Zora Neale Hurston Lives On
by Amarantha da Cruz
for the Hurston/Wright Foundation
Zora Neale Hurston was a woman ahead of her time, a fierce and free spirit, with complexities and controversy surrounding her work and personal life, then and now. She continues to haunt the world, like the voodoo temples in Haiti she documented. Like so many women in history, Hurston’s contributions and achievements were forgotten. She died penniless and without responses from publishers. But in 1973, thirteen years after Hurston’s death, her genius and importance were brought forward thanks to Alice Walker, when Walker decided to pose as the author’s niece, taking a now well-known trip down to Hurston’s home of Florida to find the author’s unmarked grave and unearth her life and legacy. She documented the experience in her essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” (Walker, 1975) which revived the author’s career. Walker turned the discussion of Hurston’s legacy as an important factor in the feminist/womanist movement, fueling the fire for a few other female scholars to take an interest in Hurston’s legacy.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from Walker’s essay was that her near-obsessive search for Hurston stemmed from her need to find a role model, especially at the beginning of her career as a young black female writer. Walker believed that every author needs a role model, and she found that in Hurston, “in art in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect” (In Search, p.4) (Jordan, 1988). Walker was shocked when she discovered that during Zora’s lifetime critics were more than unkind to Zora, and did not value her contributions or her as a person, including her role as an African American Studies literary critic.
In my own search for Hurston, I felt the magic and wonder that Walker found as she searched for her idol. Hurston, a woman who defied the norms of her time, now almost as mythical and legendary as the folklore tales she researched, was a pioneer in filmmaking, credited as the first African American woman filmmaker (Dixon). Her anthropological films, some supported by her Guggenheim fellowship (among other awards), led her to Haitian Voodoo temples to the American South. The challenges found in some of Hurston’s writing, her anthropological contributions, with her on-location ethnographies, continue to be invaluable because of her uniquely artistic approach in collecting information, and as the first person to photograph a zombie during her time in Haiti. (Hurston, 2009). But Zora was not recognized for her fearless work. “Her lack of recognition during the time at which she was writing, however, might have been typical of the fate awaiting any black social scientist who insisted upon pursuing a unique path within the discipline at that time.” (Gwendolyn, 1982)
In literature, Hurston revolutionized technique, style and subject matters, quietly influencing generations of writers, including fiction writer, poet, playwright, and Hurston Wright Foundation awardee Sakinah Hofler, whom I had the pleasure of speaking with. Hofler, like myself, was introduced to Hurston later in life, also questioning and examining the reason for this. She also talks about Hurston’s groundbreaking methods in creative writing, giving a detailed illustration in Their Eyes Were Watching God, with shifts in point of views within the novel. Hofler goes on to state that, although Hurston was supposedly previously “forgotten,” or overlooked, a few 20th century authors were clearly influenced by Hurston but failed to credit her. Hofler then goes on to draw parallels to Hurston’s fiction, with stories about African Americans that do not necessarily have race related issues as the focal point.
In our conversation, Hofler discusses the burdens and challenges that minority writers encounter, with the expectation of having to address social issues in their literary work and be “the voice” of a group or cause. She argues that there is a difference between “the black experience,” versus “a black experience,” voicing criticism with “the” because of the intersectionality that exists within minority groups. As for Hurston’s influence on Hofler, aside from technique, more than anything, Hofler expresses admiration for Hurston, “It’s wonderful that she’s a black female writer who wrote, who took a lot of chances… even if it was constrained during her time, but who also wrote in a way that I hope that eventually people will appreciate … So I hope that she’s admired, not just for her contributions in black literature, but also just her authority on craft… She was brave and deviating.” Hofler goes on to express gratitude towards the Hurston Wright Foundation for celebrating “a diversity in black stories” and celebrating “a slice of black life.”
In Conversation with Sakinah Hofler
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Zora Neale Hurston. 1927, Courtesy of Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.