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Volume 3, Number 2, Winter 2005 Monica L. Miller, Guest Editor
Jumpin' at the Sun: Reassessing the
Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston
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Introduction: Zoramania

Monica L. Miller


I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances. . . . But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty-deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. . . .

I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.

For instance at Barnard. "Beside the waters of the Hudson," I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, overswept by a creamy sea. I am surged upon and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.

At certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance. . . . The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race or time, I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.—Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" (1928)[1]

Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist, "genius of the South," Zora Neale Hurston, Barnard College, class of 1928, is hot. On the 75th anniversary of her graduation from Barnard in 2003, Hurston found herself the subject of a new biography, her letters were collected in a doorstop volume billed as a "life in letters," and, fittingly for such a prolific letter-writer, she was honored by the US Postal Service with a new stamp. Nearly all of her work published during her lifetime—four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, and numerous short stories, plays, and essays—is back in print, along with folklore and short stories not published when she was alive. A trove of Hurston plays was found recently at the Library of Congress; and Oprah Winfrey's production of a TV-film version of Hurston's most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), will air in the spring of 2005, starring Halle Berry, and with a script written by Pulitzer Prize–winner Suzan-Lori Parks. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Zora Neale Hurston Street Festival of the Arts in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, where there is also a Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts. So, while Zoramania may have started to simmer in the late 1970s, with Alice Walker's search for Hurston's grave and her effort to get Their Eyes Were Watching God back in print, now the pot clearly has started to boil over.

Hurston's own life, work, and the vicissitudes of its legacy do indeed have much to teach "us"—not the least of which is the diversity of the "us" who could learn from her example. What the new biographies and interest in Hurston tell us most of all is that we should take each term of Alice Walker's inscription on Hurston's grave seriously—novelist, folklorist, anthropologist, "genius of the South." Hurston was indeed a "genius," a tutelary spirit, not only of the south, but also, in nearly equal parts, of fiction writing, folklore collecting and analysis, anthropological research and methodology, and, most fascinatingly, of performance theory. While most of us know Hurston as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and may, perhaps, have read her autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road (1942), what we may not have appreciated is the fact and multiplicity of the many roles that she played throughout her lifetime. Always passionate about words and the way in which language can both reveal and conceal the inner workings of the soul, Hurston dissembled as much as she divulged, fictionalizing her life at the same time that she turned the oral folklore that infused her upbringing into groundbreaking social-scientific research. As the above excerpt from the essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" suggests, how Hurston felt as Barnard's first black student was something that she did and did not want to unveil. Given that she came to Barnard to complete her education as a 34-year-old woman passing for age 26, and that she struggled to procure a golf outfit for her physical-education class even as she won accolades for her stories from those shepherding the Harlem Renaissance, who she was or wanted to be can only be uncertain, and perhaps strategically so.

Zora Neale Hurston relied on the many "Characteristics of Negro Expression" that she herself identified (in an essay of the same name) as essential to understanding black consciousness and culture. What she found true for blacks as a group, her life and work reveals as true for herself; indeed, characteristics she identified, like drama, the will to adorn, angularity, asymmetry and originality, all go a long way toward uncovering the mystery of Zora's self expression. In the "Characteristics" essay, she also mentions the "absence of the concept of privacy" as a phenomenon that influences African American voices, a result of chosen and enforced communal living and struggle. At the risk of continuing to violate Hurston's privacy, I present Issue 3.2 of S&F Online, "Jumpin' at the Sun: Reassessing the Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston," a project that comes out of the Virginia C. Gildersleeve Conference held at Barnard College, October 2–3, 2003.

When I suggested to Janet Jakobsen, Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, over two years ago that it might be time to reassess Hurston's impact, I had only begun to see the imminent tidal wave of interest in her and her work. In fact, the idea for the conference and this journal originated not as a result of nascent Zoramania, but from a different experience in my first-year English class, spring 2002. On the day I was to teach "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," I asked my students what they knew about Hurston. They responded vaguely, asking uncertainly, "Isn't she an alumna, just like Martha Stewart?" While they both possess different kinds of entrepreneurial spirits, it is intriguing and extremely odd to consider Hurston and Stewart as "just like" each other; therefore, I sensed that it might be time to distinguish Hurston for these students and the Barnard community. So, when I sat down to do the research necessary to make my case to the Barnard administration, imagine my delight when the biographical sketch that I was reading indicated that Hurston had been born in 1903—not only was it time to reassess Hurston, but it was also nearly time to celebrate her 100th birthday! (Many of you know where this is going). So I dashed off an excited e-mail to Janet, explaining our opportunity, to which she replied, "YES, absolutely, excellent!" Then, imagine my horror when, a few months later, I was continuing my research and learned that according to official and unofficial sources (i.e., Hurston herself), Hurston had also been born in 1891, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1910. Although I spent a sleepless night after this discovery trying to figure out what to say to Janet, I also very much appreciated Hurston's ability to thwart an easy celebration or any particular timeliness concerning efforts to recognize her and her work. So, given Hurston's trickery on me, her characteristic use of "angularity, asymmetry, and originality," it seems as if the time to reassess Hurston and her work would have been not only in 1991 (which was her true centenary), but constantly as we continue to discover her and her work in both expected and unexpected places.

Recognizing the multiplicity of roles that Hurston chose to play and those into which she fell or was forced, it is not surprising that the veil between her and us would be raised and rent occasionally. As a black woman "jumping at the sun," she was bound to shine brilliantly and fall sometimes; I would like to read the resurgence of interest in her life and work as evidence of both her bravery and complexity. Fighting constant poverty (she died in a welfare hospital), overcoming or ignoring the limited vision others would have of her as black and a woman, Hurston wanted and achieved "a big life," of having "not only books to read, but the kind of life that would fill a book."[2] Indeed, her Life in Letters biographer Carla Kaplan has said that Zora has suffered from "being loved too simply," being an object only of worship.[3] I am hoping that by acknowledging and being thankful for her triumphs and contradictions, "the helter-skelter skirmish that [was] her life," we can save Zora Neale from icon status, even as we celebrate her in this issue of S&F Online. Let us focus on the fact that, although sometimes surged upon and overswept by societal and personal demons, Hurston always remained herself, "witty, brave, bold"—human, real.[4] Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist, "genius of the South," Barnard's self-described "sacred black cow" would, I hope (to paraphrase the title of Alice Walker's 1979 collection of Hurston's work) love herself today, just as she would laugh, certainly at us, while continuing, for all time, to look "mean and impressive."

Tools 3.2 Online Resources Recommended Reading S&F Online in the Classroom
S&F Online - Issue 3.2, Jumpin' at the Sun: Reassessing the Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston
Monica L. Miller, Guest Editor - ©2005.