I wish I could have met her. That is the surest conclusion I’ve drawn after reading Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd (winner of the 2003 Southern Book Critics Circle Award). The famous author was smart but pleasant — down to earth but with some interesting quirks — a serious artist, but without angst or self-pity.
I would not call this a brilliant biography, but a brilliant biography is not called for here. Sometimes a biographer does best by assembling the research and then letting the subject’s life speak for itself, without psychoanalysis or other unwelcome intrusions. This is generally what Valerie Boyd — arts editor at the Atlantic-Journal Constitution — has done, painstakingly reviewing Hurston’s published works, letters, manuscripts, and everything else she can find, interviewing any still-living contemporaries, but generally staying in the background. Like many biographers, she errs on the side of inclusion, but that is a forgivable sin, and this book comes in at 438 pages — not counting notes, bibliography, and so forth — which is not too bad. The title is a phrase from Hurston’s autobiography: “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands.”
Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 and grew up in all-black Eatonville, Florida. Her happy childhood ended with her mother’s death, and she wound up estranged from her father and all but abandoned by him. She drifted as an adolescent, but her hunger for education and her innate intelligence led her back to school, first to Morgan Academy, then Howard University, and finally Barnard College. She was present and active in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and “is often thought of today as a Harlem Renaissance writer,” but “she did not actually produce very much literature during the Renaissance.”
Two neologisms attributed to Hurston during those heady days show her sense of humor: The “Niggerati” at that time frequently had white patrons, the “Negrotarians.” Hurston wrote plays and poetry, but her career was really based on her prose, both fiction and non-fiction. The former included novels like Their Eyes Were Watching God, novellas, and short stories. The latter included journalism, essays, and an autobiography. In between fell her collections of black folk stories, like Mules and Men and the relatively recently found and posthumously published Every Tongue Got to Confess.
Over the decades and until she died in 1960, she never stopped writing — in large part because, financially speaking, she had no choice. It’s not that she was extravagant; she wasn’t. She just never made much money. But she was not bitter about this, apparently never complained, and cheerfully took work as a maid toward the end of her life to help make ends meet. A full life, but not an easy one.
She was not perfect, in matters big or little. Her three marriages (each to a younger man) all seemed to end before they started; she lied constantly about her age; she committed one act of plagiarism (not discovered until after her death); she smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and eventually weighed over 200 pounds.
Her most remarkable quirk was that she was not just interested in voodoo — she was, after all, an anthropologist and folklorist — but apparently actually believed in it. An intelligent, stable, generally level-headed woman who actually took this stuff seriously: baffling. Ayn Rand, when she first met William F. Buckley Jr., declared, “You are too intelligent to believe in God”; a silly statement, but wasn’t Zora Neale Hurston too intelligent to believe in voodoo? Go figure.
So why am I smitten with her? She was, for starters, a serious writer: She would leave Manhattan, rent a small house somewhere in Florida, or somewhere in the out-of-the-way south, sometimes literally in the woods, and for months would do nothing but write. For someone of her station at that time, this was beyond unusual. As Boyd observes, she “had been making her living solely as a writer for two decades by the autumn of 1933. But Hurston, it seemed, was the only black woman in the country still trying to do so ….”
I will not argue that Hurston was a conservative — as Boyd says, “we don’t know” how she would have taken to Clarence Thomas — but there was much about her that conservatives should find endearing. She was anti-Communist (in 1951, she wrote an article for American Legion Magazine titled “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism”), patriotic (“My country, right or wrong,” she wrote in 1928), “a registered Republican” (not so unusual for African Americans not so very long ago) — who supported Robert Taft in his 1952 presidential bid and, in other elections, opposed Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Claude Pepper — and a proud Southerner.
But what is most refreshing is not so much her overt politics as her attitude toward race, and race relations — and the very fact that she was obsessed with neither. She was criticized by black activist authors like Richard Wright because she did not believe that African-American artists had a duty to advance some political agenda. W. E. B. DuBois had declared in 1926, “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” So Hurston knew that “Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem,” but maintained nonetheless, “I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color.”