Transcript of conversation with Valerie Boyd
Hurston: All right, this song, I’m gonna sing is a lining rhythm, and I’m gonna call it "Mule on de Mount" though you can start with any verse you want and give it a name, and it’s the most widely distributed work song in the United States. Well, I heard the first verses I got it in my native village of Eatonville, Florida.
"Ah hand me down two, three cans of tomatoes
Oh, Ah hand me down two, three cans of tomatoe
A can of corn, Lord, Lord, a can of corn!
I’ve got a woman whose pretty but she’s too bulldozing
I’ve got a woman she’s pretty but she’s too bulldozing
She won’t live long, Lord, Lord, she won’t live long!"
Jo Reed: That was novelist Zora Neale Hurston with an example of an African-American southern folk song called "Mule on the Mount." Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
Today, we take for granted that Zora Neale Hurston is seen as the "literary mother" of African-American women writers. It’s difficult to remember how controversial her books were when they were first published, in part because Hurston’s focus was ordinary southern black folks and the language they used. As an anthropologist, as a storyteller, and as a playwright, she wanted to show that black culture was a world unto itself and it was a world filled with the poetry of everyday life. And no book celebrates this more than Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 classic novel and Big Read Selection, Their Eyes were Watching God. In dazzling language that’s deeply rooted in the American south Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janey Crawford, and her struggle for independence, her marriages to three very different men and her journey through communities in the rural south. Janey tells her own story, in her own words, in a voice that carries us along with us. Zora Neale Hurston’s own story might be different, but her journey is every bit as extraordinary as any of the characters she created. And that life is the subject of Valerie Boyd’s award-winning biography, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. Although Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, according to Valerie Boyd, her family’s subsequent move to Eatonville, Florida when Hurston was quite young had a profound impact on her life. Here’s biographer Valerie Boyd to tell us about it.
Valerie Boyd: I think Eatonville was completely significant for Hurston because it was a community where she was never indoctrinated in inferiority. It was an all-Black town. One of the few all-Black towns still surviving in the early part of the 20th century when Hurston was born or when she-- when her family moved to Eatonville when she was just a toddler. And she always talked about Eatonville as her hometown almost as if it were her birthplace because she moved there as a very young child. So her earliest memories were of Eatonville, and Eatonville was the place where she began to discover her voice as a storyteller. She grew up listening to stories being told on the porch of Joe Clark's store. Her father was a Baptist minister, so the ministers would come by and tell stories of God and the devil, and she absorbed these stories. And they really-- these stories and this kind of Black folk life and Black folk culture became her primary language as a storyteller, but, mostly, Eatonville was important because it was a place where, as I said, she was never indoctrinated in inferiority. It was a place where she saw Black people achieving or failing on their own merits. Her father was one of the mayors of Eatonville for a time. Her mother was a seamstress in the community and a Sunday school teacher. This was a place that was sort of protected from a kind of judging, racist sort of gaze because it was an isolated, small Black community. So she really learned in Eatonville that she could be whatever she wanted to be and do whatever she wanted to do. And that knowledge, that real ingrained belief sustained her for the rest of her life, and I think really gave her even the notion that she could become a writer that she could become a storyteller and make her mark on the world that way.
Josephine Reed: It was a roundabout and very long trip for Hurston from Eatonville first to Howard where she studied with Alaine Locke and then on to New York. Can you give us a brief summary of how she made that journey?
