Light in a Storm
A Review of Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston
Valerie Boyd was born on December 11, 1963 in Atlanta. She founded “Eight Rock,” a journal of black arts and culture, and also co-founded “Health Quest,” the first nationally distributed magazine that that focuses on African American health. “Wrapped in Rainbows” was the first biography she wrote.
BY TIFFANY SUNG
Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston depicts not only Hurston’s writing career, but also her perceptions of life. Because of her feminist ideals, Hurston had always gotten into trouble as a child when she played together with boys—an action considered shameful in the 1930s. Having an interest in reading and listening to folk stories, Hurston, “…picked up glints and gleams out of what [she] heard and stored it away to turn it to [her] own uses.”1 All through her life, Hurston loved to attend school, despite struggles to pay her tuition. Hurston’s parents passed away when Hurston was at a young age, severely augmenting Hurston’s financial and spiritual needs. Counting only on her perseverance, her ambition, her love for literature, and her patrons, Hurston accomplished each mission and overrode all her obstacles. Looking deeply into the life of Zora Neale Hurston, Valerie Boyd shows that Hurston was not only a writer and an anthropologist, but also a strong and independent woman who struggled all her life to reach her dreams.
Valerie starts off the biography with Hurston’s dreams and her flickering relationship with her father, John. Because Hurston had an older sister, her father heaped all his love on her, and felt that Hurston was an extra burden in the family. Since John Hurston worked as a carpenter, he was rarely at home and always traveling to other cities for more job opportunities. This left Zora, her sister, and her brothers in the care of her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston. As a child, Zora did not feel any different from the white people of the town. As Hurston later pointed out, “…all clumps of people turn out to be individuals on close inspection.”2 Although there are different races of people with different skin colors who are segregated from each other, in Zora’s eyes, each person, whether white or black, is an equal individual, who pursue the same goal of bettering each of their lives. After her mother’s death, Zora moved away with her older brother, John Cornelius, and lived in Eatonville. Hoping for a chance to attend school, her dreams were dashed when she could not afford to pay for her tuition and books. Zora then left with her other brother, Bob, who promised her that he will help her attend school. However, Bob reneged on his promise, and Zora fled to Jacksonville. Around the 1930s, Zora vanished from recording history, which may symbolize, “…how removed from herself she must have felt at the time.”3 Without a stable family to stay with, and being unable to attend high school, Zora was lost in her world. Luckily, Zora was hired as a makeup and costume manager for a singer. “Ms. M”, as Zora called the singer. During the time that Zora spent with Ms. M, she matured and developed her self-esteem. However, when Ms. M married, she asked Zora to quit and to attend school—a life that Zora wanted since childhood.
There were still financial problems, since Ms. M did not pay Zora her full salary. Zora decided to work as a waitress. Attending Morgan High School, Zora met a supportive teacher, Dwight D.W. Holmes, who encouraged her to attend Howard University—a prestigious all-black university. While studying at Howard University, Hurston discovered her voice through poems and wrote about love. Hurston was forced to drop out early due to financial problems, and was rendered unable to attend university after her illness. Zora moved into the period of the Harlem Renaissance—a time of African American flourish of their culture. She met “negrotarians”—influential whites who supported the New Negro Movement. A few of the negrotarians who helped Hurston were Annie Nathan Meyer, Fannie Hurst, and Carl van Vechten. Meyer helped Zora into Barnard University and wrote letters to Fannie Hurst for funds. Fannie Hurst was Zora’s idol in that, “she knows exactly what goes with her white skin, black hair and sloe eyes, and she wears it.”4 Because Hurston emphasized her appearance, sometimes more than academics, she became very fond of Hurst and admired her beauty and intellect. During her time in school, Hurston became interested in anthropology as she was inspired by a German émigré, Franz Boas. A popular figure, W.E.B. Du Bois, thought it wise for whoever is conducting the Little Theatre to, “not use our own plays… [because] it is going to bring criticism.”5 He emphasized that blacks should start their own culture and not imitate whites. Hurston founded a magazine called Fire! that evoked African and modern sensibilities but did not sell well because readers felt it was too “original.” Hurston later received a fellowship to collect Negro folklore in Florida. Zora was cautious about traveling to Florida, since the South was known for its cruel treatment to African Americans, including lynching and rape. Hurston bravely went to Florida and finished her report.
