#33. “Ships at a distance”: Zora Neale Hurston
Valerie Boyd is the author of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) is often thought of as a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, alongside friends and contemporaries like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Nella Larsen. In truth though, Hurston was primarily a Southern writer, and she set most of her fiction in her beloved home state Florida. Of the seven books she published in her lifetime, Hurston wrote all of them in the Sunshine State, except her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, written in California, and her 1937 masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, written in Haiti – in just seven intense weeks. Here, Valerie speculates on several things Hurston would love – and one thing she’d hate – if she were around today.
Words: Valerie Boyd
First, the hate:
1. “Stand Your Ground” laws
Hurston would find these onerous laws – and the way they have been used to justify the murders of Floridian Trayvon Martin and other young black men – deeply distressing. Though Hurston is sometimes criticised because she chose not to dwell on racism, she was not blind to what she called the “aggressive intolerance” shown by many of the whites she encountered in the Jim Crow South. Once, during a folklore-collecting trip to Florida, she reported to a friend in New York: “Flowers are gorgeous now, crackers not troubling me at all – hope they don’t begin as I go farther down state.” And to another, she declared: “The poor whites down here have the harshest and most unlovely faces on earth.”
Now, the love:
Although she was the most published black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century, Hurston never made much money from her work. Her largest publisher’s advance was $500 (about $8,000 in today’s money), and the largest royalty check she ever received was $973. In a 1950 article called “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” Hurston complained that many publishers only gave ink to “exceptional” or “quaint” aspects of black life. Crowdfunding, on the other hand, would have given Hurston the power to reach her readers directly and ask for their support. Who knows how many of her now-lost, unpublished manuscripts – The Golden Bench of God, The Lives of Barney Turk – might have been published in this way…
Hurston’s preferred mode of travel was by car. This gave her the freedom to go her own way while offering respite from the “dirty upholstery and other inconveniences,” as she mildly put it, of the poorly lit, poorly ventilated coaches reserved for black train passengers. Before a major Southern folklore-collecting foray in 1927, Hurston purchased her first car, a peppy $300 used convertible that she named “Sassy Susie.” Hurston would surely complain about the lack of style of most of today’s hybrids, but she’d probably own one anyway because it would stretch her always-tight dollar and propel her farther down the open road.
4. Ava DuVernay
Hurston would be a huge fan of the award-winning independent filmmaker’s two narrative features, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere because, like Hurston’s own work, they privilege the inner lives of their engaging, thoughtfully constructed black female protagonists. Hurston also would appreciate DuVernay’s documentary work (Venus Vs.), her short films and television directing, and her ambitious DIY model of film distribution, called the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, or AFFRM.
Hurston loved the movies, and during her stay in southern California in 1941, she worked briefly as a writer and technical adviser at Paramount Studios. Unfortunately, Hurston failed to interest the studio in making movies from her novels, so she collected her $100-a-week paychecks (the highest weekly salary she had ever earned) and went on her way. Like DuVernay, she was not seduced by Hollywood’s shine. “This job here at the studio is not the end for me,” Hurston decided. “It is a means.”
5. The farm-to-table movement
Growing up on her parents’ five acres in the all-black town of Eatonville, Fla., Hurston always knew where her food was sourced, and she was an enthusiastic from-scratch cook throughout her life. Once, during the Great Depression, when writing wasn’t paying the bills, she considered setting up her own catering business as “New York’s Chicken Specialist” – selling chicken salad, chicken soup, chicken a la King and hot fried chicken in “an exclusive mouth to mouth service.” In addition to the versatile bird, Hurston enjoyed cooking fresh shrimp and okra, and she soon discovered that a pan of gingerbread and a jug of buttermilk could go a long way at a party, because it “fills ‘em up quick.” In Florida, she always had her own garden, where she planted an impressive array of fresh fruits and vegetables, including black-eyed peas, lima beans, tomatoes and papayas. Even during her hectic days in New York, she always kept a pot of something on the stove. “She was always prepared to feed people,” as one friend recalled. “She always knew when you were [hungry] and always did something about it. Not just food, but anything that you might be hungry for.”
Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (2003) is published by Virago
© 2013, The Fertile Fact / Valerie Boyd