Thursday, August 20, 2009

McWhorter, John H. "Thus Spake Zora." CITY JOURNAL (Summer 2009).

One of the last photos of Zora Neale Hurston, taken in the late fifties, is heartrending. Once renowned as a handsome figure who could dominate any room, she sits outside a Florida bungalow, a bloated old woman living in poverty, chatting with locals. As sanguine as she looks, we can’t help wishing that she had been in New York, plugging her latest novel on The Jack Paar Show. But all her books were out of print, and she was supporting herself on piddling jobs, including working as a maid (not for the first time). She seems to have reached the state of mind that her character Janie describes at the end of her masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.” Hurston died soon thereafter, in 1960. But she was a mesmerizing thinker who could never have remained a footnote for long. Thirteen years later, the novelist Alice Walker brought her back to the world’s attention. Hurston’s works are in print again—indeed, enshrined in a Library of America volume. Her early play Mule Bone, a collaboration with Langston Hughes, enjoyed a full-scale staging in New York in 1991. The postage stamp arrived in 2003, a film of Their Eyes Were Watching God came out two years later, and PBS’s American Masters documentary series celebrated her in 2008. Hurston scholarship has advanced over the last several years, too, with an important biography by Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows, and a superb edition of Hurston’s letters by Carla Kaplan. Hurston, then, has taken her place in the Harlem Renaissance diorama, and it would be easy for us to read the knowing grin she wears in photos as signaling her recognition that Black Is Beautiful. That was true, to a point. But she was more eccentrically self-directed than many of her fans today realize, a fervent Republican who would be at home today on Fox News and whose racial pride led her to some unorthodox conclusions. Zora Neale Hurston’s grin was a quiet challenge to black people as well as white, and it still is. . . . Read the rest here:

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