One of the most creatively formatted books I’ve read is Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The life of Zora Neale Hurston. This biography of Zora Neale Hurston is lush with details of her life journey through an expansive career that includes anthropological research of African-American culture and folklore; journalistic and novel writing; playwright and directorial work in the live theatre realm; and activism. She was a valuable contributor to Black History.

The aesthetic of the book draws the reader in, as if we’re seated in yesteryear, flipping through Zora’s memorabilia while a narrative track of her voice plays in our ear. (Inside the front cover is a CD of Zora singing African folk tunes and being interviewed.) A myriad of family and career photos grace the pages, along with inserted folders and pockets containing further gems for discovery—loose-leaf reproductions of playbills and reviews, correspondence, plus excerpts of handwritten drafts and published work.

And then there’s the compelling twists and turns of Zora Neale Hurston’s life. Hers is a story of an important but, until after death, underappreciated artist.

Zora’s father was a carpenter and her mother, a teacher. Instead of yielding to a life of sharecropping, they made their home among other like-minded African-Americans who formed their own village of which Zora’s father would one day be reverend and mayor. After her mother died, Zora struck out on her own, unable to reconcile her father’s remarriage to a young new wife. Zora was “hungry for books to read (and for) ideas to explore.” She was later considered “unconventional”. Unlike women of her day, she lived alone and travelled solo. She also smoked and dressed in male attire, often sporting pants and neckties. “She thought and acted like a feminist, before the term was coined.”

“Unique and resourceful” is how Zora’s niece describes her. After a few failed job attempts, Zora joined a Gilbert and Sullivan theatre troupe. The experience whetted her appetite for opera and formal education. At twenty-six years of age, she enrolled in night classes at an academy known today as Morgan State University. She convinced a teacher to sponsor her and enrolled, near penniless, in the fall. She befriended two women with connections to the president of Howard University who encouraged her application there. She was accepted, and after two years of study at Morgan University, she began classes at Howard University.

Her writing gained the interest of an important New York City magazine through which she won a writing contest. Among the contest judges was a novelist who granted her a full scholarship to attend Barnard, Columbia University’s women’s college in New York City. Zora took her place in the Harlem Renaissance and, along with a group of other young black artists, launched a quarterly magazine called Fire. The publication reflected their frustration over society’s silencing of their “voices and worldviews”.

During her time at Barnard, Zora was mentored by a renowned anthropologist and through her own research, went on to become an expert on African-American folklore. In 1927, she interviewed “the sole survivor of the last known ship to bring African slaves to America in 1859.” In 1935, she published Mules and Men, an accumulated autoethnography of African-American folklore. She received fellowships including one from the Guggenheim and also collected folk music for the Library of Congress.

For Zora the music, dance, and drama of “theatre became a vehicle to expose the public to the richness of African-American folk culture”. She was the first African-American hired by Paramount Picture Film Studios in the role of storyteller. She also coached drama for the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration in New York City along with Orsen Wells and other up and coming talents.

Zora Neale Hurston’s life and contributions are too expansive to be captured here. This book , Speak, So You Can Speak Again, is a lovely place to begin if you’d like to learn more about her.

Please enjoy this piece, filmed by Zora Neale Hurston in1928. (She narrates and sings throughout.)

Partial Reading List:

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”
  • Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Stories from the Harlem Renaissance
  • Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica
  • Jonah’s Gourd Vine
  • Mules and Men
  • “Sweat”
  • How it Feels to Be Colored Me
  • Dust Tracks on a Road
  • Click here for purchase links to these and other titles.

If you enjoyed this Black History Month tribute, you may also be interested to read about Canada’s Viola Desmond.

 (PS Thanks for stopping by. Click here to join my bimonthly newsletter and receive a free excerpt of my novel, The Last Hoffman.)