In this reading project assigned by the CNF Journal i forgot that the selections were meant foremost to teach the reader how to be a better writer, which they certainly did. Another imperative was to “diversify the anthology,” and so i cant help but note the critical neglect of black women’s voices.
Let’s break it down: 3 white women, 4 black men, 3 white men. Somebody (not me) could put together a decadal canon of essays by black women in the last two centuries. Now the makeup of this all-black women canon would im guessing feature a lot of essays of a much more polemical nature than the CNF canon i read. The selection had a bias for pieces based on memoir and personal stories, perhaps because that’s where the $ is when it comes to the nonfiction market. Du Bois, James Baldwin and Richard Wright were represented by memoirs although if we included their political tracts as candidates, foundational texts for 20th century black radicalism and general anti-Capitalism as Robinson argued so effectively, it would bust the range of options so wide that i wouldn’t envy anyone who had to pick just one essay for one decade.
Maybe the angry and passionate writing from people like Ida B. Wells or bell hooks or Angela Davis would feel out-of-place along side the chosen pieces, which are very tempered in tone, sometimes as overt strategy like in MLK, Jr.’s “Letter.” But if black women bearing witness to their own life experiences, just as all the other authors in the canon are doing, comes off as “too political,” “too angry,” that isnt their problem.
Around the middle of this reading project i started bookmarking more pieces which might amount to my own attempt to expand the canon, beyond the established range of voices as well as the sub-genre of life writing. Part of the original web page’s project was to show that the essay is capable of reaching the same levels of sophistication and artistry as the other writing practices. This thrilling 1973 essay by Alice Walker, part memory and part literary journalism, shows that an essay can directly impact the literary culture.
Zora Neale Hurston was a seminal writer of the Harlem Renaissance. She was plucky and independent, refused to go along with the racial uplift program of black art prescribed by W.E.B. Du Bois, did anthropological work by collecting the folk tales of black USens, and her 1937 novel THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD is a literary classic, not only of Black or Women’s lit, but a classic full stop. It was assigned reading in high school, and its lyricism and structure left an impression that honestly has lasted longer than GATSBY or HEART OF DARKNESS.
But as i learned, this wasnt always the case.
THEIR EYES was poorly received, the rest of her work fell out of print, and ZNH died obscure in a welfare nursing home in 1960. She was buried, according to Robert Hemenway, “in an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery…a resting place generally symbolic of the black writer’s fate in America.”
13 years later, we meet Alice Walker in a plane that is landing in Orlando, passing low over Eatonville, which ZNH captured in her work. In first person present tense, we follow her and a white literature grad student as they track down Hurston’s grave site. On the pilgrimage Alice Walker interviews denizens of Eatonville for any information they remember about this author. She lies to them that she is Zora Neale’s niece to gain their trust.
As far as I’m concerned, she is my aunt — and that of all black people as well.
Walker’s prose is clear and engaging; the sections of the essay, first published in Ms. magazine, are headed by extended quotes from Robert Hemenway and brief quotes from college library scientists and ZNH herself. Alice Walker generously portrays the community she’s visiting, comparing it against its appearance in the story worlds ZNH created. Characters include the 82-year-old Mrs. Moseley; Rosalee, a very funny mortuary assistant in her 30s; and the kindly Dr. Benton, a good friend of ZNH, practicing in Fort Pierce when Walker meets him.
Eatonville is “a self-contained, all-black community,” and Walker touches on ZNH’s anti-integrationist stance with its current denizens.
Now perhaps it’s a little odd of me after bringing up the supposed fiery nature of US nonfiction by black women to focus on this piece, which is rather unassuming. It’s a mystery plot that is easily tied up; a “true story well told” as the CNF Journal’s motto goes.
But the final two paragraphs open up a heavy themes about giving voice to one’s emotions. It’s one of two times when Walker expresses a seething anger at the injustice of ZNH’s erasure.
There are times — and finding Zora Hurston’s grave was one of them — when normal responses of grief, horror, and so on do not make sense because they bear no real relation to the depth of the emotion one feels. It was impossible for me to cry when I saw the field full of weeds where Zora is.
[…] It is only later, when the pain is not so direct a threat to one’s own existence, that what was learned in that moment of comical lunacy is understood. Such moments rob us of both youth and vanity. But perhaps they are also times when greater disciplines are born.
There’s a trope of benign racism — “Oh, black women are so strong!” which white people indulge in to assure themselves that black women and WoC can endure the bullshit and exploitation that make them the “mule of the world.” The underside is that acting out emotionally is potentially ruinous for black women when no one has more reason to be pissed. White people, demons that they can be, will torture the black women in their professional situations with impunity for this reason. They will be fine, but if the Angry Black Woman image realizes itself it’s game over for her. This is documented (i know ive linked this before, apologies); i heard of similar things going down often in college. White folx, seeing black women under emotional stress, will wait in fiendish glee for the trope to emerge. No matter what their vocation, black people are entertainers for whites. Walker coined womanism in part due to these dynamics in second wave feminist organizations, in which black women were held to higher expectations than their white comrades and constantly tone-policed.
