She painted pictures with words and created masterpieces with the colorful inventions of her mind. Zora Neale Hurston took the same mechanics of modern-day language afforded every other English speaker and somehow made hers dance and play and sparkle across a page. Under her tutelage, nouns, prepositions and conjunctions shimmered. Even “the” and “but” shed their mundane normalcy and became magical under her creative direction. She is, without hesitation, my favorite writer and a homegirl in my head, and today is her birthday. Go ‘head, Ms. Zora. Get your life.
Her fame comes from 30 years of legendary wordsmithing: four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, and dozens of short stories, essays, articles and plays. I first read “Spunk” as a high school freshman, got overwhelmed by the dialect, gave up, wrote her off, was assigned to give it another go in my senior year, fell all the way in love with Their Eyes Were Watching God, and have re-read it just about every year since. To a girl with dreams of someday becoming a writer, Zora Neale Hurston has been the established standard of excellence. She is the bar.
Factual information about her life is intermittently wrapped in mystery, evidence about the type of person she was is clear. She was a gift to the literary world for her talent, indeed, but she was also a standup, unapologetic Black woman with feminist ideals who didn’t dress them up in full, in-your-face regalia. She was just being true to who she was and in the process, to us. Outspoken. Opinionated. Fully vested in her her-ness.
My favorite picture of her is from the 1940s when she sat, flanked by curls of smoke from a lighted cigarette, a defiant smile pushing those high cheekbones up into an expression of coyness. I like to imagine that I could’ve sat across from her, chatting over a nice, crisp glass of water since I don’t smoke, questioning her Republican political beliefs and challenging her sometimes contradictory ideas about race and religion until she got too cantankerous to continue the conversation or I got too exasperated to listen. She was as colorful a character in her personal and professional life as the ones she so vividly constructed with her keystrokes.
We have the Lord to thank for giving us Ms. Zora, but the great Alice Walker to commend for bringing her work out of obscurity and back into widespread appreciation. This month also marks the 35th anniversary of the re-issue of her magnum opus, Their Eyes Were Watching God, after Walker set out on a mission to not only find Hurston’s unmarked Florida grave, but reintroduce the public to her masterpiece. Thank goodness. A literary world without Janie Starks, Tea Cake or the familiar-feeling townsfolk of Eatonville would’ve been suffering from creative robbery and never even known it.
Today, if she would’ve had her druthers about hurdling those dark, dramatic years at the end of her life, would’ve been her 123rd birthday. Her actual, factual, honest-to-goodness birthdate has been as creatively interpreted as her work and she was as inventive about her real age as she was with her storylines. At one point, when she fixed it in her mind that she was going to finish high school at the age of 26, she lopped a decade off how old she really was. And she kept right on passing for at least ten years younger the rest of her life. That’s the way she lived—on her own terms, even if it made things a little harder than they needed to be at times. But she learned, and somehow shared those lessons with the rest of us so we could learn them, too. Or, at the very least, have a chuckle at their expense.
She died after 69 years in the same month she was born, this amazing woman named Zora Neale Hurston. My girl. But her writing is a demonstrative catalog for anyone who needs to know what fierce looks like in print. I like to think her spirit lives in anyone who calls on upon it to make their own words dance and play and sparkle across the page, just trying to get close to that bar she set so high. I know I don’t want to even attempt a novel if I don’t think it’s Zora-worthy, if she wouldn’t read the manuscript and push those cheekbones up into a smile. I have a long way to go. A long, dusty road, she might even say.
Happy birthday, Ms. Zora. You rock. You always did.