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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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About the Contributors

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Monica L. Miller, "Introduction: Zoramania"
(page 2 of 2)


The conference from which this issue derives was an absolute pleasure to organize—one of the greatest effects of Zoramania is the enthusiasm and spunk that people brought to the conference, whether they served on panels, performed on stage, or sat rapt in the audience. Everyone I contacted agreed to take part in the conference—from Alice Walker, the keynote speaker, who drew a prodigious crowd, to my sometimes shy students who brilliantly performed Hurston's work in front of a similarly packed audience. Hurston is both "hot" and inspirational; it has been fascinating for me to witness and analyze the many ways in which her person and her work touch, intrigue, and challenge so many people.

The essays, creative pieces, and performances assembled here represent elements of the conference and its aftermath, providing a sense of new directions in Hurston studies, as well as Hurston's particular legacy on the Barnard-Columbia campus.

In Part One, "'Sharp Shadows, High Lights, and Smudgy in-Betweens': Narrating the Life of Zora Neale Hurston," Hurston's most recent biographers, Valerie Boyd and Carla Kaplan, share some of their new discoveries about Hurston, painting a picture of her during her time at Barnard and in New York in the 1920s. "Enter the Negrotarians," Chapter 12 from Boyd's Wrapped in Rainbows, and Kaplan's exegesis of Hurston's wiliness in her letters collected in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters give us different contexts from which to appreciate Hurston's magnetic appeal to the black intelligentsia and white philanthropists that helped her to launch her writing and performing career while she completed her education.

Part Two, "Everybody's Zora: The Legacy of Hurston's Work," features new work on Hurston from both well-established and emerging scholars of African American literature, theater, and dance. In her essay, "The Mark of Zora: Reading Between the Lines of Legend and Legacy," Ann duCille takes on "Zoramania" (her term is "Hurstonism"), and gives it a history and a politics as she recounts the way in which Hurston's legend as a singular genius "not only obscured the larger legacy of black women writers, [but] also has distorted Hurston's individual literary history." In a personal account of her own discovery of Zora in the 1970s, duCille correctively places the rise of Hurston in a tradition of black women's reading, writing, and criticism, excavating the trajectory of "literary, historical, and cultural studies BZ—Before Zora," in order to distinguish between Hurston's current celebrity and the real importance of her place in black feminist literary studies.

In "Zora Neale Hurston's Essays: On Art and Such," Cheryl A. Wall considers Hurston as few have done before: as an essayist with a theory of the performativity of black aesthetics that she simultaneously preaches and practices metatextually. Wall explains that Hurston's method—her sense of the essayist as author-preacher or "prayer artist" who sings her song over, but not separate from the harmony of the congregation—constitutes an original contribution to the history of African American literature. Wall also distinguishes her from a long tradition of African American essayists, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Alice Walker. Wall argues that such a method makes Hurston a visionary in yet another literary genre, as she "anticipates concerns and innovations of recent African American writing," especially its focus on the author/essayist as both critic and creator, a jazzman or bluesman, charged with being a writer of the African American "sound."

Hurston's influential, but little-known, impact on American dance history is the subject of Anthea Kraut's "Everybody's Fire Dance: Zora Neale Hurston and American Dance History." Focusing on Hurston's staging of the folk revue The Great Day in 1932, specifically Hurston's arrangement of the Bahamian Fire Dance within it, Kraut traces the process by which Hurston's formidable success as the choreographer of the dance was erased from dance history. As the dance was taken up by prominent white innovators of modern dance and attributed to them by the white dance press, a clear case of modernist "love and theft" vis-à-vis a black performance occurred. Yet, as Kraut argues, Hurston was not simply a victim of this process—in characteristic fashion, she "flipped the script" and also managed to take advantage of white avant-garde interest in black cultural expression.

Finally, Hurston's interest in performance is further explored in an excerpt from David Krasner's groundbreaking book on the history of African American theater, A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance. "Migration, Fragmentation, and Identity: Zora Neale Hurston's 'Color Struck' and the Geography of the Harlem Renaissance" reads Hurston's 1926 play in a way that highlights her iconoclasm, arguing that in this play Hurston examines the least glamorous subjects for Harlem Renaissance–era creative work—rural, working-class women from the South who had not made the Great Migration north. In his reading of Hurston's dramatization of the uncertainty of these women's lives, Krasner argues that Hurston's topic is not only intraracial color prejudice, but also the necessity and difficulty of preserving a performative, oral-based "folk" culture as a basis for African American cultural production in an increasingly urban, "textual" world.

Part Three, "My People, My People: Zora Neale Hurston in Performance," features members of Barnard's black student organization, BOSS (Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters), plus one honorary member, performing some of Hurston's best-known work. Directed by Peter Campbell and introduced and commented on by David Krasner, these excellent performances allow the audience to enter the world of Hurston's dynamic, polyphonous language. Featured here are excerpts from the first chapter of Their Eyes Were Watching God, read by Sheena Gordon (Barnard College, class of 2004); the last scene of the play "Color Struck" (1926) performed by David Johns (Columbia College, class of 2004) and Niki Williams (Barnard College, class of 2004); and, finally, members of BOSS reading "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" ensemble.