Hurston soon met Charlotte Mason and named her Godmother, who wanted to create an opera with Hurston. Mason believed that Negroes should keep their primitivism and in mystical forces. Meyer sent Hurston on her second folklore gathering trip in New Orleans. Hurston learned about “hoodoo”—“…a set of beliefs and practices centering on an abiding conviction that human beings…can reliably call upon spiritual forcers to alter situations that seem…hopeless.”6 Her early stories, like Jonah’s Gourd Vine marked a difference between white and black people. Although 1934 was a hard year for artists and intellects, Hurston managed to save enough money for graduate school and attended Columbia University for a Ph.D. In 1935, Hurston wrote her second novel, Mules and Men—a book describing south folklore and “hoodoo.” Meeting Purter, they both fell in love, and Purter asked Hurston to give up her career, marry him, and leave New York. She refused to leave her career, but her love for Purter inspired her to write the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a protest novel battling against white oppression. Through the storyline of Their Eyes Were Watching God, marriage to Hurston was a, “…deadly proposition…[that] someone had to give up his or her life.”7
She was, yet again, hired for a research expedition by anthropologist Jane Bello and Margaret Mead. On this research expedition, Hurston learned to value individualism more than race pride. Hurston became involved in a program called Recreation in War, which entertained both black and white soldiers. During Truman’s presidency, blacks began stepping up their protests against segregationist policies. However, even with the protest, racism was still evident. Unfortunately for Hurston, she was one of the victims of such racism. Hurston was falsely accused and arrested for molesting a ten year old boy. Although Hurston denied it, the white policemen did not believe her and took her to trial. The conclusion of the trial was that the “molested boys” did not want their parents to know that they were having sex with each other, and they blamed it on Hurston. Later studies showed that the “molested boys” also blamed others, and just too coincidentally, they were all “Harlemites.” After the trial, Hurston wrote about a black woman, Ruby McCollum, who allowed Hurston to find, “…not only a responsive black audience for her work, [but] she also found her voice again.”8 Unfortunately, Hurston had a series of strokes, and she died on January 28, 1960. She may have died poor, but in the literary world, she died rich, having fulfilled so many of her dreams. Her legacy enlightened, inspired, and motivated so many black women in society.
Valerie Boyd not only tries to capture Zora Neale Hurston as an influential writer, but also captures Hurston as a strong and independent black woman who fights racism by treating black and whites equally. Boyd also portrays Hurston as a diligent woman, who, despite working hard, earned very little money. Yet Hurston’s work was not in vain. Hurston influenced many black women during the 1930s, when Hurston was at her peak. Boyd sees Hurston as an intellectual woman, who does not give up her dreams even when her own life is in danger. Boyd even notes that, “even as illness lingered at her doorstep, Zora refused to style herself as a victim and she exhibited no traces of self-pity.”9 Boyd views Hurston as a powerful and inspirational woman who revolutionized the culture of the black community during the 1930s. Hurston not only weakened black-white racism, but also altered the way people viewed women. Because Boyd was also a journalist, she had more opportunities to read works by Hurston. Also, Boyd, like Hurston, was also a black woman who, at the time, was suppressed by men and segregation, just like many other women. Because Valerie Boyd was a professional journalist, she was able to research and document Hurston’s life in accuracy and detail, but at the same time, she is able to entertain its readers. Also as an experienced journalist, Boyd was able to contact people who were related to Hurston and effectively interviewed each one. Combining reportage, story-line, and her own interpretations, a twenty-year experience as a journalist really helped her to create such a detailed and entertaining biography of Zora Neale Hurston.
Even the Washington Post calls the biography, “…gracefully written… [and] will most likely remain the definitive Hurston biography for many years to come.”10 As a child, Hurston was treated poorly by a stone-hearted father and a mother who died at a very young age. Hurston was an orphan because her father stopped supporting her soon after her mother’s death. Even still, Boyd tries to put optimism and light in the last decade of Hurston’s life. Although Hurston suffered from poor health and a lack of money, she still lived a very happy life. Valerie Boyd wrote the biography with such great detail that Washington Post claims that this biography, “…should help ensure that Zora Neale Hurston will never again be forgotten.”11 The San Francisco Gate newspaper also called this biography a, “…comprehensive and definitive assessment of Hurston’s personal struggles, her political leanings and her brilliant…career.”12 Over the past two decades, Hurston has become famous again. San Francisco Gate noted that Hurston would wander to a lot of places, but she would return again, and again, to Eatonville, Florida. Boyd was able to capture, “…vivid details [about] the hardscrabble years Hurston endured…”13 Because Boyd was an arts editor and book critic at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she was able revive interest in Zora Neale Hurston.
