It was not until last year that I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, the best known of Zora Neale Hurston. Last week, The Zora Canon, a list of the 100 best books by Black women, named in her honor, was released. It took me a little while to get into the memoir, and there are several essays at the end that I am not sure really improved the memoir, but her storytelling really shown through. Somewhat similar to Julie Andrew’s first memoir Home, the story stops at the point where her career starts to take off. Unlike Julie Andrew’s who recently released a second memoir, Zora Neale Hurston never did. She still died in poverty and largely forgotten until she was ‘rediscovered’ again by a new generation of writers that have brought her back into public consciousness.
The memoir opens with her family history and her early life. The shadows of her life on Their Eyes Were Watching God, either in her own life or in the lives of those around her, was transparent. I don’t know if she was trying to highlight parallels or not, but it is hard not to see them. I would recommend reading Their Eyes Were Watching God before Dust on the Tracks.
I am only going to highlight two points. She talks about how she devoured any books that she could get to. At one point she talks about a box of books she received:
In that box was Gulliver’s Travels, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Dick Whittington, Greek and Roman Myths, and best of all, Norse Tales. Why did the Norse tales strike so deeply into my soul? I do not know, but they did.
What struck me about that quote is that it was exactly the Norse Tales book that both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein say was so important to their own development as writers. Hurston was one year older than Tolkein and about 8 years older than Lewis. Hurston, like Baldwin and Douglass and many others, did not have the educational advantages that Lewis and Tolkein had. How might her work have been different if she has not essentially raised herself from 14 and worked odd jobs scraping out an education?
It is not really possible to read Black authors and not notice how race impacts their lives. There are comments directly about race in the story and several of the essays at the end were directly about issues around race. But this is a memoir more about her, than about racial issues more broadly. But I was struck by these lines, in part because of a sermon series by my pastor on politics where he essentially was arguing the same thing (Christians should agree that justice is the goal, but may disagree on how to get there.)
I too yearn for universal justice, but how to bring it about is another thing. It is such a complicated thing, for justice, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There is universal agreement of the principle, but the application brings on the fight.
I alternated between the kindle and the audiobook. The audiobook was really well-narrated, so that is a very good option here, especially with the several passages where there was singing.
Note: Dust Tracks on a Road is in the public domain most places in the world so there are a number of versions of the text.