I LOVE MYSELF . . . reminds us that Zora Neale Hurston insisted on being nobody but herself . In 1926 she wrote: "But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes . . . . I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are hurt about it." Moreover, "at certain times I have no race, I am me . When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance . . . The cosmic Zora emerges. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads."
The "cosmic Zora" puzzled some of her black literary colleagues of the '20s, "when the Negro was in vogue," who wondered if she were not posing for white patrons. To the "young turks" of the '30s and 40s -- including Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison -- Hurston seemed too willing to dulcify in her fiction, the stark reality of American prejudice and violence. In 1941 Ellison wrote that Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God suffered because of its pastoral vision of "an all-Negro town into which the casual brutalities of the South seldom intrude." By the '50s, Hurston's politics causded most black readers to put her down altogether. A conservative Republican, for Taft in 1952, against the desegregation of schools in 1954, Hurston seemed to have become a hopeless mossback. It was generally misunderstood that she felt the landmark court-order implied the inferiority of Sourther blacks and their schools. How could we be sure, Hurston wondered, that when white children took seats next to black children, the quality of the latter's schooling would not decline ? "I was born in a Negro town," she wrote. "I do not mean by that the black backside of an average town . . . . charter, mayor, council, town marshall and all" were black.
"Black aesthetic" writers of the '60s felt Hurston's influence. For at the same moment when Don L. Lee and Leroi Jones, following Richard Wright's lead, called for strident black statements, other writers traced the path laid by Hurston, Ellison, Sterling Brown, Charles Chesnutt, and the makers of spirituals of the blues. Drawing on black speech, folklore (Hurston called it "crayon enlargements of life") and rituals, Ishmael Reed, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ernest Gaines, Shirley Anne Williams, Al Young and others were taking up the gauntlet left by Hurston. Medicine Man in Hurston's Tell My Horse (1938) could, with a gesture, cease the symphony of a million frogs' singing in a Mamaican forest; this conjurer possessed black power unheard of by Wright's Bigger Thomas or Jake Jackson.
Alice Walker and Mary Helen Washington lay further claim to Hurston as a forerunner of black feminist writing. "What ," they ask, "Did it mean for a Black woman to be an artist in our grandmother's time? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood ." Yet Hurston perservered. And her heroines generally perservered, refusing to make the grim truce with reality usually effected by the museum-piece women of most American writing. Rather than reconciling themselves, through retionalization or religion, to wedlock without love or to child-rearing without the choice of another career, her women are often as bold and demanding of life as was Zora herself. Instead of growing old and resigned to a tintype role, Hurston's Janie (Their Eyes Were Watching God , 1937), forced as a teenager to follow her grandmother's ancient marital codes, starts out "old" and grows younger. After three marriages (the last one gloriously happy), a friend tells Janie: "You looks like yo' own daughter." This magnificent novel is a study of American love and marriage; and it is a novel of self-discovery. Life, says Janie: "You got tuh go there tuh know there."
Hurston has been in and out of favor with publishers, readers, politicans, other artists. "Writers," says Ishmael Reed, "just won't behave." Rather than behave, Hurston wrote with precision and verve about life as she saw it. Janie considered the collapse of her marriage to Jody: "So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands, whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again."
Of the 14 Hurston pieces in I Love Myself . . . eight are complete; six are excerpt culled from Hurston's books with the love and attention to narrative shape that one would expect from Hurston's brilliant "granddaughter," the poet and novelist Alice Walker. These excerpts seem complete in themselves, and one hopes they will lead readers to locate the whole works. Hurston's famous ebullience and quirkiness aside, her writing lasts because it is technically excellent and bursting with life. This is a well-made collection of her work, 1926-1942, comprised of her fiction, autobiography, folklore, essays, reportage. It should give momentum to the rediscovery of Hurston as "the intellectual and spiritual foremother of a generation of black women writers."
"I love myself," wrote Hurston to Carl Van Vechten about some photos he'd taken of her, "when I am laughing . . . and then again when I'm looking mean and impressive." This book features Zora of the unpredictable politics and personality. But what counts is that her writing is so potent, so full of real experience, that it is still fresh and moving, decades later. We finish the book loving Zora when she's laughing, for we laugh with her, and loving her especially when she's looking mean and so very impressive.