The biography piqued interest from the very beginning. Instead of starting with Hurston’s birth date or birth place, the biography began with Hurston’s materialistic possessions of her father’s house. Boyd then continues the biography with a flashback into the parents’ lives before giving birth to any children—showing the parents’ historiography. Strong from start to finish, Boyd ends the biography with Hurston’s death—but did not end the book. Boyd instead ends the book with a small eulogy of Hurston, that Hurston still lived a rich and happy life despite her financial and family issues because Hurston was always positive and always tried to reach for a higher education and career. And as Boyd added, “…Hurston’s death hardly matters.”14 However, the biography included many trivial details, such as writing a summary on each individual book that Hurston wrote. However interesting it may be to know the storyline of each of Hurston’s novels, it was definitely not a necessary part to Hurston’s biography.
Valerie Boyd feels that Hurston changed the culture of America in the 1930s. Not only did Hurston alleviatee segregation during the 1930s, Hurston also supported feminism. Before the 1930s, America was not as unified as it was said to be. Lynching and raping were very common punishments for blacks. Females, on the other hand, did not have any independence whatsoever. They were not allowed to own land, or attend school. Women were inferior, and black women were loathed doubly for their race and their gender. Black women essentially faced a double-tiered barrier. Although the 1930s really changed its view on segregation and female independence in that people began supporting the minorities, the policies then, and the policies now in the United States are very different. Today, females are allowed to vote and are guaranteed the same rights as men do. As Hurston declared, “…black writers should have the same freedom as white writers.”15 Furthermore, there is less racism in present society. The majority now accept that not everyone is the same, but that any segregation for any reason is wrong. Because of the Zora Neale Hurston, segregation in America was weakening.
Culturally, America consists of a more heartwarming black community. Not only did jazz and new types of music evolve during the Harlem Renaissance, influential writers such as Zora Neale Hurston also contributed to a 1930s cultural revival. Hurston’s went as far as to creating plays and a theater dedicated to the black culture. Hurston always knew the path she wanted to go as a writer, and she did so very well. As Hurston said herself, “I got a rainbow wrapped and tied around my shoulder.”16 Before the 1930s, it was ridiculous to even hear about a black theater. However, Hurston and her partner, Hughes, created a black theater to show the world their own culture and style. Also, prior to the 1930s, blacks were not proud that they were black. Instead, they wished to imitate the whites. However, during the 1930s, many blacks grew proud of their color and culture, and decided not to imitate the whites and instead, live their own lives. This is very much like the present day in that all the black communities do not try to imitate the white communities. In fact, they are proud of their unique culture, music, and accents. Also, there is less racism toward blacks in the present day. Because of the 1930s that started black movements, it inspired more and more people as the years progressed. If it were not for the 1930s, America would not be as non-segregated as it is today. The 1930s was an important period in that it started a black movement, full of different music, writing, and dancing—and even more importantly, being proud of their uniqueness.
Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston really allowed the readers to understand Hurston as a person, instead of just a writer. Boyd not only writes about the academic and career life of Hurston, but also includes her personal life. Even more importantly, Boyd allowed her readers to understand more about the 1930s—a time of growing black communities, new music, new food, and new writing. Boyd also portrayed Hurston as having much charisma, as she, “…possessed a quality that enabled her to walk into a roomful of strangers and…leave them so completely charmed…”17 Hurston not only is an influential writer who made a great impact in the 1930s, but also a strong and independent women—a true role model for all people.
1: Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. United States: Simon & Schuster Inc. , 2003. 39.
Born in Los Angeles, Tiffany Sung was soon taken to Taiwan in the care of my grandparents, and moved back to America when she was two years old. She learned to speak both Mandarin and English and can understand Taiwanese. Tiffany loves to learn about new cultures and languages.
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