Tuesday, September 9, 2014

FINDING YOUR VOICE: What I learned from Zora Neale Hurston

In between my teaching, reading and learning, being there for family and involved with community and in the midst of all of the aspects of just generally engaged life, I go on a scavenger hunt through my children’s bedrooms – all of whom are now no longer living at home – looking for a good book from time to time that is not in my personal library. My most recent find was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, which three of our children read in their later high school years. At first it was difficult to get into the book, as the language was distinctly Hurston’s and one of her many compelling contributions to our bird’s eye view of her world as a black woman generally during the first half of the twentieth century.

Of particular note is the explanation in the biographical outline included at the end of the book that she was all but forgotten and passed over and her voice almost not heard, if it were not for the efforts of Alice Walker. She brought Hurston’s important work to the public’s attention 13 years after she was buried in a pauper’s grace in 1960. Hurston had received awards and acclimations during her impressive literary career, but this was not enough to sustain or protect her in her later years when she was forced to work as a domestic just to survive because in those days, whatever literary world was available to the world of the black/African American population, it was basically only accessible to men. How sad!

Hurston’s voice is critical to our understanding of what it meant to be a black woman in a world where there were limited if any choices and one’s own destiny was most often not in their own hands, but determined by the circumstances in which they were trapped. Her voice is quiet and polite but loud and striking in its own way. It is explained by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Afterword that while men had been writing epistles of the social situation of their people, Hurston wanted to share a lone voice through a narrative of a real person. She was a novelist, not a social scientist as Gates explains, and perhaps, the world was just not ready for her honest and painful voice in which the action and inaction of so many readers in terms of their own understanding of her reality might be too much to absorb, as they see this reflected in her words.

The picture that Hurston paints with her words and distinctive dialect are about the inner battle of a woman named Janie, who is seen one way but in terms of her own internal reflection is quite focused on her two things that have to be done. She writes that there are “two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” And this is precisely what she does. Hurston is true to herself through the characterization of Janie, who is contained by a different type of shackles than the physical ones of her predecessors but works just as hard to throw off the cultural and psychological ones that would threaten her well being. Her spiritual and personal fortitude are her only weapons and it is here that her voice is most powerful.

I wrote some time ago about Yalta, the woman in the Gemara who smashed 400 jugs, perhaps because she too could not find her voice in a male-dominated world. I felt a great admiration for this woman who found a way to make herself heard, and in a very physical way showing strength and sense of purpose, no less. Her action was clearly understood by the male world in which she lived. This is the lesson of Hurston’s Janie, who comes to treasure life in a way that most of the people around her never could. While others may define her actions in terms of the larger social context, she knows that they come from a much deeper place.

In our world today, where there is so much more freedom and so many choices and a great deal of liberation for us, it is important to remember that there are still too many Janies, Zora Neale Hurstons, and Yaltas, still waiting for whatever juxtaposition of circumstances will present that will allow their voices to be heard.

We have to remember that these are our sisters and … brothers in our human family and use our voices to help them find theirs as Alice Walker did for Zora Neale Hurston and her Janie.

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