Following Zora’s lead

I’ll never forget the first time I read this:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

It was late summer in 1986. I was in a darkened room on Broadway near Lincoln Center, in a now long evaporated movie theater with a friend. I think perhaps my friend was my newly wedded husband. I can’t remember if he was the one with me or someone else and he’s not here anymore to remind me. I just remember I wasn’t alone and I was with a man; a man with melanin deficiencies who was also a good friend.

I remember being excited. We had come to see a film by a new trailblazing Black director who had supposedly made the whole film for $175K on nothing but talent, bartering, and credit cards. The film was being labelled by people I’d talked to as a new kind of Black film. Relevant, contemporary, and authentic were some of the words being used. The director’s name was Spike Lee and the film was called She’s Gotta Have It.

I don’t remember much about the film from that night. I’ve seen it since and when I did, it felt brand new and more flawed but not unpleasantly so. That night in 1986 though, I was consumed with positive and inspired feelings about the movie. Whoever I was with, endured a long walk afterwards with me prattling on, talking their ear off about how cool it was.

I remember enjoying it mostly because I’d never seen anything like it before and it seemed at least a pastiche version of my own life there on the screen. A young Black woman living in New York City and trying to figure out life, love, and relationships in the context of figuring out herself. In that endeavor, by then at least I was clearly way ahead of Nola Darling, the film’s main character, but her story was still as much my story as anyone else’s. More even.

In fact, I’m sure one of the reasons I can’t remember everything about the cinematic experience I had that night is because of how important the quote — that stunningly simple dissection of how men and women differ shown at the beginning of the film — came to be for me. It wore me out mentally and emotionally before I even got five minutes into watching the movie. I loved how true her assessment was. At least, it felt true to me. It also dimly reminded me of how much I wanted to write words of my own that would inspire someone. The dream is the truth. Who was the three named author of this brilliant articulation — this Zora Neale Hurston? Why had I never heard of her before? And was I really considering following the career of this strange funny man Spike Lee for the rest of my life merely because he introduce me to her writing?

Shortly after that night I did a little investigating. I’ve always been good at research. I should have considered a career as a detective… or a librarian. Both or either would have suited me perfectly. Through a little digging, which in 1986 was only about half as easy as it is now, I eventually found what I was looking for. Largely because of Alice Walker and her obsession with this little known writer of the Harlem Renaissance. The story goes that Ms. Walker rediscovered Hurston’s writings and wrote about them and her in a ground breaking essay that drew heaps of new attention to Zora. I also think they were teaching her work in HBCU’s, which is probably where Spike learned about her. Ms. Walker however, took everything a step further than the Black professors at Morehouse. Clearly dissatisfied with the meager amount of recognition Zora received, she continued her womanist homage by weeding her idol’s indistinguishable grave and giving it a much needed headstone.

Zora’s writings helped with my investigation as well. Further intrigued by the essay and the book title I went out and bought Their Eyes Were Watching God. Through my quick devouring of the book featuring Zora’s protagonist Janie Stark, and clearly one of her own many alter egos, I realized instantly why Mr. Lee had chosen the quote. Janie’s story was also about an independent and sexually liberated/aware Black woman who didn’t choose to be politicized for her choices but was anyway. Her choices may have seemed inscrutable but that was only because they were distinctly her own. She’d live with them and she understood like Zora and Nola they weren’t for everybody but (and this is my final but in this paragraph), they were most definitely right for her.

My own relationships with men up until then had been incredibly muddled. It wasn’t until I’d fallen in love with my husband that I ever felt I got it right. Not being right never stopped me from trying though. With every attempt, I just remembered everything I wanted to remember and forgot everything else then went on with my life from that point on. No wonder Zora seemed to reach into my heart with her words in that darkened theater.

After that I found Zora’s name everywhere. In historical anthologies, in treatises on the Harlem Renaissance, even in O Magazine. I pored through article after article about her infamous feud with Langston Hughes over Mulebone. I dropped everything to watch adaptations of her books on film and television. When her stamp came out in 2003, I bought twenty. Almost all of them still reside in the dark recesses of one of the desks in my house safe and sound. Once a well-read Germanic IT guy I worked with a decade ago, who happened to be from one of the more conservative sections of upstate New York was purging his library for a move south. He gave me his entire, quite sizable collection of Zora Neale Hurston books because he’d heard about my fascination with her. However, he did this only after he’d reread each and every one of them all cover to cover.

I wonder now if in 2018 he had immediately pre-ordered Zora’s posthumous publication on the last known survivor of the slave trade called Barracoon like I did when word about its release surfaced.

Over the course of many years my husband and I discussed Zora Neale Hurston often. We read her, quoted her, and generally decided that while we wouldn’t have wanted to actually be her especially given the poverty and capriciousness of her later years we both still had an abundant amount of respect for her irreverent place in the world. To us, her name which means dawn a.k.a. sunrise in Latin, became synonymous with what we thought a powerful, outspoken, and independent woman of words could be, so much so that we allowed her name to resonate with us for many years to come.

Having committed most of the quote that begins this blog post to memory, I got the rare opportunity to share it at a dinner party recently. There was a lovely young couple there who had never heard of Zora Neale Hurston. I suspect the shock of that so close to Zora’s birthday may have been what tempted me to start writing this post. It was surprising because despite her earlier obscurity I thought by now Zora was, if not a household name, at least known by people who still read as voraciously and diversely as the woman of this couple seemed to. I think I managed to do the quote some justice with very little butchering. Enough I hope so that the young woman may at least decide someday in the future to read Zora’s work.

I’m sure even Langston would agree Zora deserves that and so much more. Besides, who knows where it might lead.

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