& when we woke,
dear reader, we’d landed in a city of 100 old women
telling their daughters things. & when we turned
to walk away, because we did not think we were citizens
of this strange & holy place, you & I, the hundred old
women said, No! No! You are one of us! We are your
mothers! You! You! Too! Come & listen to our secrets.
We are telling every person with a face!
—Aracelis Girmay, ‘& When We Woke’
After a rather long career built upon literature and anthropology, invention and evidence, praise and critique, attention and neglect, Zora Neale Hurston not so much died as she did vanish, slowly but surely, sometime starting around the year 1959. That was when Hurston, ‘suffering from the effects of a stroke and writing painfully in longhand, composed a letter to the “editorial department” of Harper & Brothers inquiring if they would be interested in seeing [the book she had been writing].’
Hurston biographer Robert Hemenway, in his essay ‘Zora Neale Hurston and the Eatonville Anthropology’, continues by pointing out the ‘personal tragedy of Zora Neale Hurston: Barnard graduate, author of four novels, two books of folklore, one volume of autobiography, the most important collector of Afro-American folklore in America, reduced by poverty and circumstance to seek a publisher by unsolicited mail.’ Hurston died a little more than a year after penning the letter, never finishing the book she had been working on, but the writer’s personal tragedy continued for much longer after her own life ended. Up until 1973, thirteen years after her death, Hurston’s body lay in an unmarked grave somewhere in Fort Pierce, Florida.
It was that year that Alice Walker, then just 29 years old and still nine more years away from publishing The Color Purple, set out to Fort Pierce to find the too-long lost Zora. The search, chronicled in Walker’s 1975 essay ‘Looking for Zora,’ seemed by no means an easy one. Walker feels it necessary to assume the fictional role of Hurston’s niece in order to get her questions answered by the townspeople. At a certain point throughout the essay, becomes a fib she no longer finds difficult to pass.
‘By this time,’ Walker says, ‘I am, of course, completely into being Zora’s niece, and the lie comes with perfect naturalness to my lips. Besides, as far as I’m concerned, she is my aunt—and that of all black people as well.’
And it is this acceptance, this adoption of sorts, that leads Walker to the unmarked grave of her aunt, almost completely obscured by vines and weeds, without a single clue that anyone of importance, let alone one of the key figures in African American literature, was buried there.
It wasn’t just the grave, either. On 1734 School Court Street in Fort Pierce stood the last house in which Hurston lived. During her visit, Walker encounters neighbours who’ve never heard of the writer. Before she left Florida, Walker went to the Merritt Monument Company and bought a headstone for her aunt. Walker’s action, as well as her search, still seems much more than her giving a writer who was a great personal influence her due. Among many things it also seems to be an action for the purpose of kinship—siblinghood, writerhood, womanhood—that must be identified in order to be honoured, even if it must be sought out with effort.
The headstone Alice Walker bought for Zora Neale Hurston still stands, and it reads:
ZORA NEALE HURSTON
‘A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH’
1901 – – – 1960