to fulfill her literary pursuits.

Hurston knew real love started from the inside and worked its way out. She knew intimidation was a mind game meant to be recognized, called out, and defeated. Many people claim to understand this way of thinking, but very few exercise the power within to rise above their limitations.

Hurston urges all of us to take a deeper look into our lives and savor every moment whether it's enjoyable or disappointing. Her journey not only encourages black female writers like me who hope for success in a still not-so-diverse industry, but it also inspires individuals from all walks of life to find their place in the world and own it.

The truth is we'll always love Zora. Always.

Read one of our favorites from Zora!
Their Eyes Were Watching God


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