The Largesse of Zora Neale Hurston

After 50 Years in a Basement, a Buried Manuscript Resurfaces

Hurston first came to fame during the Harlem Renaissance, when Negroes were, as Langston Hughes termed it, "in vogue." In her time, Hurston was as well known in inner circles as Hughes, her competitor and contemporary. Hurston remains an inner circle persona. To those who know (of) her, Hurston is worthy of holy words. Those who don't know (of) her suffer from a lopsided canon. People who haven't read her work are looked at askance by writers, feminists, word people, Afro-centrists, historians, and cultural studies mavens.

Both Hurston and artist Frida Kahlo have a kind of long-suffering memory fused to a high-drama, high-production personality. Their work and their take on it almost deifies them. Knowledge of Zora and Frida bestows a kind of password, a keen signal of an inside knowledge. Now, parents are naming their children Zora. Her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, holds an annual festival in her honor. She has been the subject of more than a dozen critical studies, and there is The Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation. Scholarships are given in her name by this foundation, which is dedicated to perpetuating black writing and to supporting black writers. You can call her first name and somebody else who has rediscovered her will, like you, find it incantatory. Zora.

We often talk about visionaries being "before their time." This is our way of commending them for seeing what they explain. I perceive Hurston as more than avant garde, but also "over their heads." Hurston researched, defined, and elevated the cultural praxis that others of her time were unable to celebrate. Excepted notably is Langston Hughes, who joined her in the work of defining who was beautiful in a world of ugly slurs.

Zora Neale Hurston and her hip, fringe, bohemian, Harlem Renaissance friends are credited for calling themselves the Niggerati. This play on Italian thrives, or is revived, in inside language today. Using the word "Niggerati" appalled the "Renaissance Fathers," who Hurston believed merely emulated white bourgeois behavior. For all the references in Randall Kennedy's recent book on the N-word, he does not cover this important, artistic variation, this play on "literati." Niggerati—there is humor and playfulness in this swipe at academia, and at the cultural elite.

The only time I ever heard Zora's voice she was singing. This too was a huge find for me, one that seems befitting. People who, like Hurston, make art realize that there is the lilt and arch of being inventive that can be compared to song. Hurston elevated the ordinary to position it for interpretation, thereby asserting its worth. On the song recording Hurston made, young girls sang accompaniment to a game they played. Hurston recorded them singing, and then recorded her understanding of what she heard. You can hear Hurston pause, the researcher inquiring, awaiting validation, a nod to authenticity. She uncovered and preserved their game. In an oral culture, such a risk of loss, of oblivion, prevails. Hurston recorded without being asked, often without being encouraged.

Hurston filled a void in history as the hole stretched open. Can't you see her standing with her Barnard-fashioned shovel, holding her hunger for her culture to survive? Heave ho, go away, hole. Hurston sweat as she worked, but sweat wins out. "OK, this is how the song goes," she said on tape. She sings. I couldn't really hear—or more precisely, can't remember—the specific words she sang. But hearing her sing so unexpectedly startled and confounded me, this new mystery. As yet, I haven't been able to retire the sound of her to any place where we set the unremarked or unremarkable. Hurston sings again.

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