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Sunday Journal: Mystery of Zora Neale Hurston inspires literary pilgrims

As an undergraduate I was under the tutelage of some terrific professors, many of them women. One in particular, Maureen Ryan, assigned students an essay by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, Alice Walker. I wanted a copy to keep and purchased a collection, and in doing so discovered many of Walker's other essays. The one that I remembered most, and talked about often, was Looking for Zora.

In it, Walker writes about her search for the noted Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston, whose finest work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937.

In her journey, taken with a graduate student, Walker visited Eatonville, near Orlando, where Hurston spent her youngest childhood years. In conversations with folks she discovered that Hurston was buried not in Eatonville but in Fort Pierce, on Florida's east coast. Traveling there, she found what she thought to be her final resting place. There was no headstone, so she arranged for one to be placed there. It reads:

Zora Neale Hurston

A Genius of the South

1901-1960

Novelist Folklorist

Anthropologist

Walker's essay (originally published in Ms. magazine) shook me up. It was part Nancy Drew, part literary history, part just a good tale — but something about this pilgrimage resonated with me; I, too, would look for Zora.

The Zora Neale Hurston branch library, so named for her in conjunction with the release of the postage stamp in 2003 that bears her likeness, is at 3008 Avenue D in the middle of a large community of African-American folks. I passed lots of honest-to-God juke joints, small shops and all kinds of churches on my way to her library. I felt conspicuous in my whiteness.

I found the library bolted and covered up with a huge metal door, sort of like a garage door that completely covered the front of the building. Pressing on, I followed Heritage Trail signs the city had erected and was quickly able to drive around and see where, after an accomplished life as an African-American in a white world, after writing four novels, books of folklore, stories, plays and essays, Hurston had come to live, a forgotten scholar working as a part-time teacher and maid, living on welfare and in failing health.

Where Walker found abandonment, today there is no doubt where Hurston is buried. Someone had mowed the lawn recently, and the grave sites were well cared for. The spot where Walker marked her grave also features a large sign giving details of her life, which ended in 1960.

Other pilgrims had left stuffed animals and flowers. Recent showers had toppled the vases, and the flowers were long dead. I neatened things up as best I could and then decided to find a florist. So I headed over to the Publix and bought some yellow roses.

As I parked in front of the grocery store it occurred to me that this would have been Zora's grocery store if she were alive. Would she have been impressed that they have sushi? Would she have laughed at the insanity of eating raw fish?

I gathered my flowers and wondered how many other middle-class white women English majors had done exactly what I was doing now. I wondered if the young woman working as a clerk thought — oh, jeez — here's another one. Or whether I was an oddity — this was a predominantly black part of town — did she think I was there for some other reason? Or perhaps she was just counting the minutes until she got off work.

I drove back through the neighborhood to the cemetery. It was a beautiful late afternoon in April, cooler than normal with a bit of crispness in the air. Folks in the neighborhood were outside, just getting home from work to drink a beer with the guy next door, listening to some music, just a friendly, casual time to hang out and chat with neighbors and friends.

At the grave, I arranged the roses in a vase and looked around, trying to absorb this moment. I stood and closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the folks gathering just half a block away. People with small, humble homes could walk just 100 yards and be at Hurston's grave. I wondered if they ever did. Oprah Winfrey produced a film version of Their Eyes Were Watching God, starring Halle Berry as Janie. Did they watch? Did they realize a connection? Do the teachers in the high schools teach this book? Are they sick of Hurston and her legion of English dorks who keep visiting their neighborhood?

I also thought about Alice Walker, who had stood just where I stood now, grateful to her that in finding Zora, she had rekindled interest in her work and led me to a black cemetery in Fort Pierce, laying flowers at the grave of this woman I'm not related to.

Claire Brantley grew up on the coastline of Mississippi, earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English and now works in Tampa in the publishing industry.

further reading

A filmmaker's passion

St. Petersburg Times Real Florida columnist Jeff Klinkenberg wrote about Tampa filmmaker Kristy Andersen, who produced the PBS documentary Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, first broadcast in 2008. Go to links.tampabay.com to read Andersen's quest to know more about Hurston.

Sunday Journal: Mystery of Zora Neale Hurston inspires literary pilgrims 12/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 7, 2009 1:57pm]

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