“She was bodacious. She was outrageous. She enjoyed shaking things up.” One contributor to the “Jump at the Sun” documentary about Zora Neale Hurston described her this way.
Peter Bagge’s new graphic biography suggests “unencumbered passion” and “grit” (Fire!!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story).
In Alice Walker’s essay, which opens the Zora Neale Hurston Reader, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing, Walker, too, describes her as “outrageous – it appears by nature” and “alternately winning and appalling, but rarely dull, which is worth a lot”.
Many of these qualities can be observed directly in Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road (1942).
From the beginning, language is significant and remarkable. Maybe this is where the outrageousness is rooted: in her younger years.
“They did not know the way an average southern child, white and black, is raised on simile and invective. They know how to call names. It is an every day affair to hear somebody called a mullet-headed, mule-eared, wall-eyed, hog-nosed, gator-faced, shad-mouthed, screw-necked, goat-bellied, puzzle-gutted, camel-backed, box-sprung, battle-hammed, knock-kneed, razor-legged, box-ankled, shovel-footed, unmated so and so! Eyes looking like skint-ginny nuts, and mouth looking like a dishpan full of broke-up crockery!”
And not only was she struck by the use of language within the community she grew up in, but also from outside that community.
The first time she heard “Kubla Khan” recited, she recognized something desirable there.
‘This was my world, I said to myself, and I shall be in it, and surrounded by it, if it is the last thing I do on God’s green dirt-ball.”
She recognized the signiifcance of certain key events, in her life as a woman and as an artist. And she has an unmistakable way of expressing that.
“There have been other suns that set in significance for me, but that sun! It was a book-mark in the pages of a life.”
Yet, she also recognized that sometimes it was more about not knowing than knowing.
“So, having looked at the subject from many sides, studied beliefs by word of mouth and then as they fit into great rigid forms, I find I know a great deal about form, but little or nothing about the mysteries I sought as a child. As the ancient tent-maker said, I have come out of the same door wherein I went.”
In regards to faith, some of her opinions were controversial, and this is true too, about her views on politics.
At times, her statements seem simply logical: how could anyone disagree?
“Real slavery is couched in the desire and the efforts of any man or community to live and advance their interests at the expense of the lives and interests of others.”
But once she moved past the point of definition, one can see how divisive her opinions could be.
“No, my own people had butchered and killed, exterminated whole nations and torn families apart, for a profit before the strangers got their chance at a cut.”
And she did not necessarily see alliances where others did (conversely, she did not always see divisions where others did either).
“There is no The Negro here. Our lives are so diversified, internal attitudes so varied, appearances and capabilities so different, that there is no possible classification so catholic that it will cover us all, expect My people! My people!”
Where there was sometimes a tendency to reduce groups to stereotypes or to emphasize similarities while overlooking differences, she suggested that any attempt to categorize was foolish.
“The subject matter is Negro folk songs can be anything and go from love to work, to travel, to food, to weather, to fight, to demanding the return of a wig by a woman who has turned unfaithful. The tune is the unity of the thing. And you have to know what you are doing when you begin to pass on that, because Negroes can fit in more words and leave our more and still keep the tune than anyone I can think of.”
And not only did artistic expression reveal just how different each person was from the next, but she had her own specific voice, which yearned to be heard.
“Anyway, the force from somewhere in Space which commands you to write in the first place, gives you no choice. You take up the pen when you are told, and write what is commanded. There is no agony like hearing an untold story inside you.”
For Hurston, one’s artistic passion and one’s humanity were inextricably bound.
“He had a fine mind and that intrigued me. When a man keeps beating me to the draw mentally, he begins to get glamorous.”
Although life wasn’t all about the glamorous either. Her description of the waitressing work she had done still rings true in its relentlessness.
“I tried other things but always I had that feeling that you have in a dream of trying to run, and sinking to your knees at every step in soft sticky mu. And his mud not only felt obscene to my feet, it smelled filthy to my nose. How to pull out?”
Dust Tracks on A Road is melodious and inspiring, informative and tiring; as much as I loved it, I found that I had to take time between pieces – like Mavis Gallant advised doing with short stories. There is so much energy in her writing, that I found it impossible to rush.
Have you read Zora Neale Hurston? Or, do you have one (or more) of her works on your TBR?
What have you been reading, with which you did not want to rush?