In September of last year, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet editor and scholar, Deborah Plant, whose work and dedication to the writings of Zora Neal Hurston is an example of how we can commit ourselves to writing and use it as a tool to uplift our community.
The first time I read Hurston’s work, I was in college. I was going through different works by American writers and Hurston was on my list. Her name did not grace any of my professors’ syllabi so while I would have liked reading her work with others, I read it alone.
Attending the book events in Brooklyn finally enabled me to listen to an open conversation about an author whose work I’ve enjoyed.
As I sat listening, I begin to list reasons why I enjoyed this Renaissance writer:
- She was in search of herself and looked for self, in others.
- She saw the importance of stories within the community
- She appreciated the little that people had, and saw a lot in that…
Plant began by a moment of silence. Welcoming the ancestors’ energy into the room, which surprised me. I guess the more I attend events such as this one, I would not be surprised by libations.
She then began to read an excerpt from Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Listening to Plant reading Hurston’s writing so effortlessly would make someone think, it is an easy reading. But I found out how hard it was after purchasing the book and going to another event where acclaimed authors read her work and stumbled over her writing.
I sat absolutely still while listening. I had a fear that a minor shuffle would cause me to miss one word which would mean missing a ton of information. She began…
It was summer when I went to talk with Cudjo so his door was standing wide open…
…Captin Tim you brought us from our county where we had land, you made us slave now they make us free but we ain’t got no country and we ain’t got no land, why don’t you give us piece of this land so we can build ourselves a house?…
…we call our village African town…we want to go back in African soil and we see we can’t go....my folks sell me and your folks, American folks buy me. We here and we gotta stay…
After the reading, the auditorium was very still. No one moved a bone. Then, Dr. Brenda M. Greene, the director of Black literature and chair of the English Department at Medgar Evers College, started the discussion with the following proverb.
A person doesn’t die until the living stop telling their stories.
I learned that the thoughts I had from time to time about being black in America were thoughts that were okay to have and okay to speak about. More importantly, I should engage in conversation about these types thoughts more often.
You see, asking myself where I belong or wondering about my family tree are thoughts we all have. None of them are disconnected from the thoughts of our ancestors. The only difference is our ancestors had to fight an even greater fight. They were up against a society that told them they were cargo and not human. This is the society in which Hurston fought against and wrote for. As Plant said,
… When it [came] to the humanity of a people, [telling our stories were] so important… when she…[ became] an anthropologist; African Americans, people of Color, were not considered fully human! If human at all! She [was] an anthropologist at the beginning of the field of anthropology…
She [was] at the beginning of things. During that time…the so-called social scientist and anthropologist ….had this attitude about people of color, certainly black people that not only were we a vanishing species… but when it comes to the human pyramid [we] were at the bottom and not quite human…the history of our experiences on the continent of Africa…tells you what exactly people thought about us.
…all of the doctrines that supported that…this is what they were teaching…this was in the newspapers. We were monkeys…we were considered not what we were…everything that Hurston did was a contradiction those lies. Everything that she did was a contradiction to something called white supremacy…
Everything she did.
Rather than just outright [deny] the lies of white supremacy, what she did was present a positive response…let me show you what we are, let me show you our humanity, let me show you our language…let me show you our community…let me show you not only our stories about what has happened to us but also those tales of laughter because yes…it is how we actually get through these kinds of things.
As the discussion continued, what it meant to be considered an activist, a renaissance writer and how to allow ourselves to weep when feeling the longing for something called home dominated the discussion.
Plant explained it this way:
As human beings, two of the most important questions we ask ourselves… [are] who am I? and where do I belong? …When you’ve been deracinated…from everything that you know…not just your mother, [but] your mother tongue and your motherland; and you can never ever have that again, [you ask yourself] who am I after that? [and] where can I ever belong, after that?…[Barracoon] allow us to see our own wound. Just like [the main character] hasn’t healed from it, we haven’t either. We are still asking ourselves the same questions. In America, where do I belong, if not in my own apartment?
So, this is why it touches us so deeply because we are still asking the same questions…the fact that [Hurston] allowed [the main character] this space [to weep] speaks to her own humanity … and tells us we need to do the same for ourselves. When do we give ourselves time to weep? To grieve? To mourn? When do we even acknowledge, I really don’t feel good?
It was at the point that I began to cry. I had never heard someone put into words this personal feeling that I felt but never spoke about. I looked around the room and could see black older men and women shaking their heads.
As the conversation continued, I had a flashback about the time I was in fifth grade and found out that I wasn’t American even though I had been taught the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangle Banner in Kindergarten.
You not American! My white science teacher told me.
I looked at him with a quizzical face and stood my ground, Yes, I am. I was born here. Right in the Bronx!
I was surprised when my best friend, Tina, who was from the Dominican Republic and the the boy I had the biggest crush on, Edwin, laughed with the rest of the class.
My teacher laughed as well. Then pointed to the next person who said he was from Jamaica. I didn’t know why I couldn’t call myself simply American if I was born in America but someone who was born in Jamaica was allowed to say Jamaican. I felt hurt and pain and so confused. I forced myself not to cry because it was vital to pay attention so I could find out who I was. But Mr. Will never got back to me.
This was part of the beginning of my search. And, the flashback ended with the deaths in my family. Once again, the questions unanswered.
Hurston was committed to capturing the plight of the impoverished and rural African Americans and in essence help to keep alive what a lot of us ran away from. We know of the Harlem Renaissance stories that spoke about our people leaving the south during the great migration but she went back to the south to preserve what those who didn’t leave, had. In revisiting, preserving and reminding us that no matter how far we go or have come we still must allow ourselves space to weep.