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Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston: A Re-Discovery that Helped Preserve African-American Culture

Sometimes friendships just happen when we meet someone. An instant spark ignites a lifetime of favors, compassion, words, activities, and challenges. Often circumstances make us friends. Other times, we choose and actively pursue friendships. During grad school, I heard the story of Zora Neale Hurston’s rescue by a friend she had never known in life.

In 1973, when Alice Walker discovered the unmarked grave of Zora Neale Hurston and read her stories, Walker made an active choice to befriend the spirit of Hurston. Hurston was an influential writer in the Harlem Renaissance, but most of her work was out of print by the time she died in 1960. She was a forgotten writer until Alice Walker reached through the mists of time, blew the dust away from the covers, and re-introduced Hurston’s work into American literature.

Walker recognized the shared experience of being an African-American female author. It wasn’t an easy road to travel…few predecessors had blazed the trails. Often, those women who bent their bodies over paper (most in secret) and labored their pens to reveal a truth rarely shared and spoken became forgotten like Hurston. Maybe that’s what Alice Walker felt when she faced the wordless grave site of Hurston, a woman intensely dedicated to the preservation of her culture. Maybe Walker felt a sudden pain for her new friend’s final circumstances in life and a desire to revitalize the work, life, and spirit of an author who shows us an intimate portrait of the oldest incorporated African-American town in the United States during its formation in the post-Reconstruction years. The University of Central Florida’s Department of English offers a Digital Archive of Hurston’s work that shows the scope of the creativity that Walker rescued; she was a novelist, folklorist, anthropologist, and singer.

Alice Walker’s re-discovery gave us the treasured story of Hurston’s character Janie Mae Crawford, a woman drifting like blossoms on the wind into a loveless marriage, then rolling in the tide with a controlling, ambitious, second husband, and swept away in love with Tea Cake until Janie finally discovers herself alone, rowing her own way home. Countless activities have stemmed from Alice Walker’s emphasis on Hurston’s work. Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God has become part of many high school curricula. A Zora! festival is hosted every year in Florida. Scholarships and artistic endowments are offered in her name. A t.v. movie was created. Plays of her work are often performed. Her work has inspired a celebration of African-American culture and prompted African-American women to use their voices and challenge censorship from all sides.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the books featured in The Big Read, “an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts (that’s) designed to restore reading to the center of American culture.” The National Endowment for the Arts teamed with the Institute of Museum and Library Services as well as Arts Midwest to promote reading and discussions about literature in communities across the United States. On the evening of Wednesday, February 27, many cities are kicking off The Big Read campaign. From Chapel Hill, NC, and Lafayette, LA, to San Diego, CA, and Brooklyn, NY, groups will hold discussions about Their Eyes Were Watching God. In Brooklyn, special guest Lucy Ann Hurston will speak. She is the niece of Zora Neale Hurston. The calendar of events contains information about the above meetings, as well as events through 2009, in participating cities.

In The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s Exhibition Portfolio titled, “Harlem 1900-1940: An African-American Community,” Zora Neale Hurston’s work is described as “play(ing) a large role in preserving the folk traditions and cultural heritage of African Americans.” Alice Walker thoughtfully retrieved Hurston’s “genius” from the grave and gave us a chance to hear her sing and tell stories.

Shana Thornton serves as Managing Editor for Her Circle Ezine’s Books and Literature section. In addition, she writes interviews, features and fiction. She also teaches composition and literature courses, chases her husband and daughter, and runs trails with her dog Mojo.

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Shana Thornton
Shana Thornton serves as Editor-in-Chief of Her Circle Ezine and Assistant Director of the Institute of Arts and Social Engagement. Her first novel, Multiple Exposure, reveals an intimate, ghostly portrait of the impact of war, and generations of military service, on a family. Multiple Exposure will be available for purchase on Sept. 2. Read more at http://shanathornton.wordpress.com/
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