Zora Neale Hurston, My Ornery Queen

This week , I had my first piece of academic writing accepted for publication: an essay on Zora Neale Hurston‘s autobiography, Dust Tracks On A Road, that’ll be part of a critical anthology.

Let me say: this is awesome. As a nascent scholar, publication on the list of “stuff I’m supposed to be doing,” along with giving presentations at conferences, being an active member of our department, etc.  So go me.

And second, as a writer: this piece, this essay, is the first that I wrote in graduate school that was really proud of. That I really liked. In part, I think, because I became so fond of Zora Neale in writing it.

I’d read Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God as a senior in high school, and created a parody of the story in a short film we did for that class [for the record: I played Tea Cake.] But it wasn’t until I took a grad course on Hurston [and, by extension, the Harlem Renaissance literary movement of which she was a part] that I came to appreciate her incredible skill as a writer, an anthropologist, and a chick-ass chick.

But here’s why I really love Zora: she was a goddamn mess.

She was so creative and stubborn and determined to do what she wanted to do, when she wanted to do it [provided she could get the necessary funding], that she pissed off a lot of people. Like, almost everyone she ever met, eventually. She studied zombies in Haiti and voodoo in New Orleans and the folklore of Eatonville, Florida–the town where she was raised, the town she couldn’t wait to escape, the town she couldn’t stop coming back to in real life, in her work. She studied under Frank Boaz, fashioned messy participant observer-type studies, crafted novels and short stories. She wrote for money. A lot. She wrote her own story over and over again–and, as she said in Dust Tracks: “there was some truth in it.” She lied about her age, her marriages, her childhood.

She died alone and broke and just about forgotten.

But her words kept going, Alice Walker found her and wrote “Looking for Zora,” and Z has slowly, steadily risen back up to the place that she would tell you she damn well deserves.

So I love Zora for all her messiness, her ornery nature, for her willingness to live life her way, even if it meant making terrible mistakes and lose friends and going around being forgotten for 25 years. Because she found her way back.

Zora, darlin’, this baby step forward for me? It’s all you.

If you’re curious about Hurston’s work, I highly recommend her short story “Sweat.”

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