In my own lane it isn’t so harsh, but ive known that particular distress when, in a classroom setting, i couldnt honestly express to white students that they’re emotionally harming me with their micro-aggressions without enacting these pernicious stereotypes, “Oh there he [sic] goes, another PoC ultra-lefty hating on Whitey.” The worst part was when the professor, who was white, chose to protect the white students’ feelings by trying to equivocate rather than highlight how power was working in that moment.
Here Walker treats emotional pain with a fascinating ambiguity. The final sentence hints that finding ZNH’s grave is only a point of departure. Walker’s efforts and writing may have single-handedly revived Hurston’s reputation. Another great essay on ZNH by Zadie Smith, “What Does Soulful Mean?,” which i cant find online, traces the shift from THEIR EYES being passed down to her from her mother when the writer was still languishing in obscurity, to being placed on her revered pedestal, which she notes comes with its own problems, as when Janie becomes the trophy wife of Joe Starks.
The essay’s final epigraph comes from the author herself:
No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.
im choosing for the excerpt the scene in which Alice Walker approaches the alleged location of Zora’s grave, which proves to be a serious trial. And while Walker is angered and hurt by the insult to ZNH’s memory with how neglected the site is, her prose renders it in a way that’s thrilling, and really funny.
“Looking for Zora” by Alice Walker
We drive past blocks of small, pastel-colored houses and turn right onto Seventeenth Street. At the very end, we reach a tall curving gate, with the words “Garden of the Heavenly Rest” fading into the stone. I expected, from Mrs. Patterson’s small drawing, to find a small circle — which would have placed Zora’s grave five or ten paces from the road. But the “circle” is over an acre of large and looks more like an abandoned field. Tall weeds choke the dirt road and scrape against the sides of the car. It doesn’t help either that I step out into an active ant hill.
“I don’t know about y’all,” I say, “but I don’t even believe this.” I am used to the haphazard cemetery-keeping that is traditional in most Southern black communities, but this neglect is staggering. As far as I can see there is nothing but bushes and weeds, some as tall as my waist. One grave is near the road, and Charlotte elects to investigate it. It is fairly clean, and belongs to someone who died in 1963.
Rosalee and I plunge into the weeds; I pull my long dress up to my hips. The weeds scratch my knees, and the insects have a feast. Looking back, I see Charlotte standing resolutely near the road.
“Aren’t you coming?” I call.
“No,” she calls back. “I’m from these parts and I know what’s out there.” She means snakes.
“Shit,” I say, my whole life and the people I love flashing melodramatically before my eyes. Rosalee is a few yards to my right.
“How’re you going to find anything out here?” She asks. And I stand still a few seconds, looking at the weeds. Some of them are quite pretty, with tiny yellow flowers. They are thick and healthy, but dead weeds under them have formed a thick gray carpet on the ground. A snake could be lying six inches from my big toe and I wouldn’t see it. We move slowly, very slowly, our eyes alert, our legs trembly. It is hard to tell where the center of the circle is since the circle is not really round, but more like half of something round. There are things crackling and hissing in the grass. Sandspurs are sticking to the inside of my skirt. Sand and ants cover my feet. I look toward the road and notice that there are, indeed, two large curving stones, making an entrance and exit to the cemetery. I take my bearings from them and try to navigate to exact center. But the center of anything can be very large, and a grave is not a pinpoint. Finding the grave seems positively hopeless. There is only one thing to do:
“Zora!” I yell, as loud as I can (causing Rosalee to jump). “Are you out here?”
“If she is, I sho hope she don’t answer you. If she do, I’m gone.”
“Zora!” I call again. “I”m here. Are you?”
“If she is,” grumbles Rosalee, “I hope she’ll keep it to herself.”
“Zora!” Then I start fussing with her. “I hope you don’t think I’m going to stand out here all day, with these snakes watching me and these ants having a field day. In fact, I’m going to call you just one or two more times.” On a clump of dried grass, near a small bushy tree, my eye falls on one of the largest bugs I have ever seen. It is on its back, and is as large as three of my fingers. I walk toward it, and yell “Zo-ra!” and my foot sinks into a hole. I look down. I am standing in a sunken rectangle that is about six feet long and about three or four feet wide. I look up to see where the two gates are.
“Well,” I say, “this is the center, or approximately anyhow. It’s also the only sunken spot we’ve found. Doesn’t this look like a grave to you?”
“For the sake of not going no farther through these bushes,” Rosalee growls, “yes, it do.”