There are years that ask questions and years that answer” ZNH
Dear Ms. Hurston, or can I call you Zora? When asked to have a conversation with a writer from the past I chose you. I would choose you again, and again, and again, as I have chosen you before. I have chosen your words as beloved friends many times before. Your expansive teachings are so close to me that it was hard for me not to.
You are what writing means to me.
Thank you for telling the truth. For showing all of us how tenderly we can love our Blackness. How curious and exciting and pleasurable healing can be. For revealing the wounds + the medicine. For showing us the cosmic divinity of black femmes1.
I almost appreciate the format of writing to you in a letter as it somehow allows me to better express the many words and emotions I carry when addressing you. In this format I am able to sit. Sit and feel the clock move slower.
Sit and feel closer to you, Zora.
I want to know more about you. I want to know if the 5 lakes you swam in rural Eatonville feel like the 5 great lakes I grew up around Michigan. You speak of a village filled with guavas, all types of Black folks, the Seminole tribe, pear trees, good swimmers, and no jailhouse. I’ve seen what Black community looks like around our northern lakes on hot days, and days when chunks of frozen lake crash into one another on the shore line, but we rarely see guavas and we definitely have a jailhouse.
What did the sunlight feel on your skin deep within grooves?
What is the sound of southern porch doors creaking?
How did the laughs and yells sound of the powerful women in your home? How did you discover our folklore? How did you discover your own?
I could go on about your world in Eatonville, your world in Harlem and the Renaissance, and the worlds you created, but there has been something I have always wanted to ask you… and luckily I have the chance:
are you Janie?2
From the moment your words landed in my hands in a dull public school english classroom on a cold morning in Michigan, Janie, yes your Janie, touched a light in me that I didn’t know existed
When I read Their Eyes are Watching God, I began to think you were telling your own story. And yes, you have told your own story in other works but this is disparate. I grew up believing that you must have sat in the presence of, and felt the energy and light of the blossoming pear tree with the cool sensation of the rich red earth beneath you. I grew up believing you must’ve touched that freedom.
So tell me, are you Janie?
This question was thrown at my 10th grade english teacher, Ms.Tonya Whitehorn, who was one of two Black teachers I had in high school. As I continued to argue that this work must be a biography, she responded: “Some say that every piece is inherently about the author. What do you think?” A lesson I still think about often.
I think that you poured your heart into your art. Something I have always admired and chased.
You taught me, through her, what it meant to celebrate rawness. A word often used to describe me. Zora you embody, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”3
confident, strong, a kind of fierce raw femme energy that captures the visions of so many evolving Black femmes and girls. “She is full uh pepper,” John laughed to himself, “but ah laks dat. Anything ‘thout no seasonin’ in it ain’t no good.”4 That special, special seasoning.
I saw Janie as messy and strange, and yet so beautiful and real— Zora— Who loves herself when she is laughing. And then again when she is looking mean & impressive(5). She was definitely someone I wanted to be.
Alice6 described you best, of course: “Zora Neale Hurston’s genius has once again produced a Maestrapiece. What is a Maestrapiece? It is the feminine perspective or part of the structure, whether in stone or fancy, without which the entire edifice is a lie”.
You are a rightful intellectual and spiritual leader of the next generation. How? Because as an evolving teenager, I clumsily learned and interacted with the double conscious7 intersections of my identities just as Janie and through Janie.
My mix race identity became the foundation of how to navigate a white supremacist, imperialistic, and patriarchal dominated world.
You, and Janie, helped me come to my Black identity. The only other representation I saw of myself growing up was light-skinned flappers from the 1920’s chosen because they are digestible to white audiences. Seeing the empowering Janie started to break the preconceived institutionalized foundation of my being and presence.
You can’t be what you can’t see, and Janie was what I saw. Our diasporic Blackness is so vast and expansive I wouldn’t know where to start. Yet, Janie’s found me and ignited the spark.
Janie is mixed, like me. Mixed like my grandmother’s mother. Mixed like us.
Janie is mixed… like me.
‘So if Jamie is Black then so am I! and her Blackness is so damn fierce and bold and’ on and on. I won’t forget my first time meeting Janie. This representation of Ms. Zora, shaped who I am and so much more. Nothing but gratitude for you, Zora.
Here are your flowers.
12 more bright roses for the Black kids who found ourselves through your words. through your worlds, and through your guidance.
Daisies and tulips for your beauty and honor, and lavender and lilacs to embellish your royal beauty. As these bouquets surround you,
I must acknowledge that I gather these flowers with a heavy heart. I write with a pen bursting with amends from the generation you inspired.
I know that you did not receive your flowers during your lifetime.
I know you were only considered ‘the genius of the south’ after death. I know you are never credited as a folklorist even though you were the first Black scholar to chronicle Black folklore and voodou. You found our stories and gave them back to us as a gift. By us for us.
I know that towards the end of your life, you feared dying in poverty and reached out to Dubois8 notioning to create a cemetery for Black artists.
I know that respectability politics in the harlem renaissance silenced your work.
I learned about your prolific life early on, and it showed me lessons of white supremacy. Lessons on how you died in poverty in an unmarked grave, yet your careful words were sitting in my hands in a public school, capitalistic, and white supremacist societal structure.
So many copies of your words, so little flowers.
Petals fall at my feet.
Alice writes of walking to find your sunken grave in a cemetery of tall grass and snakes. Alice brought you the flowers you deserve.
The generation of empowered Black femmes are here to give you flowers you deserve. I am here to give you your flowers.
Thank you for telling the truth. For showing all of us how tenderly we can love our pain. How curious and exciting and pleasurable healing can be. For revealing the wounds and the medicine. For showing us the cosmic divinity of black femmes. For illuminating our history with unflinching eyes. I honor you and your genius forever.
and we will be here. Replenishing your flowers.
- In French, "femme" simply means "woman," but in English, it's an identity and term to describe queer women who present femininely. Femme is also far more than an aesthetic: Femme gestures towards an inner-strength, as well as the wealth of feminine energy that has existed throughout history, says Symonne Kennedy, LMSW, psychotherapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City. (G Kassel, 2020) This term is also a gender inclusive.
- Janie Mae Crawford is the protagonist of ZNH’s novel, Their Eyes are Watching God. She is a woman of mixed white and black heritage.
- Quote: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” - Zora Neale Hurston
- Quote from Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah's Gourd Vine: The first novel noted by the novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist. (1934)
- “I Love Myself When I Am Laughing And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean & Impressive” by ZNH (1979). This unique anthology, with fourteen superb examples of her fiction, journalism, folklore, and autobiography, rightfully establishes her as the intellectual and spiritual leader of the next generation of black writers. The original commentary by Alice Walker and Mary Helen Washington.
- In reference to Alice Walker, an empowering and prolific American novelist, short story writer, poet, activist, and dear friend to Zora.
- Coined by W. E. B. Du Bois, 'the veil' and 'double-consciousness' explains the peculiar conditions within which African Americans find themselves within the United States.
- William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was an American sociologist, socialist, historian, civil rights activist,
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