Zora Neale Hurston has been my inspiration since I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school. She gave her all, and this country still did her dirty.
Ever since I was little I’ve wanted to become a writer. I would sit in the parking lot of my school and write stories in my notebook, and read during my free time.
Nobody ever seemed to understand why I preferred to be alone with my thoughts, except for the teachers.
The fictional world of stories helped me escape from reality, and gave me time to assess my own situation. I learned from the mistakes of people who never existed.
Characters are just reflections of how the author views humanity, to me. I find it easy to empathise with characters, but reading books by people like me, with characters who look like me, or even act like me were special experiences.
I read many wonderful books, like the Kane Chronicles and Cat Among the Pigeons, but they were all missing something. So many stories that I read didn’t reflect how I saw the world. There were no 10-year-old black girls learning magic and saving the world, or going on adventures around the city, solving mysteries, and rescuing their missing friend.
At one point, I decided to read books by genre, rather than whatever interested me in the moment. I went from mythology to monsters, thrillers to love stories, and black leads to black authors.
I remember reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Color Purple, Push, and Native Son back-to-back. I learned the name Zora Neale Hurston from the introductory pages. I still had no clue who she was.
At the very least, I knew that her work inspired Alice Walker, and that she was buried in an unmarked grave until relatively recently. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to make that dream come true.
Black writers were always at risk for being rejected by publishing companies who didn’t believe the larger white audiences would buy their books.
Add in the blatant racism of the industry and you’ve got yourself obstacles that need to be overcome. Fortunately, there have been so many wonderful people who worked their butts off paving the way for the rest of us.
I finally read Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school, and understood why Alice Walker spoke so highly of Zora Neale Hurston. Unlike most authors, she chose to write phonetically, meaning the dialogue was spelled how the characters spoke. For example, instead of writing,
“I just have to go”, she said with a southern accent.
Zora would write,
“I just haffta go”.
This made it easier to imagine the character living in the deep south. It also provided representation for Black/African-American Vernacular English, which is largely rejected and looked down upon in the mainstream media and publishing industries.
She refused to change how she wrote the dialogue in her stories, standing her ground as a proud cultural anthropologist.
It wasn’t until my first year of college that I discovered what cultural anthropology was. I knew it included documenting languages, but it is so much more than that.
To study cultures and traditions from all over the world seems like a dream job. However, historically speaking, anthropologists were largely European with very Eurocentric perspectives.
Natives of other lands were seen as exotic or savages, and this mindset didn’t change in the US. Can you imagine how skewed data can be when it’s only from the perspective of people who look down on others?
Black and African cultures (and cultures of African descent) were seen as inferior, but as a Black woman herself she offered a differing perspective.
Her ability to relate to and empathize with her subjects – or the people she interviewed and studied – made her work as an ethnographer unique and extremely valuable to the field.
Did you know she went to Haiti to study hoodoo? Did you know she met a real life zombie? A woman came back from the dead!
Despite all of her accomplishments and praise and recognition she received, she had a lot of haters. Richard Wright himself failed to appreciate Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is a shame.
Her honesty of the Black experience in the south, and the lives of Black women were underappreciated.
Let’s not forget the fact that she was never paid what she was owed. Why would she only make nearly one thousand dollars when her books sold so many copies? Why was she buried in an unmarked grave? The audacity of envious people!
She helped establish the Harlem Renaissance for goodness sake! She deserved so much more respect and to be honored for all that she gave both the Black community and the rest of the world.
I demand to know how much money she should have been paid, and I want to know who received that income instead. It’s so frustrating.
Anyway, she is long dead now. Now she is recognized and her name is said with the respect it always deserved. Oprah turned her most famous novel into a movie, and people all over Pinterest create graphics of her quotes.
Because of her work, I am able to write freely, and not deal with nearly as many obstacles as she did. Granted, while some things have changed, many problems have remained the same.
I’ll keep doing my best, so she can continue to be proud of all the Black women she’s inspired to write.
I own a copy of Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” and plan to write a review sometime in the future. If you want to learn more about her, just do a few searches and read some books. Have fun.
The prompt for today was “if you could have dinner with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?” I wasn’t asked to explain why, nor was it specified to create some sort of dining situation. I know Zora Neale Hurston is the person I want to meet, and that’s that.
Make sure to check out my previous post on this month’s 30-Day Writing Challenge!
We’re over half-way through now!