Valerie Boyd: Yeah, the journey really began for her-- initially-- involuntarily. Hurston's mother died when she was 13, and the family fell apart. She had seven siblings, six brothers and one sister. And Zora was especially close to her mother because her mother encouraged her storytelling gifts. Her mother encouraged all of her children to jump at the sun. She said, "You might not land on the sun, but at least you'll get off the ground." So Zora Hurston was especially close to her mother, Lucy Hurston. And after her mother's death, not only did the whole family fall apart, but Hurston herself was sort of thrust into adulthood. Her father quickly remarried. He married a woman who was younger than his older children. All of the children resented the quick remarriage. It was less than six months after their mother died. There was a lot of turmoil in the family. Zora, especially, resented this new young stepmother. And, in fact, got in a physical fight with the stepmother and almost killed her. And after that, Zora's father, John Hurston, really just had to send her away and felt like she could no longer be in his home. He had already sent her away to boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida at Florida Baptist Academy. But after the fight with her stepmother, he really sent her back to school, and she wasn't really welcome to come home anymore after that. And so she was thrust into adulthood and really forced to sort of make her own way in the world. And so there was a real difficult time there. There's a period in Hurston's life that's known among Hurston scholars as "the missing years." There are about ten years where she disappears from public record, and we don't really know where she was or what she was doing. She reemerged on the public record in Baltimore at age 26. And at age 26, she still hadn't finished high school. And so in order to qualify for free public schooling in the state of Maryland, she lopped ten years off her life, and told school officials she was 16 instead of 26.
Josephine Reed: And looking at the picture in your book, you can see how school officials were persuaded by that. She looked so young.
Valerie Boyd: Right, exactly. And she had been told that by people, when she was trying to find a job to make ends meet to really scrape by any means possible, she was often told that she looked too young to work. People asked her, "Does your mother know you're out here working?" And so she used that youthful face to her advantage by claiming to be ten years younger. And once she lopped those years off, she never added them back on, but those ten years, that taking on the role of the youthful ingénue helps her to get into Howard University because after she was able to graduate from high school in Baltimore, she went on to Howard University. Actually, she didn't graduate from high school in Baltimore. She was at Morgan State, and she went on to Howard and finished up some final classes in Howard's high school division, went on to college at Howard, and then transferred from Howard to Barnard. And that's how she got to New York.
Josephine Reed: It seemed that when she arrived in New York that she really arrived at the right place at the right time.
Valerie Boyd: Absolutely. And it wasn't totally accidental. I mean, Hurston was ten years older. She was quite savvy, and she had actually submitted a short story to Opportunity magazine based in New York. She was very much aware of this burgeoning movement in New York that we know as the Harlem Renaissance. At the time, they called themselves part of the New Negro Movement. So she was aware of this movement, this flowering of Black arts and culture that was going on. She was reading the magazines. She submitted a piece to Opportunity. The editor, Charles Johnson, was so impressed with the story that he suggested that she consider making a move to New York and all she needed was that casual suggestion. So with a $1.50 in her purse, the story goes, she actually dropped out of Howard and moved to New York to see if she could make a go of it in New York and to be a part of this Harlem Renaissance, which obviously we know she did.
Josephine Reed: Well, explain just a little bit about what that burst of creativity was like then.
Valerie Boyd: You mentioned Alain Locke, who was actually Zora's professor at Howard, and he was the person who sort of helped her to know about this burst of creativity that was going on in New York. He introduced her and some of her classmates to the goings on. He was often going from D.C. to New York to participate in this. He was one of the sort of deans of this New Negro Movement. He and Charles Johnson and others, who were really sort of organizing the young Black artists and intellectuals, and helping them to know each other and also helping them to publish in the magazines that were flourishing at the time, to help them get book contracts and to really make it a movement rather than individual efforts. So it was an incredibly creative time where you had not only the flowering of jazz in the nightclubs, the jazz and blues clubs, but also a flowering of Black artistic expression on all levels, particularly literature and visual arts. A lot of the writers that we've come to know of from that period, the period of the '20s, all the way into the early '30s, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston. All of them were producing at this time—producing strong writing. They were working with visual artists like Augusta Savage and Aaron Douglas. A lot of them got together and actually produced a magazine called Fire!!, but they formed a real community of supportive artists and writers who helped each other to grow in their work and to really feel that they were not alone and also they pushed the conventions a bit. This group of younger artists and writers who put out Fire!! really wanted to challenge the status quo of some of the older intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois. So it was really a vibrant movement, and Hurston was at the center of it.
Josephine Reed: How did Zora Neale Hurston take to Harlem? And how did Harlem take to Zora Neale Hurston?
