I felt a pinch of excitement when a friend texted that today’s Google Doodle celebrated the 123rd birthday of Zora Neale Hurston. Obviously, I’m a fan. My husband and I named our daughter after the pioneering writer after all.
I smiled at the thought of millions typing queries into the search engine under Hurston’s watchful gaze. She was the ultimate questioning woman so it’s only fitting.
I hope many will click on her image and discover or reconnect with this fierce, independent and accomplished writer. Today she’s best known for her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” but she also published three other novels; dozens of short stories, essays and articles; three plays; three musical compositions; eight folk tales and anthropological works; and an autobiography.
Alice Walker observed: “After reading Hurston, anyone coming to the United States would know exactly where to go to find the remains of the culture that kept Southern black people going through centuries of white oppression. They could find what was left of the music; they could find what was left of the speech; they could find what was left of the dancing; they could find what was left of the work, the people’s relationship to the earth and to animals; they could find what was left of the orchards, the gardens, and the fields; they could find what was left of the prayer.”
Indeed, Hurston’s greatest gift as a writer was her ear. She reveled in the subtleties of black vernacular speech, passionately capturing the cadence and timbre of voices. Her deep listening and nuanced retelling made her stories—fiction and otherwise—vivid, distinctive, matchless.
“And Janie, maybe it wasn’t much, but Ah done de best Ah kin by you. Ah raked and scraped and bought dis lil piece uh land so you wouldn’t have to stay in de white folks’ yard and tuck you’ head befo’ other chillun at school. Dat was all right when you was little. But when you got big enough to understand things, Ah wanted you to look upon yo’self. Ah don’t want yo’ feathers always crumpled by folks throwin’ up things in yo’ face. And Ah can’t die easy thinking maybe de menfoks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outa you; Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate.”
– From “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
Beyond local idiom, figurative speech and lore, Hurston mastered the studied but no less colorful tone of her omniscient third-person narrator.
She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage!
– From “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
Hurston also made art of the telling and retelling of her own story in her own voice.
I was glad when somebody told me, “You may go and collect Negro folk-lore.” In a way it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism. From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.
– From “Mules and Men”
In this way, Hurston was a multilingual marvel and the undoubted literary foremother of so many I admire today. Women who celebrate and give voice to people on the margins without condescension, apology or pity. Women who write artfully and heartfully. Women who speak their own names.
Happy Birthday, Zora!
A Google search for Zora Neale Hurston will yield 6,840,000 results in 0.47 seconds. Below I offer a few personally curated selections for your information and pleasure. My faves:
- Soul of a Black Woman. This great overview of Hurston’s legacy by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., appeared in the New York Times in February of 1978 and was reprinted as the afterword to Zora Neale Hurston: The Complete Stories.
- Zora Hurston, 57, Writer, Is Dead. This New York Times Obituary includes a 1942 photo of Hurston and offers insight into how news of her death was covered at the time.