A Visit with Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston accompanied me to Arizona this March for my friend’s wedding, in book form. This particular edition of Dust Tracks on a Road features a beautiful black and white photograph of Zora looking directly into the camera and consequently into the eyes of anyone looking at the jacket.

For months I had been visiting my friend’s grandmother, who was dying, though it was hard to understand since she continued to be a font of wisdom, affirmation and love. The day I left for Arizona my friend gave me her grandmother’s ring that she had commissioned to be made at a shop at the gates of Jerusalem along with six other rings given to the significant women in her life. As I slept on the plane to JFK it slipped off of my finger. When I tried to go back they told me the plane had been cleaned and I could file a claim, which I did, claim number BUFB600072552. The woman in the claims office kindly asked me many details about the ring and made sure I had the phone number, though chances of it reappearing were slim.

While in theory I like the idea that everything happens for a reason, that I could find the good in any situation, in practice I bought a bag of airport skittles at an ungodly price and ate half of it, my favorite colors only, and tried to stop tears from oozing down my face. Even while I ate them I was kind of horrified by them and wondered how long they would be with me, one gummy mass in my stomach. I chewed them slowly, letting the tart flavors fill my mouth. Not bad. People eat things like this all the time, but I don’t.  While I ate I thought about how maybe I was cursed. I don’t own any rings now. I had one and I gave it away. I received one and I lost it. To take some good from this, I have always lost my things in memorable ways. I will never forget these things I have lost. I remember my first ride in a London cab, the luxury and nostalgia of the old-fashioned chunky black cab and luxurious seat on which I left my favorite purple L.L. Bean crew-neck sweater. Paris: we stayed with old retired professors Bob and Margie, who served us champagne for breakfast, and Margie would say to Bob, very simply, “Aide-moi.” They were old together and helping each other and my ring disappeared, tidied up. I searched through jars of coins and objects that sat on sills and bureau tops to no avail.

In the moment it is maybe more difficult to take the good of the thing, but I did have hold of one significance: that while the ring, the object was gone, the story and the intention and love it contained was well intact. Last night I watched a documentary of Holocaust survivors, and the women say, they realize what really matters- life, relationship, and- that’s all.

Zora Neale Hurston could find the story of the occasion. Old lady in town had a stroke and spent a lonely and fearful night at the lake edge? No- she spent the night under the spell of a powerful witch and fought off demons. As a young girl Zora told wild tales to her mother under the baleful and practical eye of her grandmother. One critic, one audience- as long as she had the one, the other didn’t matter.

Dust Tracks in the Road is uneven as literature but it a great book because it is the story of a remarkable person with gifted language. In theory she did what was asked of her, which was to write a commissioned autobiography at a time when she needed income. In reality she wrote exactly what she wanted to share and her spirit rings loud. She wrote her life, plus some here, minus some there, with plenty of re-invention and fabrication- basically as everyone does, though not necessarily with the same skill and success. She storified her life, distilling profound experiences of family, community, obstacle and isolation into anecdote and wisdom and mythology.

At JFK we boarded an hour late and then did the impatient slow shuffle down the aisle of the plane. Behind me I could hear someone bumping along, greeting people as she passed them, a little larger than life. At the time I had a vague sense of royalty, processing through her people, tall, broad-shouldered. I thought, “She is going to sit by me,” and when we reached my row I stood aside and she half slid, half fell into the window seat in my row.  I had the middle.  She extended into my space, in a warm and comfortable way, a contrast to the sterile atmosphere of airports and planes. The airport projection of sterility fascinates me, because airports are actually petri dishes, ideal for the observation of life.

Her name was Camilla and she immediately saw my book. “Zora! Are you reading her for a class? I don’t see people reading her. Years ago I found her and she spoke to me- she’s been one of my guides- I sat here for a reason today. I needed to sit by Zora. When I get home I am pulling her book off the shelf and reading her.” Camilla told me how books and English teachers had saved her; how, because of that, she became a teacher of literature herself, how she had assembled a library she loved, moved it to Jerusalem, and lost it, how she had assembled another library she loved and was returning from her travels specifically to see her library and figure out where to house it. She told me that she was just returning from an anniversary of her sister’s death, flying home out of New York..

Camilla also told me how, as a black woman, New York City had changed for her, how she couldn’t stand to walk down the street there, how Phoenix was not much better, how most U.S. cities were not much better; after her sister’s death she sold her house and moved to Mexico, and now she was returning from months of travel in Africa. We talked about what Zora Neale Hurston’s life would have been like if she had lived in a country that had celebrated and financially supported her so that she did not die in poverty and obscurity. We shared passages from Their Eyes Were Watching God that had stayed with us over the years.

Dust Tracks in a Road begins with an exhortation to the reader, that if we would understand Zora Neale Hurston, we must understand her place. “Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks, I have memories within me that came out of the material that went to make me.  Time and place have had their say.  So you will have to know something about the time and place where I come from, in order that you may interpret the incidents and directions of my life.” My friend and literary correspondent, V. (writing the experiment), has been writing to me about the way in which many geniuses of their times were people who lived in places that gave them the perfect context for their gifts. We think and marvel about people who battle adversity, and Zora Neale Hurston’s stories bear this out, but the quality of her writing and work were hugely affected by the support of her environment. In writing this piece, I just learned that one of her main financial supporters in her life, Mrs. Rufus Osgood, funded her anthropology field work only on the condition that she not publish. She eventually chose her art over her income. V. is thinking of renaissance painters such as Leonardo and Michaelangelo; she points out the middle article of their names, ‘da,’ meaning from, and notes how they were supported by the benefactors and ideas of their times.

This would make her, originally, Zora Neale Hurston da Eatonville, Florida, the child of one of the first black-incorporated and governed townships in the U.S. Zora closely observed differences in status and livelihood; in her town, in 1900, these differences were not based on race. In this setting she had her first visions of her future, literally psychic visions that appeared real.

This week I also began to read an Octavia Butler novel, and through this I encountered the work of Adrienne Marie Brown (sci fi and social justice) who writes and speaks on futuristic/sci fi/visionary writing as a means for re-imagining our world through the lens of positive social change and evolution. Who is written into the future? Zora, from a young age, saw herself, clearly and vividly, in the future- often in hardship, but in the future nonetheless. She also imagined fantastical quests that she planned on following through with, such as riding a horse until she got to the horizon, the ‘belly-band of the world.’ She was only thwarted in her father’s lack of cooperation in acquiring the horse for her.

Camilla told me that she often has these encounters in her life- sitting next to Zora and also myself on the plane, having this conversation. She said that she draws these things to her. I think this too is a form of futuristic vision. When we landed I lost her; I could see her making a beeline through the terminal, head and shoulders over the other travelers, intent on her final destination.

written with gratitude to Camilla, who I lost in the airport.

and to my newly formed book group: babe effect and zora

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