Pearlie Peters

Alice Walker

Sharpening the Oyster Knife

Corrections or additions?

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

dissertation

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,

"Their

Eyes Were Watching God," appeared in 1937, has a spoken text

written

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

assertive

female characters, her emphasis on verbal performance and verbal

empowerment,

the significance of "down home" Southern humor, and her

ideology

of assertive individualism.

Top Of Page
Pearlie Peters

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

Congress

where six unpublished typescripts of Hurston plays were recently

unearthed

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

girls?,"

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

Marthasville,

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.

"Certain

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

recalled

the days just after slavery.

"You hear most black movie stars say that `I got my singing

ability

in the black church,’" she continues, with a mischievous

expression

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

oratory.

In fact our church had its own poet." Peters’ adult siblings

include

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.

Top Of Page
Alice Walker

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

instrumental

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,

Walker

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

knowledge

she enjoyed," writes Walker. "That they could be racially

or culturally inferior to whites never seems to have crossed her

mind."

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

article,

"Looking for Zora," published in Ms. Magazine.

Today Peters remembers the article well. She was studying at the

University

of Buffalo and she even remembers what the 1975 issue of Ms. looked

like.

"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.’,"

Peters

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.

"The

1970s was the age of liberation," she says. "We had Women’s

Liberation, we were on the heels of the `Black is Beautiful’

liberation.

It was in that context that I began to look at Hurston’s women

characters.

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

we are.

"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

dissertation."

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."

Top Of Page
Sharpening the Oyster Knife

Peter’s dedication at the front of her book includes a message to

Hurston, "wherever she may be lurking and sharpening her own

oyster

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

intelligentsia,

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

professional

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

laughing,

shucking, and jiving at the Man. He was totally against her

characters."

"Hurston’s black characters were laid-back characters, gifted

artistically, either with their music or their diverse speech

patterns.

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

saying

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

accomplish

your goals.

"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

charges

were later dropped, the scandal finally silenced Hurston. She

retreated

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

Pierce, Florida.

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

listen

to and share your story?"

— Nicole Plett

Pearlie Peters on Zora Neale Hurston, Rider University

Multicultural Center , 609-895-5781. Free. Tuesday, February

23, 7 p.m.


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