An uncommon voice
Last fall I received an invitation to speak in Kinston as part of Lenoir and Jones counties' Big Read events.
The Big Read invites a community to read a single book together and this year, it was Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.
Published in 1937, this book and Ms. Hurston are often lumped into the great category of the Harlem Renaissance.
It's true that the Harlem Renaissance was a great flowering of black talent. There was a freedom of expression in New York and other northern cities that offered blacks, at last, a sense they were part of the world and not just watchers and servants.
That era, roughly during the 1920s and 1930s, also opened the door to black creative voices. Because black culture and writing became fashionable, it attracted the attention of the white intelligentsia and patrons who could promote and fund it.
Enter Ms. Hurston. She left her Florida home at 14 years old, joined a traveling musical troupe and made her way to Baltimore, Md., and then to Howard University in D.C. By 1925 she arrived in New York city.
In New York, she began to flourish and her writings were published. She studied black culture as an anthropology student and won a Guggenheim fellowship to Haiti, where she studied voodoo, or "hoodoo" as it was known then.
She refused to be a "good girl" and write in the expected ways. Instead, Ms. Hurston chose to write about ordinary blacks and their struggles. She did not elevate them above real life, and for that, was criticized. She did not have a social agenda in her writing.
The novel I read, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was difficult to begin because it was written with a heavy dialect, or idiom.
But how grateful I am that I was in some ways forced to go beyond my own comfortable box. Once I became used to the dialect, I had no problem reading it.
Now that I have read it, I much better understand the importance of hearing different voices. Especially for a writer.
Ms. Hurston wrote a slim, poetic novel that for its story and courage, is an American sister to the great Russian epics. Instead of snow, we have rain and mud. Instead of Russian peasants, we have blacks and Jim Crow.