I’m Rereading Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston, Great Writer of the Harlem Renaissance

Back in the days of my youth, when I worked at the San Francisco Public Library, I was in a wonderland of self discovery!  I spent alot of time in the black literature section of the library and found some of the best books ever written as far as I’m concerned.  Each book I read just fed my desires to read yet another and another!   I was one of those quiet girls who lived in a self imposed world of silence and voicelessness, so reading African American literature and biographies actually was freeing for me.    These wonderful stories had a profound effect on my life and widened my view of what I believed was possible for me as a black girl. 

As I grew in my reading tastes, I noticed that often the stories of our black lives always focused on the issue of white racism and how we black folks were always oppressed by it.  So many of our stories in books and film had to do with bad white folks and how they malevolently devised ways to keep us under their thumb–spiritually, economically, and emotionally.  What I truly adored about the Harlem Renaissance writer  Zora Neale Hurston was that she was a great writer, and told the stories of our black lives from our perspective.  We may have had issues and struggles, but those issues and struggles were just a part of normal life.  We weren’t deemed pathological and broken, or powerless bystanders because of our struggles.  In Zora’s eyes, we saw ourselves as normal people, and that’s exactly what and who we were!  

Another thing I loved was she wrote the way the black folks spoke.  She didn’t put the King’s English in the mouths of her characters, because those folks didn’t speak the King’s English, but our own very poetic, proverb filled, southern black english.  She didn’t fear that some would find it a challenge to read.  Our style of talking did not translate easily to the page because of the hurdle of trying to spell the words as we pronounced them in order to keep that authenticity.  But Zora made it work, and I fell into the cadence of it, and it flowed beautifully, and it was just the way many of our elders speak today. 

One can see that Zora Neale Hurston was a lover of language, and that she held our black english  (Ebonics or AAVE (African American Vernacular English) in the highest esteem.  One quote about Zora’s craft that stands out to me comes from Robert E Hemenway when he calls Jonah’s Gourd Vine, “…a series of linguistic moments…”!

I truly loved Zora Neale Hurston’s writing style and I devoured as many of her books as the library gave me access to.  This book by Zora–Jonah’s Gourd Vine–is one that I didn’t get the chance to read back then.  But now as I remember how much I loved Zora, I recently went out and bought the book.   Jonah’s Gourd Vine is the story about the life of John, a young man who is aware of the power of the word–the power of utterance.  He has a gift for language and has a spirit of exuberant masculine energy.  He has an intense relationship with his interior self and the natural world.  He’s a headstrong man, self assured, and has a compelling personality.  For this reason, he is very attractive to all the women he encounters, as well as the men.  John is one who lives life to the full.   He finds a young girl that he falls headlong into love with and pursues her, promising to “love her and her alone”.  He truly believes in his love for her,  but sees no conflict in accepting the adoration that is freely given to him from all the women he effortlessly attracts.  

Along the path of his life, he discovers that he has a “gift” for preaching, and promptly tells himself that he actually has been called by God.  So he takes his woman who is now his wife whom he loves and they set about fulfilling his call by moving to an all black town to start his preaching ministry.  Though his wife is very intelligent and has great influence over him, he comes to believe his own hype.  

I’m excited to finally read Zora Neale Hurston’s classic, Jonah’s Gourd Vine and I’m looking forward to the experience of it!

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