I love the Harlem Renaissance. I even like the way those words sound. Harlem Renaissance. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines this period as “a blossoming (c. 1918–37) of African American culture, particularly in the creative arts, and the most influential movement in African American literary history. Embracing literary, musical, theatrical, and visual arts, participants sought to reconceptualize “the Negro” apart from the white stereotypes that had influenced black peoples’ relationship to their heritage and to each other.”
Of course when I think of this time, writers like Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and my favorite poet, Langston Hughes automatically come to mind. But you know who I really appreciate and feel a kindred spirit to? Zora Neale Hurston. First, let me spell out the facts: she was born in 1891 when black folks did not have too many rights or freedoms and basically were treated like second-class citizens. Additionally, Ms. Hurston was a double minority – black and a woman. But despite it all, soon after her mother died, at the age of 16, she joined a theatrical company which took her away from her Florida home, and consequently, landed her in New York during the Harlem Renaissance.
She attended Howard University initially but switched to Barnard College after winning a scholarship. After graduating from Barnard she continued her graduate studies at Columbia University. And being keenly interested in anthropology, it’s no wonder that many of her works captured what she knew firsthand – the ways of black folks. She wrote plays, novels, short stories and even an autobiography – most of which were well-received. Whew! I often wonder where people get the strength to do what they do when they do it.
My favorite book by Ms. Hurston would have to be Their Eyes Were Watching God. I am still struck by the slow and sad, soft and romantic way this book pulls you into the story of Janie Crawford. Authors like her helped me find my voice. It makes me ever so grateful and ever so determined.
So thank you, Ms. Hurston.