Zora! A Woman and Her Community, compiled and edited by N.Y. Nathiri (she/her), was published in 1990, one year after the first ever Zora Neale Hurston Festival. According to Nathiri, planning the festival took eighteen months, and famous folks like Alice Walker and Robert E. Hemenway were present. About 10,000 people showed up to Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida, which has a population of around 2,500 today. I kept thinking of logistical issues, like bathrooms, hotels, and restaurants to support such a bit event in a small town. Nathiri’s book, Zora!, functions like a reference guide to Eatonville and the Zora Festival.
Nathiri isn’t just an author and editor; she’s the Executive Director of the Preserve Eatonville Community and a lifelong resident of Eatonville. Beginning with her youth, Nathiri describes what it was like to play, socialize, and attend school in Eatonville. Members of her family were friends, sometimes casually, with Hurston. Casual friendship makes sense, as Hurston was a traveling person, which her nieces and nephews recall, stating that Hurston would get it into her head to go to New York City and three days later be gone.
Nathiri was the one who organized a reunion of Hurston’s living relatives for the 1990 publication of Zora! They came from all over the country, and many hadn’t met before. Each had memories that contradicted some of the harsh sentiments people suggest Hurston had about her family, and which I’d assumed myself. For instance, her nieces and nephews often lived with her for a time, and spoiled them, too, rather than having no connection with family.
Because Hurston never had children, readers might assume that her traveling feet were a symptom of wanting to be adventurous and with other adults. Not true. One white friend in Fort Pierce remembers Hurston would show up to a dinner party with all other guests white, take all the leftovers, leave, and give them to neighborhood children while telling them to be proud that they are black. I admit at first I wondered what Nathiri would have to offer in her large, glossy-paged book that I hadn’t gotten from Hurston’s work or Hemenway’s biography, but that connection to the residents of Eatonville added a clearer picture of Hurston the person, not Hurston the writer or Hurston as a sort of legend.
Rather that focusing on Hurston’s books, Nathiri writes about where Zora was. In a way, this is a book about place. In 1952, after a period out of the spotlight, Hurston began writing for a black-owned newspaper, and she covered a murder trial during which the black woman accused was deemed guilty by an all-white jury. This is information that is not emphasized about Hurston, so my reading experience was filled with surprises.
Even Hurston’s death story was new to me. I assumed she died poor in the care of the state and was thrown in an unmarked grave. Instead, one of Hurston’s friends wrote an article about Hurston’s passing, and money was raised to have a funeral and bury the body. I learned, “They dressed her (for burial) in a pale pink, fluffy something. She would have been holding her sides laughing.” These small details were cool for me, a total fan of Hurston, but could be just as interesting for a casual reader.
Nathiri doesn’t stop with stories of Hurston, though. She compiled information about “race colonies,” or towns started by black folks. The essay explains why many all-black towns are now gone, and how Eatonville got started and survived. Other treats are contained in Nathiri’s book, including photos from the first Zora Festival, Alice Walker’s speech from that day, and information about Hurston’s use of dialect compared to authors from other countries.
Both an enjoyable and educational experience!