Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger IRMA MCCLAURIN
I have been a practitioner of the literary arts since the ripe young age of eight—both a poet and a voracious reader. Fortunately for me, I had elementary school teachers who introduced me to Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Yet it was not until I was in graduate school (for the first time, completing a Masters of Fine Arts in English) that I encountered the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. I learned who she was through reading her short stories, novels and plays. I also caught glimpses of the rural Black southern culture that my parents had escaped when they left rural Mississippi and Alabama for the city lights of Chicago where I was born.
As I developed into a literary critic and delved into the history of the Harlem Renaissance, I was left with the distinct impression that most of the modern-day Black critics (mostly men) writing about the Harlem Renaissance cared little about (or for) Zora. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that with minor exception, most have described her with disdain and tolerance and not admiration, despite her note-worthy contributions and the “color” she added to the culture being created at that time.
Many viewed Zora as a person of considerable literary talent during the Renaissance; she was also noted for her distinctive personality and a flair for drama that sometimes grated on her Black compatriots. Whites found her amusing, much to the chagrin of some Blacks. Richard Bruce Nugent, a Black writer and painter, and Zora’s contemporary during the Renaissance once remarked: “Zora would have been Zora even if she were an Eskimo.”
What made Zora unique during this period was the way much of her writing was deeply rooted in rural southern Black culture; her literary outpouring reflected a preoccupation with the life ways and folklore of Black rural people. This fascination with “de folk” and rural Black culture was largely fueled by Zora’s experiences growing up in Eatonville, the oldest incorporated Black township in the United States, not to be mistaken for, as Zora flaunted in her autobiography, Dust Tracks, “the Black side of a white town.” In Eatonville Zora had grown up listening to culture in the making—people swapping lies on Joe’s porch, symbolic and metaphoric improvization and the creation of new meaning with language through storytelling and music.