Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Zora Neale Hurston as Local Colorist

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Zora Neale Hurston as Local Colorist

Article excerpt

Since Zora Neale Hurston's death in 1960, an impressive number of artists and scholars have rescued her from an undeserved obscurity, best symbolized by her burial in an unmarked grave in a segregated potter's field. They have restored to her in death the fame and following that eluded her in life. Hurston's rescue began in 1973 when Alice Walker flew to Florida and visited Lee-Peek Mortuary in Fort Pierce to locate the cemetery where Hurston is buried. Finding what she believed was the grave, Walker then had a monument erected for the site. In 1977, Robert Hemenway published her biography, Zora Neale Hurston, to national acclaim. Both Walker and Hemenway pay respect to a writer whom Barbara Christian in Black Women Novelists and Henry Louis Gates in "A Negro Way of Saying" correctly assert is the literary model for the contemporary African-American female writer who writes realistic fiction of black women seeking self-fulfillment and self-empowerment. Since Mary Helen Washington's lament in Black-Eyed Susans (1975) about Hurston's neglect in literature and women's studies courses across America, Hurston's most popular novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), has become a perennial classroom favorite. There is an annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival in Hurston's hometown, Eatonville, Florida, which N. Y. Nathiri, one of Hurston's most devoted loyalists, coordinates. In 1991, Nathiri edited an informational book, Zora!, on Hurston and Eatonville, containing memories of the writer by relatives and friends.

From those who misunderstood her, like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, who thought her "black-minstrel" characters were created to humor a patronizing white audience, to those who loved her, like Alice Walker, Mary Ellen Washington, and Barbara Christian, who thought her a controversial but brilliant feminist, Zora Neale Hurston has stirred the emotions of critics and devotees in a variety of ways and has been called alternately minstrel, novelist, anthropologist, voodoo priestess, feminist, and folklorist. I think her real significance as writer-folklorist is best summarized by her biographer, Robert Hemenway, who writes:

   Zora was concerned less with the tactics of racial uplift than with the
   unexamined prejudice of American social science. She became a folklorist at
   a time when white sociologists were obsessed with what they thought was
   pathology in black behavior, when white psychologists spoke of the deviance
   in black mental health, and when the discipline of anthropology used a
   research model that identified black people as suffering from cultural
   deprivation. Hurston's folklore collections refuted these stereotypes by
   celebrating the distinctiveness of traditional black culture, and her
   scholarship is now recognized by revisionist scientists questioning the
   racial assumptions of modern cultural theory. (330)

Because the Eatonville townspeople were the models of Hurston's factual and fictive folksy, cultural richness, I find that she emerges most clearly as something that no critic, to my knowledge, has yet remarked upon: local colorist. Local color as a genre and technique emerged after the Civil War in 1868 with Bret Harte's "fresh pictures of California mining camps" (Simpson 3), although in its nineteenth-century manifestations local color often painted a rather shallow, genteel picture of life. But the concept has undergone considerable changes because of writers like Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston. Critics now acknowledge the national or even universal dimensions and implications of regional literature and see it as echoing certain moral and historical truths about our humanity.

In The Local Colorists, editor Claude Simpson cites Hamlin Garland's famous announcement that "only a native is equipped to write successful local fiction" because of the "depth of understanding necessary for more than a superficial view of picturesque oddities" (1). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.