Valerie Boyd: Well, she took to Harlem beautifully because Harlem, I think, reminded her in some ways of Eatonville. You know, Eatonville was this all-Black community where black expression was the norm. So to walk from Eatonville--even though it was a circuitous route to get from Eatonville to Harlem--I think when she hit Harlem she felt a sense of being home in a way that she had felt in Eatonville and had not felt since then. And so she loved Harlem. I mean, she loved strolling down Seventh Avenue. She loved the Southern food that had migrated north to Harlem. She loved the parties, and she attended every one apparently. She just really had a great time in Harlem, and I think Harlem also took well to her. One thing that's interesting I think about Hurston, when we think of the Harlem Renaissance, is that we often talk about her as a writer in the Harlem Renaissance, but the truth is Hurston didn't do a lot of writing during that period. Her first novel was published in 1934, Jonah's Gourd Vine, which was sort of a fictional account of her parents' marriage. The Harlem Renaissance pretty much-- most scholars agree--ended with the stock market crash of 1929. Sometimes scholars put the Harlem Renaissance into the early '30s, but it's interesting that Hurston didn't publish any books during the Harlem Renaissance of the '20s. Her books came later. So more than being a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, she was more a personality of the Harlem Renaissance. As I said, she went to all the parties. She held court. She told stories. She was in the middle of this magazine, Fire!!, that was being produced. She and Wallace Thurman, and Langston Hughes, and Bruce Nugent were sort of the main creative forces behind that magazine. So she was very much involved, but not as productive as a writer as she would become later in the 1930s.
Josephine Reed: Let's focus now on Their Eyes Were Watching God. When you talk about Harlem Renaissance as being groundbreaking in many ways pushing the envelope, one can also say that about Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Valerie Boyd: Absolutely. I mean, what amazes me so much about Their Eyes Were Watching God is that no matter whether the '20s or '30s, that really explored something that had not, at that point, been explored before in literature and that was the internal life of an ordinary self-educated southern black woman. It's hard for us to imagine, at this point, how revolutionary that book was. We've read Toni Morrison. We've read Alice Walker. We've read Terry McMillan. We've read Edwidge Danticat, and we've read all these black women writers and other writers who look at the internal lives of black women. When Hurston did this with Their Eyes Were Watching God in the 1930s that was revolutionary. She was the first, I think-- if not the first writer to say these people's lives these self‑educated ordinary black folk, and particularly black women, these people lives are worthy of literature. It's important to give these people a voice at the table, at the national table as part of the conversation. She did that. She opened that door in a way that made the work of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, and all the other writers we enjoy today, possible. And I think that's one of the most amazing things about Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Josephine Reed: Tell us about the character of Janie Crawford, the protagonist of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Valerie Boyd: Well, Janie Crawford is a, an incredible woman who is also a very ordinary woman. She is a woman who is ordinary in the sense that she is part of this Florida community. She grows up in the rural South. She is self-educated. She is raised by her grandmother, Nanny. And yet, with all of that kind of ordinariness, she becomes extraordinary in this journey that she embarks on to know herself. And with Janie, the journey takes the form of her relationships with three men, Logan Killicks, Jody Stark, and then Tea Cake. Many of these characters were inspired by characters in Hurston's own life, but Janie herself is, as I said, this woman who's embarking on this journey to know herself. I mean, it's not-- it's been talked about as a love story, and I think Their Eyes Were Watching God is a love story in some ways. And, clearly, there is this great love story between Janie and Tea Cake, the final man in her life--at least in the story. I think more than that, it's a love story of Janie coming to love herself-- coming to know, and love, and accept herself. And I think Janie is so interesting, because even though she is a Black woman, she's very specific: Southern, Black, self-educated, rural woman. She is embarking on a journey that we can all relate to. It's a journey that men and women, and black people and white people, and people of all colors and cultures can relate to, because we're all, hopefully, at some point, on this journey to know ourselves better and to accept and love ourselves. It's interesting. One time, I was I was actually doing a radio show where I was talking about Janie Crawford and her importance to black women, and a caller phoned in, and he said, "I'm a white man, and I love Their Eyes Were Watching God. Don't leave me out." And that was important, an important lesson for me. I think Janie's story transcends race, and time, and culture. It's really a timeless kind of story because her journey, Janie's journey is so universal in some ways.