In Part Four, "Finding a World that I Thought Was Lost: Zora Neale Hurston and the People She Looked at Very Hard and Loved Very Much," Alice Walker speaks of her conception of Hurston's legacy in an excerpt from her 2003 Virginia Gildersleeve lecture. Every conference, panel, paper, and, indeed, Web journal on Zora Neale Hurston owes a debt to Alice Walker for her efforts in bringing Hurston's life and work to our collective attention nearly 30 years ago. In a 1975 article, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston," published in Ms. magazine, Walker began a process of honoring Hurston's life and work and uncovering her legacy by narrating her own efforts to locate Hurston's grave and place a marker on it. At that time, Walker made an important contribution to biographical work on Hurston by recounting the stories of some that knew her in Florida (and posing as a Hurston niece to do so); and she also provided a bibliography of Hurston's major works, those in and out of print, and thereby ignited Hurston interest from academics and publishers. Even more importantly, perhaps, than Walker's recovery of Hurston biography or bibliography is the spiritual work that her article enacts—the reclamation of a foremother and that mother's literary "garden," a profoundly personal and deeply political act. Alice Walker last spoke about Hurston at Barnard in 1975; we were especially pleased to welcome her back as a Gildersleeve lecturer for "Jumpin' at the Sun."

Part Five, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me: Race, Gender, and Higher Education—Students Sound Off," takes its inspiration from Hurston's 1928 essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," the only essay in the Hurston oeuvre in which she puzzles out the relationship of her blackness to her position as the first student of color at Barnard College. This section was originally devoted exclusively to Elvita Dominique's excellent thesis on the history of black women at Barnard in the years 1968 to 1974 (Barnard College, 2004). However, immediately after the conference, during the time that this Web journal was being prepared (in the winter and spring of 2004), a number of racial incidents rocked the Barnard-Columbia campus, igniting another set of responses to "how it feels to be colored" at Barnard and Columbia.

Now included in this expanded section are Dominique's thesis as well as a number of student responses to these recent racial incidents. In her essay, Dominique fast-forwards from Hurston's initial integration of the college in 1926 to the late 1960s and concentrates on the story of Barnard's integration from the perspective of the black women who experienced it, during the college's largest recruitment of black students. In chronicling how these women initially accepted and rejected Barnard's offer of integration, Dominique pays special attention to their radicalization on campus as a result of the black power movement and antiwar protests. Student responses from last year's incidents include editorial columns written by Danielle Evans (Columbia College, class of 2004) for the student newspaper Columbia Spectator, expressing her views on the incidents in sassy, straightforward language, and a manifesto and poems by Alexis Gumbs (Barnard College, class of 2004), Leah King (Barnard College, class of 2004), and Esinam Bediako (Columbia College, class of 2004).

Part Six recovers Zora Neale Hurston from the Barnard College Archives. While Hurston writes very little about her experience at Barnard, clues to the texture of her time in Morningside Heights are in the Barnard College Archives. Reproduced here are a letter from the Barnard Committee on Transfers, discussing Hurston's academic qualifications; Hurston's Record of Freshman Interest, in which she lies about her age and indicates, with characteristic wit, her future aspirations; her transcript, which reveals that she majored in English and minored in geology; a letter from Dean Virginia Gildersleeve to Hurston's publisher, advancing an opinion on Hurston's first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934); and a 1930 letter exchange between the dean of Bryn Mawr College and Dean Gildersleeve, discussing the potential perils of boarding black students on campus (Hurston was not allowed to live on campus during her time at Barnard).

While all of these voices give us a better view of Hurston's life, work, and legacy, a closer examination of them also indicates to us how much we do not know and cannot even imagine about this fascinating woman. With that caveat and challenge, I leave you with Hurston's own words—from the ending of her 1942 autobiography—which perhaps indicate what her attitude would have been toward enterprises devoted to her, like this issue of S&F Online:

I give you all the right hand of fellowship and love, and hope for the same from you. In my eyesight, you lose nothing by not looking just like me. I will remember you all in my good thoughts, and I ask you kindly to do the same for me. Not only just me. You who play the zig-zag lightning of power over the world, with the grumbling thunder in your wake, think kindly of those who walk in the dust. And you, who walk in humble places, think kindly too, of others. . . . Let us be kissing friends. Consider that with tolerance and patience, we godly demons may breed a noble world in a few hundred generations or so. Maybe all of us who do not have the good fortune to meet or meet again, in this world, will meet at a barbecue.[5]


1. Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1995), 826–29. [Return to text]

2. Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Scribner, 2003), 59. [Return to text]

3. Carla Kaplan, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 30. [Return to text]

4. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, "The Ocoee Riot," Essence (February 1989): 61. [Return to text]

5. Zora Neale Hurston, "Dust Tracks on the Road," Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1995), 768. [Return to text]

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Monica L. Miller, Guest Editor - ©2005.