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Zora Neale Hurston Revisited
This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
February 17, 1999. All rights reserved.
At Rider University’s Multicultural Center, Zora Neale
Hurston books, pamphlets, and posters are stacked in the outer office
on every available surface. The items are about to be installed in
the center’s Black History Month display. But for Pearlie Peters,
a member of Rider’s English faculty since 1990, one slender, gray
library-bound volume holds singular significance.
The book in question "The Assertive Woman in Zora Neale Hurston’s
Fiction, Folklore, and Drama," published by Garland last December,
is Peters’ first work between hard covers. The 12-chapter scholarly
volume was developed from just one chapter of Peter’s 600-page
on Hurston’s oeuvre in the context of her life experience.
Novelist, playwright, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, was heir
to a millennia-old Black oral tradition. Her most famous novel,
Eyes Were Watching God," appeared in 1937, has a spoken text
in Southern black vernacular and is a lyrical, sensuous tale of Janie
Crawford’s life journey, from two unhappy marriages into the light
of her love for the carefree roustabout, Tea Cake.
As part of Rider’s Black History Month celebration, Peters leads a
workshop on Zora Neale Hurston on Tuesday, February 23, at 7 p.m.,
in the Multicultural Center of the Student Center. The workshop is
designed to encourage students "to pay attention to their own
oral traditions before they become extinct," says Peters. The
presentation will include a Ruby Dee recording of some of Hurston’s
folk tales, and will try to connect the oral tradition of Hurston’s
era with contemporary students’ experience of rap and hip-hop.
"The Assertive Woman in Zora Neale Hurston’s Fiction, Folklore,
and Drama" is a close reading of 10 fictional women as they appear
in her novels, folklore studies, and plays. Born in 1891 and raised
in the all-Black town of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston comfortably
straddled the Black folk vernacular and the written expression of
academia. Peters traces the development of Hurston’s array of
female characters, her emphasis on verbal performance and verbal
the significance of "down home" Southern humor, and her
of assertive individualism.
Peters’ years of research on Hurston, dating back to the moment of
her re-emergence in the late 1960s, include manuscript collections
at Yale, at the University of Florida at Gainsville, the Schomburg
Collection of the New York Public Library, and at the Library of
where six unpublished typescripts of Hurston plays were recently
by the manuscript division.
A woman with a dark, glowing demeanor and warm disposition, Peters
grew up in urban Shreveport, Louisiana, then the industrial hub of
northern Louisiana (now better known as its gambling casino capital).
She earned her B.A. in 1969 in English and drama at Grambling State
University, a segregated Louisiana land-grant college, and from there
she went directly to graduate school at the University of Buffalo
where she earned her doctorate.
Peters’ parents were Boley and Charlesetta Fisher and she was one
of eight children. "Would you believe four boys and four
says Peters, a glow of pleasure suffusing her face and voice as the
topic turns to family history.
Her father was raised on a peanut farm, on the family’s land in
a little country town outside Shreveport. He was the first generation
of his family to move to Shreveport.
"My father would always tell me that his father would, during
the night, have what they would call a little storytelling tradition,
where Poppa would amuse the children with various stories about Brer
Rabbit, Brer Fox, and stories about family history," says Peters.
"There was always a series of stories told about the alligator
in the pond that belonged to Poppa. Poppa didn’t like the alligator,
but still he didn’t want anyone to kill it. That story was sort of
like a historical family heirloom that always circulated."
Charlesetta Fisher was a nurse, and Boley Fisher worked for years
as a launderer before starting a cab business." As director of
the Green Cab company, Peters says her father was very popular.
elderly women would specifically call the company and say, `I need
a cab and it has to be Brother Fisher, I don’t want anyone else,’"
says Peters. Her father was also a prominent deacon in the Evergreen
Baptist Church. Her extended family included an Aunt Matty, who
the days just after slavery.
"You hear most black movie stars say that `I got my singing
in the black church,’" she continues, with a mischievous
on her face. "Well, I got my oratory ability in the black church.
We not only sang at the church, we had an opportunity to use our
In fact our church had its own poet." Peters’ adult siblings
a nurse, an educator, a riverboat casino hostess, a brother who works
for AT&T, another for Chrysler, and one with his own trucking company.
Once known as "one of the most significant unread
authors in America," Zora Neale Hurston’s work was all but lost
to American readers of the 1960s. Novelist Alice Walker was
in bringing Hurston back into public view. Introduced to Hurston’s
book on folklore and voodoo, "Mules and Men," one of two books
on folklore and folk tales that Hurston collected in Eatonville,
was delighted to find a reliable source of black folk wisdom. Walker
writes that Hurston celebrated black Americans as "descendants
of an inventive, joyous, courageous, and outrageous people; loving
drama, appreciating wit, and, most of all, relishing the pleasure
of each other’s loquacious and bodacious company."
"That black people can be on occasion peculiar and comic was
she enjoyed," writes Walker. "That they could be racially
or culturally inferior to whites never seems to have crossed her
As a scholarship student at Barnard College, Hurston became a student
of the trailblazing American anthropologist Franz Boas. She wrote
two books on folklore, four novels, a 1942 autobiography, "Dust
Tracks on a Road," and numerous articles. In 1977 Robert Hemenway
published the first literary biography of Hurston.
By the early 1970s, however, all Hurston’s novels were out of print,
including "Their Eyes Were Watching God," deemed by Walker
the most important book in her library. Walker led a mostly women’s
fight for Hurston and made it her personal mission to return her work
to the reading public, an effort that culminated with her 1975
"Looking for Zora," published in Ms. Magazine.
