Black History Month

Black History Month Profile: Zora Neale Hurston

February 24, 2014

It’s unlikely we would be familiar with Zora Neale Hurston’s work today if it wasn’t for Alice Walker’s essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” which was published by Ms. Magazine in 1975. Zora was the most widely published female author during the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, but she was relegated to obscurity by the time she died in 1960.

In her time, Zora was mocked because she wrote character dialogue in the vernacular. Many accused her of reinforcing stereotypes, but more recently others (led by Alice, no doubt) have praised her efforts to bring a sense of authentic realism to her work. When I read Zora’s acclaimed 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” I found the dialogue took some getting used to, but the feminist themes and story felt modern and drew me in. Zora was a gifted writer with a knack for characterization that rings true.

Zora studied anthropology at Columbia University in the 1920s. She researched African American oral history in the rural South and wrote two well-regarded books on folklore. Her career later encompassed writing novels, essays and plays.

The first essay that Zora wrote in 1928, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” contains one of the most controversial of her views: “Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it.” Her position drew heavy criticism both during her lifetime and beyond. While slavery was a horrific period in our nation’s history, Zora’s perspective was that in order for society to advance, it had to go through this dark period first.

In an NPR interview, Alice says she never met Zora, but she was acquainted with Langston Hughes, who co-wrote the play “Mule Bone” with Zora. There is a recording of an excerpt from the play on Zora’s official website, which includes the observation that folklore is not easy to obtain because rural people are inherently shy. According to a New York Times book review of Looking for Zora, in order to elicit information from evasive Southerners who were wary of her expensive car, Zora told them she was a bootlegger. This type of subterfuge was second nature to Zora and has made it difficult for researchers to get an accurate picture of who she was. Another way to interpret this is to acknowledge that Zora was a complex person who was as prone to evasiveness and self-protection as the people she was interviewing. For example, Zora often said she was proud to be from Eatonville, Florida, one of the first incorporated all-black towns, but there is evidence she was born in Alabama.

It isn’t difficult to find harsh, judgmental critiques of Zora and her work, but I was struck by an empathic passage in Rosemary Bray’s New York Times review of a play about her life: “ … [Zora] had no patience with what she called ‘the sobbing school of Negrohood’ that portrayed the lives of black people as constantly miserable, downtrodden and deprived. From her early education at Howard and Barnard colleges and her stunning popularity in the 1930's, through the indignity of a false charge of child-molestation that, though disproved, ruined her career, Hurston was consistently, sometimes foolishly, herself.”

When Zora returned to Eatonville at the end of her life, she was still deeply misunderstood and without supporters. She died there and lay in an unmarked grave for more than a decade until Alice created a memorial for her and sparked a new appreciation of her life and work. Today there is a museum dedicated to Zora, as well as a festival and several awards in her name. Thanks to Alice, Zora is remembered and honored as the accomplished literary figure she was.

 

Further reading, listening and viewing

Official website 

Still Searching Out Zora Neale Hurston, Ms. Blog 

How it Feels to be Colored Me 

Alice Walker on Zora Neale Hurston's 'Spiritual Food', NPR 

Looking for Zora and Wrapped in Rainbows Book Reviews, The New York Times

Hurston's New York: Her Eyes Were Watching Harlem, The New York Times 

The Zora Neale Hurston Museum

The Zora Neale Hurston Festival

The Zora Neale Hurston Award 

Their Eyes Were Watching God, 2005 movie starring Halle Berry, Michael Ealy and Ruby Dee (YouTube playlist in 11 parts) 

 

Posted by: 
Giuliana Lonigro

Dr. Maya Angelou: Phenomenal Woman

February 4, 2014

Maya Angelou Matrix Award 1983On May 28, 2014, renowned author, poet, civil rights activist, educator and Matrix honoree Dr. Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. The image at left shows Angelou with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy after receiving the NYWICI Matrix Award in 1983, with fellow honorees, Newsweek Contributing Editor Jane Bryant Quinn (at left) and Washington Post Columnist Mary McGrory (at right).

The below blog post was written in February of this year.

 

Maya Angelou is one of the most phenomenal women of our time. A tremendously inspiring author, Dr. Angelou has written seven autobiographies, three books of essays and a plethora of poetry books. Some of her most popular written works include: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Letter to My Daughter, Phenomenal Woman, Still I Rise and Heart of a Woman just to name a few.  In 1993, Angelou was asked by Bill Clinton to recite her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” during his inauguration.

Dr. Angelou’s body of work transcends what she writes on paper. She is an artist that is recognized for her work as a playwright, actress, producer and director and has appeared in numerous movies and television shows. Throughout the years, Dr. Angelou has written and appeared in films and plays that continue to captivate the hearts of many, especially African Americans such as Porgy and Bess, Roots and Brewster Place. In 1998, Angelou was the first African American woman to direct a major film: Down in the Delta.

On any given day, social media enthusiasts are likely to come across Maya Angelou quotes in their social network streams. Her words of wisdom are inspirational and empower women to pursue goals and strive for greatness. Some of my favorite quotes by Dr. Maya Angelou:

“If you get, give. If you learn, teach.”

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

“All great achievements require time.”

“Courage allows the successful woman to fail and learn powerful lessons from the failure – so that in the end, she didn’t fail at all.”

"I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

“Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it.”

“Our stories come from our lives and from the playwright’s pen, the mind of the actor, the roles we create, the artistry of life itself and the quest for peace.”

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

Dr. Maya Angelou’s poetry has received accolades from scholars and has earned her numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, three Grammy Awards and, in 2013, the Literarian Award, given by the National Book Foundation. Her contributions have been recognized by scholars worldwide, and she has received more than 50 honorary degrees.

It is virtually impossible to articulate all of the Dr. Angelou’s accomplishments in a few hundred words. However, what I can simply state is that she is one of the greatest and notable African American women that ever lived. Her love for humanity, equality and women has not only touched the lives of her community but it has also touched a nation. At the age of 85, Dr. Maya Angelou is still gifted with the ability to create and inspire. And she continues to leave a lasting impression through innovative poetry and uplifting words of wisdom. Dr. May Angelou, phenomenal woman.

“No sun outlasts its sunset but will rise again and bring the dawn.”

Posted by: 
Rodeena Stephens
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