Still watching Zora

The continuing rediscovery of a black woman writer

Zora Neale Hurston was a woman of vision. She saw eloquence in rural black culture when it was viewed as primitive. She studied the retention of African culture in religion and recognized its spiritual complexity. And as a girl in Florida, she had visions of her future. "I knew they were all true," she wrote, "a preview of things to come, and my soul writhed in agony and shrunk away. But I knew there was no shrinking. These things had to be."

And so they were. Her successes were interspersed with the struggle to support herself in the Jim Crow era, dismissive criticism of her work and, later, false allegations of child molestation. "Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston," by Valerie Boyd, is the saga of how Hurston kept her mother's counsel to "jump at de sun," in spite of race and gender.

In jumping, she captured the life and voice of black American and Caribbean folk culture. In her best-known novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (1937), the protagonist, Janie Crawford, is "a deep-thinking, deep-feeling black woman who embarks on a quest for her own self." Hurston conveyed "what to her was a given: that women are the equals of men in every way - and that their inner lives are infinitely rich and worthy of exploration."

Hurston was raised in Eatonville, Fla., just east of Orlando and the first all-black incorporated town in the United States. She was reluctant to tell her own story. "It is too hard to reveal one's inner self, and there is no use in writing that kind of book unless you do." Therefore, she disguised "many truths of her life in a confounding but crackable code" in her autobiography, "Dust Tracks on a Road" (1942).

Because of Hurston's self-invention, "Dust Tracks" was often dismissed "as nothing more than a pack of lies." But Boyd asserts that it is more accurately an "imaginative autobiography," of the kind her male peers were writing. "And every so-called lie in Hurston's book is an avenue to the truth," she writes.

Boyd, an arts editor and book critic at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, breaks Hurston's code and opens wider the door to her life through a masterly use of her letters, fiction, and nonfiction, along with stories and letters from her peers. The result is a 20th-century adventure filled with some of the period's literary and cultural firmament, including Langston Hughes, Fannie Hurst, Ethel Waters, Carl Van Vechten, and other writers of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Throughout, Boyd lets Hurston speak, putting her wise, witty, and often irreverent spin on race, gender, and regional culture in America.

Born in 1891, Hurston "wanted not only books to read, but the kind of life that could fill a book," Boyd writes. Her desire was mighty: "I had a way of life inside me and I wanted it with a want that was twisting me."

Eventually, her bold spirit carried her to Harlem. While attending Howard University, Hurston realized that black folks, "past and present, had priceless contributions to make to the field of cultural anthropology." She studied black people in Harlem, the American South, Jamaica, and Haiti. And this then-radical field research fed her fiction.

Being a black woman writer in her time was a challenge, of course. Hurston relied on grants, magazine writing, and the kindness of various friends and supporters.

White patronage helped her survive as a writer, but there was a creative price, as well as a game of racial roles involved. In correspondence with one white supporter, Hurston signed her letters "your humble and obedient servant" and even referred to herself as "your little pickaninny," a term that many readers would find degrading.

Boyd writes that Hurston "was consciously playing Meyer, to use a vernacular term, for her own benefit." Such crafty humor could be used to "charm and shame" whites, Boyd writes, "in the same way that a 21st-century African American might ironically refer to herself as 'the token black' in her office."

There was a revival of interest in Hurston after Alice Walker wrote about her pilgrimage to the writer's grave in 1975. Her books were successful during her lifetime, but Boyd explains that, ironically, she was criticized at the time for an "alleged refusal to deal with racial issues or contemporary political concerns." She did address such issues, though, particularly in "Moses, Man of the Mountain" (1939), "but because she cast her social concerns in terms of antiquity and cloaked her protest in humor, many critics failed to recognize the novel's depth," Boyd writes.

One of Hurston's strongest concerns was the importance of individualism. "Races have never done anything," she wrote. "What seems race achievement is the work of individuals." Though her life now stands as a testament to the power and beauty of black culture and women's achievement, Boyd's biography is a salute to the triumph of an individual woman, a girl who chose to jump at the sun.

B.A. Davis is a freelance writer and web producer living in Florida.

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