Josephine Reed: I think it does what literature is supposed to do. It's that ability to be so absolutely specific, and at the same time, transcendent and universal that a work can contain both, the way Their Eyes Were Watching God can.
Valerie Boyd: Absolutely, and that's well-said, and that's exactly what I does. Since the Big Read Initiative by the NEA has chosen Their Eyes Were Watching God as one of the books that communities around the country are reading, I've had the great opportunity to go to many of these communities and speak about Their Eyes Were Watching God and speak about how it flowed out of Hurston's own life, but more than that, I've gotten an opportunity to meet people who were reading the book. And the level of the conversation has just been inspiring because everybody can find something of themselves in Janie's story, and that's just really amazing. And it speaks to Hurston's transcendent talent as a writer.
Josephine Reed: Well, the other thing that Hurston does in this book is speak with the poetic lyricism of the narrative. The language is incredibly rich, if very traditional, and that really is contrasted with the poetry of the idiom that people use when they speak, which is equally poetic though not what many readers and certainly not what readers back then were used to reading.
Valerie Boyd: Right, absolutely. I think you really have pointed to something significant, which is there's sort of two voices in Their Eyes Were Watching God. There's the voice of the narrator, which is incredibly poetic and penetrating in some ways, and then there's the voice of the idiom, the voice of the people in the novel, and that voice is also quite poetic and penetrating and haunting in some ways. And it captures the poetry of the people in Eatonville who Hurston grew up with. And she really wanted to, I think in this novel, elevate that language to the level of poetry, to the level of literature. At that point, in literary history, this kind of language if it had been used in literature in the past, it was sometimes used in a condescending way. Hurston used it in a way that elevated it—that said these people's language is literature. These people's language is poetry, and it was her first language. Having grown up in Eatonville, it was her first language as a writer and as a storyteller. So she wasn't coming to it as an outsider, but as someone who knew the language intimately and understood its poetry and its beauty and wanted to hand it to the world as a gift.
Josephine Reed: Hurston also wasn't afraid of tackling very tough issues, I think. She was not afraid to talk in this novel about black people being color-struck, of having a hierarchy based on one's skin hue.
Valerie Boyd: Yeah, she not only was not afraid of it, but I think that was an important theme that she wanted to address and explore a little bit. It happens with the character of Mrs. Turner who's quite color-struck. It happens even with other characters sort of looking up to Janie because her light skin and her long hair. So Hurston definitely wanted to explore those kinds of issues. One thing that she always said, and she got some criticism, not so much for exploring those issues, but for the dialect and for the book not being more angry. Some people thought that black people in the book were too happy. It was set in the '20s. It was written in the '30s, so there were some people who felt like the black people in Their Eyes Were Watching God weren't angry enough. There wasn't enough conflict. Hurston's view was that she wrote about black people when white people weren't around. She wrote about the internal workings of the black community. And she understood that black people didn't spend all their waking moments thinking about white people and being oppressed. They weren't always thinking about the white man's foot on their neck. They were enjoying their lives. They were laughing, and loving, and doing everything that people do in living their lives, and that's what she wanted to write about. And part of that Black community's life was a sort of hierarchy based on color, was this notion of people being color-struck. And that was a part of it, too, that she did in fact write about because she, again, was writing about black life without the White gaze—without the judging, white gaze. It's like-- this is black people are like in their own communities-- laughing, and loving, and living and doing all the things that they do including sometimes hurting each other.
Josephine Reed: When the book was first published, Valerie, how was it received?