Today Peters remembers the article well. She was studying at the
of Buffalo and she even remembers what the 1975 issue of Ms. looked
"As a matter of fact, I had begun researching Zora Neale Hurston,
and one of my professors called me on the phone and said, `Pearlie,
Pearlie, you have to get hold of a publication called Ms.’,"
recalls. "And I said, but professor I don’t know anything about
Ms. magazine. And he said, go to the bookstore, on the cover of this
particular issue there’s a baby with red shoes sitting on top of a
typewriter — he’s in his mother’s office. Buy a couple of copies
of that Ms. Magazine.’ So I did."
She was not disappointed. "I was impressed with what Walker had
done. She was the first one to put Zora Neale Hurston’s last years
in perspective," says Peters.
Peters’ work on Hurston was an integral part of her own journey.
1970s was the age of liberation," she says. "We had Women’s
Liberation, we were on the heels of the `Black is Beautiful’
It was in that context that I began to look at Hurston’s women
I began thinking about Rosa Parks, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm,
Fannie Lou Hamer. When you look at it, it is black women who have
had a profound influence on black history and the advancement of the
race. It’s largely their assertive voice that has gotten us where
"And then when I began to read Hurston’s `Their Eyes Were Watching
God,’ Janie just set me ablaze. I said, `This woman is assertive.
She’s going to speak her mind no matter what.’ And that led to my
Peters is no longer the retiring person she once was. "Coming
out of a Southern environment, I would hold my feelings back. But
gradually as I matured, I saw the value of letting the other person
know what my views are. But I still do it in a humble way.
"Only in coming north have I seen the need to be aggressive. Down
South it’s laid back. You can take a folk tale and insult a person
through a laughing game. Up here you have to be direct."
Peter’s dedication at the front of her book includes a message to
Hurston, "wherever she may be lurking and sharpening her own
knife without fear and tears in the cosmos." Hurston’s oyster
knife has become an effective metaphor for this writer’s life’s work.
In one of Hurston’s signature statements of her unorthodox racial
politics that appeared in the 1928 article, "How It Feels To Be
Colored Me," and quoted by Walker in her landmark Ms. Magazine
article, she wrote:
"I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed
up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I
do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature
somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are
all hurt about it… No, I do not weep at the world — I am too
busy sharpening my oyster knife."
"Hurston was a mischievous verbal imp who gloated mirthfully at
the fury she generated amongst her critics and colleagues," says
Peters. Hurston’s unorthodox views on race, integration, marriage,
politics and voting rights were wide published and were a constant
source of annoyance to her critics among Harlem’s black
including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. This opposition among
black male authors contributed to her subsequent disappearance from
the literary scene. Peters says Hurston came to feel that her
nemeses were out to block Hurston whatever the cost.
Her conservative political stance cast her as a pariah among black
thinkers. And the literary feud with Langston Hughes about their joint
authorship of the 1930 play "Mule Bone" only made matters
worse. Peters recounts how Richard Wright condemned `Their Eyes Were
Watching God’ for representing "old stereotypes of blacks
shucking, and jiving at the Man. He was totally against her
"Hurston’s black characters were laid-back characters, gifted
artistically, either with their music or their diverse speech
She considered these people to be the great creative geniuses that
existed in African-American culture," says Peters. "Hurston
said that it is through the oral tradition that the African-American
has given America its greatest gift."
In the context of the attacks against her, the oyster
knife metaphor is a key to Hurston’s mission. "I think she’s
that she will not get mired in criticism, in social causes that are
not constructive. But what she will do, she will be busy, figuratively
speaking, digging up those jewels of African-American culture, for
preservation. The pearl is the culture, the essence, the finest of
what she’s going after," says Peters.
Peters says Hurston’s mother told her daughter, "`Never be the
tail of anything, always be the bell cow’ — that is, the cow that
leads. In Eatonville they also used the expression, `Jump at the sun,’
meaning be as aggressive and competitive as you can in order to
"Yet even when she set her feet on the Harlem scene she was not
like them," says Peters. "And not only her art made her a
subject of criticism. It was her personality, she was so colorful.
She wore exotic jewelry, exotic hats, she told Zora stories, she was
down to earth — she was simply herself, Zora — but brilliant
at the same time."
The dislike of Hurston in the 1920s and ’30s, compounded with a 1948
sex case, says Peters, "really turned a lot of black scholars
off." Hurston found herself at war with a neighbor who brought
charges of sexual abuse of her sons, charges that, though unfounded,
were bruited about in influential black newspapers. Although the
were later dropped, the scandal finally silenced Hurston. She
to the South where she disappeared into poverty until her death in
1960. When Alice Walker went "Looking For Zora," she found
Hurston buried in an unmarked grave in a field full of weeds in Fort
Hurston remains a key to the continuity of the black oral tradition,
a tradition replete with its own cultural value system. "To be
a person of courage and substance, is to talk effectively, to orally
project a positive sense of self and well-being," says Peters.
"In `Our Eyes Were Watching God,’ Janie says, `I speak my words
in my friend’s mouth. We are kissing friends,’" she continues.
"It’s an expression that means we are so close that I share my
story. Listening is important. And stories are a way of bonding and
of uniting friends. What better friend is there than one who can
to and share your story?"
— Nicole Plett
Multicultural Center , 609-895-5781. Free. Tuesday, February
23, 7 p.m.
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