Reflections on Zora: Passion and the Pen

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Zora Neale  Hurston, author and cultural anthropologist, chronicled the Black southern experience with inimitable authenticity. She gifted the world such delicious lines as “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots” and “Love makes your soul crawl out from it’s hiding place”. Her best known novel, There Eyes Were Watching God was the basis for a blockbuster film.  Today she is known as one of the great luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, but in life, Hurston never had a chance to relish in that acclaim.

Hurston died in 1960 in a welfare home after giving the world some of its greatest literature.

When Google honored Hurston with the venerable “Google Doodle” on what would have been her 123rd  birthday, it prompted me to reflect on her life, one rich in thought, but meager in possession.

 Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, America’s first all-black incorporated town, a culturally-rich town that would later be immortalized in several of her works of fiction, including Their Eyes Were Watching God.  

Her mother was a school teacher who encouraged her to “jump at de sun”. She died while Hurston was still a little girl and her father, a preacher, remarried and Hurston left home at 14, putting herself through school at Morgan Academy in Baltimore and Howard University in Washington, D.C., while working at various jobs including manicurist and maid.

She arrived in New York in 1925 with $1.50 to her name, yet she still made a splash.

As the LA Times wrote, “She arrived in New York in 1925 with $1.50 to her name, yet she still made a splash” dazzling the likes of t Langston Hughes, as well as Annie Nathan Meyer, a Barnard College founder, who then made Hurston the first black student at Barnard, where she studied anthropology.

Hurston wrote short stories, essays and novels. But she struggled for financial security. Most of her books were published during the Depression, and the largest royalty any of Hurston’s books earned was $943.75. At one point, she pawned her typewriter for cash.

Even her piece de resistance, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” was published in 1937 to notably negative reaction. At the time, author Richard Wright (“Black Boy,” “Native Son”) criticized the book, contending it was written for Whites,  with a “minstrel technique” to make them laugh. That is to say, for all the great work Hurston produced, she reaped little reward.

Writing is a painful task. It seems the perfect word, the perfect sentence, the perfect message is always just out of the reach, and as one bares their soul on the white sheet, it seems we writers are always looking our demons head on. But we do it because we can’t think of life any other way, and because we feel, on some very deep level, we have something profound to say.

Today, those who write in the tradition of Hurston, are disheartened by the publishing industry. In light of economic collapse and reorganization, publishers have narrowed the market for authentic fiction,  poetry, hearty essays and short stories. Rather, they want quick sells; celebrity tell-alls ghost written by brilliant writers whose  talent could probably be better used elsewhere, and non-fictions that promise instant “how to” and “can do” gratification.

It seems the motivation for writers are changing too. We want to survive and in order to do so we accept the industry’s call for content that is sexy and  highly commercial. Today the hallmark of  a good article is one that goes viral, a good book, one that hits the best sellers list. This commercialism belies the sacred energy, the toil, and the diligence that great writers commit to their craft.

I can’t imagine the Zora’s that we will never read, seriously talented writers who’s manuscripts will never make it to print for lack of so-called “commercial” appeal. It hurts me to think of all the great lines and complex characters that will never be immortalized.

I’m in awe of people like Zora who never knew the thrill of instant gratification, but wrote anyway. She couldn’t post one of her profound essays on race on the web and watch it take off. She never had a huge pay day, tv appearances or obsessive critical acclaim. She just had passion, and perhaps the sense of divine purpose, that what she had to say had to be said, and indeed, she was the one to say it.

She was a writer in the truest sense of the word. There was no ulterior motive. She wrote because her body craved it. Writing was the truest expression of her spirit, and I’m thankful she shared her soul with the world.

Zora’s sheer talent, her enthralling use of the English languages motivates me to continue reaching for my highest expression of self, but as a writer yet to reap any worldly rewards, I must say, it is her passion for this craft that inspires me the most.

And I hope it inspires you.

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