Valerie Boyd: It got mixed reviews, I think. It sold well. It was well-received by the literati. Edna St. Vincent Millay sent Hurston a postcard. It was well received by the literati and especially kind of the white establishment. It put Zora on the map, so to speak. You had criticism from people like Richard Wright. He and some other black male writers were quite critical of the book, but I think part of their criticism came from their own sexism. Richard Wright was not known for his progressive attitudes toward black women, and I think it was hard for him to abide a novel that was all about the inner life of a black woman and saying this life is worthy of literature. This life needs to be, this person's voice needs to be a part of the national conversation, and I feel fortunate that we can read Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston alongside each other, and see the value in what both writers were bringing.
Josephine Reed: Zora Neale Hurston had a rather difficult time of it towards the end of her life, didn't she?
Valerie Boyd: She did. She did. I mean, part of what I wanted to do in Wrapped in Rainbows in exploring her life was to really focus in on those final years. We have this romantic notion of Hurston being a starving artist and dying in poverty and dying in obscurity and those sorts of those things, so I really wanted to dive into that. So I went to Fort Pierce where she spent the last five or so years of her life, and I interviewed many people who knew her there. I interviewed people who had been her students when she was a teacher, a substitute teacher at the high school. I interviewed the undertaker who handled her funeral. I interviewed the women, whose father, C.C. Benton, was Hurston's landlord, and allowed her to live in one of his homes rent-free. So in doing that kind of research, I got a different picture than the one that's traditionally painted of her final years.
Josephine Reed: Well, Valerie, what did you find?
Valerie Boyd: What I saw was a woman who did not have a lot of money, no, but we have to remember that Hurston never made a lot of money in her lifetime. Being a black woman writer in the '30s, '40s, and '50s did not pay well. It still doesn't, I can assure you of that. So she never made a lot of money in her lifetime. It was not a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. There were never any riches. The largest royalty Hurston ever made from any of her books was $943.75. Here's the thing, Hurston was committed to being a writer to using her talents to chronicle the lives of black communities even when that work did not pay well, which was most of the time. So she was never making a lot of money from her work, yet she remained committed to it. So when she died, there wasn't a lot of money in her bank account, but she was rich in other ways. I mean, she was a part of a community. I talked to people who talked about her garden in Fort Pierce. It was a garden that stopped passersby as they driving through Fort Pierce. They had to pull over and see the morning glories and the more practical things like collard greens and tomatoes and all sorts of things that Hurston was growing in her garden. She was known in the community as Miss Hurston, as Miss Zora to some. She was just this woman who was part of the community-- who was valued by community. Some people there knew who she was. They knew her past. They knew her history. Others didn't. It didn't matter, but they still respected her as Miss Zora, this woman who was a vital part of the community, so it wasn't necessarily the tragic, romanticized tale that we've come to accept about Hurston's final year. You know, there wasn't enough money for a marker for her grave. That remains true, but the high school students in her community took up a collection for flowers and other things. There were more than a hundred people at the funeral. Hurston was an incredibly independent woman. She lived her whole life that way, and she wanted to end her life that way as well. And so she didn't call people and ask for help. She was living her life as independently as she ever had, even in those final years. And she was always, even into the end, still writing.
Josephine Reed: And finally, Valerie, what I found very interesting in your book was the way you end about Hurston being absolutely confident that her work would receive the recognition that it deserved.
Josephine Reed: Valerie Boyd, thank you so much for giving me your time. I really appreciate it.
Valerie Boyd: Thank you.
Josephine Reed: That was Valerie Boyd. She was talking about Zore Neale Hurston, whose 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a big read selection. Valerie Boyd is the author Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. I'm Josephine Reed. She is also an Associate Professor and Writer in Residence at the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia.
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Excerpt of Zora Neale Hurston from her 1943 interview with Mary Margaret McBride, used by permission of Victoria Sanders and Associates, on behalf of the Estate of Zora Neale Hurston.
Excerpts from "Piedmont Medley" from the album Masters of the Piedmont Blues by NEA Heritage Fellow John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, used courtesy of Cephas and Wiggins.
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Next week, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a look at some contemporary Irish artists and Solas Nua, the organization that presents them to audiences in United States. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Biographer Valerie Boyd talks about the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston.