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Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston

March 30, 2003 // 11:00pm

Author Valerie Boyd, Arts Editor and Book Critic, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and E. Ethelbert Miller, Professor and Director of the African-American Research Center at Howard University, Chair of the Humanities Council of D.C.

Zora Neale Hurston, writer and folklore collector (1891-1960), was the author of novels, essays, and plays such as Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mules and Men, as well as the autobiographical Dust Tracks on a Road. On March 31, Valerie Boyd, author of the most recent biography of Hurston, and Professor E. Ethelbert Miller, the widely published poet, discussed the life and career of this important figure in American literature.

Boyd first became familiar with Hurston when she read Their Eyes Were Watching God as a freshman in college. The book was so moving, she recalled, that she became a "Zoraphile," reading all of the author's work and attending the annual Hurston festivals in Eatonville, Florida, where Hurston was born. It was at one such festival in 1994 that Boyd heard a speech by Robert Hemenway, then Hurston's only biographer. Hemenway discussed his limitations as a white man writing about Hurston, and said he believed it was time for a new biography of the under-appreciated African-American author – one written by a black woman. Boyd said she immediately realized the challenge as her "calling."

The writing of Wrapped in Rainbows was both an academic and a spiritual endeavor. Boyd spent several years following the traditional path of researching manuscripts and letters, but she also visited Hurston's grave and decided to write the bulk of the book in Florida, where Hurston spent her childhood. "I felt Zora's presence there," she explained; "I felt the muse in me." Boyd immersed herself in Hurston's language, and as a result, she believes that Hurston's voice shows through in her own book. "I felt the biggest mistake would be to write a boring book about Zora Neale Hurston," Boyd noted, "since she was anything but boring." A "leading light" of the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of black arts and culture in the 1920s, Hurston was a master storyteller and close friend of poet Langston Hughes. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, she toured the South, collecting folklore that eventually became material for her fiction. After the scandal resulting from a false charge of child abuse soiled her reputation in the late 1940s, Hurston moved back to Florida and the poorly paid pick-up jobs that she was forced to resort to throughout her life. "Zora lived and died with fierce independence," Boyd said.

E. Ethelbert Miller discussed the importance of Boyd's biography, saying that the volume unwrapped many of the mysteries surrounding Hurston, "separating tale from folktale." He called Boyd's tone in the book both mystical and sensual and commented that it proved Hemenway's assertion that a black woman would make a particularly effective biographer of Hurston. He noted that Wrapped in Rainbows was indicative of a new trend in African-American literary criticism: the field is being shaped largely by African-American women, with the critics' careers running parallel to the rising prominence of contemporary black female authors.


Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129

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