NOVEMBER 13, 2017
FOR PEOPLE BORN since at least the mid-1960s, the first encounter with Zora Neale Hurston was likely reading her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This is thanks in no small part to the efforts by scholars in then-new Black and African American Studies departments at colleges and universities across the United States, as well as to the tireless work of Alice Walker, whose seminal essay in Ms. Magazine, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” recounted the author’s search for Hurston’s unmarked gravesite in Fort Pierce, Florida. Thanks to Walker and a cadre of scholars, Hurston was rescued from the dustbin of American literature, and her 1937 novel was elevated to canonical status.
Graphic novelist Peter Bagge concludes his new graphic biography of Hurston, Fire!!, with Walker’s search. It is a fitting place to leave the reader, just on the cusp of what would become a phenomenal resurgence of interest in Hurston, a fiercely independent folklorist, novelist, and anthropologist. Fire!! takes its name from the short-lived literary journal Hurston co-founded and edited with other Harlem Renaissance luminaries, including her roommate Richard Bruce Nugent, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett, and several others.
Fire!!, which was meant as a shot across the bow of the respectable, middle-class black literary production favored by the likes of Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois’s “talented tenth,” reflects Hurston’s idiosyncratic ideas and deep commitment to African-American cultural production. The journal set out to give voice to the “low” art of Harlem and address many of the taboo issues within the community, including homosexuality, interracial love, and racism. However, Hurston et al. only managed to produce one issue before their headquarters burned to the ground. As Bagge has Hurston say to Bruce Nugent upon hearing the news, “Pretty prophetic, huh?”
The daughter of Baptist minister and sharecropper John Hurston and his wife Lucy Ann, Zora Neale was born in Alabama in 1891. When she was three, the family moved to Eatonville, Florida, which was one of the earliest all-black towns to be incorporated in the United States. In Bagge’s telling, friction existed between Zora’s mother and grandmother over her choice of John, who became mayor of Eatonville in 1897 but who was a mere sharecropper when he met Lucy Ann. In a series of panels, Bagge hints at other issues in the marriage. When Lucy Ann notes that John is “the most sought after preacher in three counties,” Hurston’s grandmother retorts: “Oh you got dat right […] sought after by de women dat is!”
One of the subtleties made possible by the graphic form in biography and history is the writer/illustrator’s opportunity to blend together many stories into a single scene. This set of panels is just one of many examples of Bagge’s adeptness at sewing together multiple strands into the service of his narrative. While Zora’s elders bicker, she pulls a book of Norse mythology — a gift from white schoolteachers who visited Eatonville in 1901 — off the shelf. In this single, seemingly minor graphic detail, we get family history, Hurston’s special relationship with her mother, and an early hint at her future as a renowned folklorist and listener.
Eatonville imbued Hurston with an independent streak that would guide her through the rest of her life. When her mother died, the prestige of Hurston’s family dissolved nearly overnight. John Hurston was drunk on his own importance, and did not appreciate how integral Lucy had been to his status. He quickly remarried one of his hangers-on, the 20-year-old Mattie Moge, and Zora’s brothers and sisters made a mass exodus. Zora moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where she attended a Baptist academy. But when her father stopped paying her tuition, she was forced to take menial jobs at the school and then as a full-time caretaker for a white family. The husband of this family had eyes for Zora, a de facto occupational hazard for black domestic workers since slavery, and she left Jacksonville to return home.
Hurston’s ignominious return to Eatonville ended in confrontation with her father’s new wife, which Hurston clearly embellished later in life to illustrate how low she was. A chance encounter with Paradise Lost, however, gave Hurston a new purpose and desire for education. She spent the next decade or so pursuing this quest, first in Jacksonville, then in Baltimore, then at Howard University in Washington, DC, where she studied under preeminent scholar and misogynist Alain Locke. Locke both supported and criticized Hurston, particularly disapproving of her use of Southern vernacular in her writing — Hurston apparently threatened to murder Locke after reading his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Finally, Hurston arrived in New York, where she was already known, having been published in Charles S. Johnson’s Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Johnson was influenced by Booker T. Washington’s philosophies, putting him at odds with more radical black intellectuals of the day, such as W. E. B. Du Bois.
Hurston got to Harlem just in time to be part of what has been dubbed the Harlem Renaissance’s “coming out party,” an event put on by Opportunity. Other attendees included Gwendolyn Bennett, Jean Toomer, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes, with whom Hurston would become close in subsequent years.
New York was formative for Hurston. In addition to founding Fire!!, she was admitted to Barnard College at the behest of Annie Nathan Meyer, the college’s founder. There she studied anthropology under the influential Franz Boas. Boas, a proponent of cultural relativism, deeply influenced Hurston’s nascent feelings about African-American culture. He supported her first field research in Florida, and even recruited her to walk around Harlem with a pair of calipers to help combat prevailing notions of scientific racism.
Initially, Hurston’s Florida trip was stymied by her attempts to be a serious academic, which prevented her from gaining the trust of her subjects. Eventually, however, her charm and a return to Eatonville provided more significant grist for her folklorist’s mill. She also married Herbert Sheen, a pre-med student she first met during her days at Howard. Although Sheen, by then a doctor, was a kind man who asked little of Hurston other than that she move to Chicago with him, she never felt content with him and left him to return to fieldwork almost before the marriage began.
Back in the South, Hurston, low on funds and spirits, ran into Hughes again, and this is where their relationship took off. They were deeply connected by their fascination with and appreciation for African-American culture, and in Mobile, Alabama, Hurston introduced the Midwestern Hughes to Southern African-American culture. Hughes in turn introduced her to someone who would prove a profound influnce, the old money scion Charlotte Louise Van Der Veer Quick Osgood Mason — or as she preferred to be known, “the Godmother.”
The Godmother, like many wealthy New Yorkers, had caught what Bagge refers to as the “Negro bug,” and began patronizing Harlem Renaissance artists like Hughes and Hurston. Artists like Paul Robeson viewed the Godmother suspiciously, and Hurston’s relationship with her was tumultuous. But it allowed Hurston to return to Florida to continue her research into African-American culture, including her initiation into voodoo rites.
The Godmother also influenced Hughes and Hurston’s relationship, which was burgeoning into collaboration with the play Mule Bone. The creative tensions surrounding the play led to a rupture between the two artists, and the experience left both so angry that they would never speak to one another again, despite Carl Van Vechten’s attempts to reconcile them. The most Hughes would say of their relationship in his autobiography was, “Girls are funny creatures.”
Though Hurston played a significant role in what would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, Eatonville was her spiritual home. Her research and her stories, including most famously Their Eyes Were Watching God, relied heavily on her time there and gave her a unique perspective on Southern life, race, segregation, and the potential for black independence. She developed a vison of such independence distinct from that held by many wealthy and middle-class African Americans of the time, one that did not rely on court mandates that sought to organize African-American culture around a white liberal belief structure.
During her frequent forays south, Hurston also aided many writers and researchers — including Stetson Kennedy, Mary Barnicle, and the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax — with their studies of the region. An anecdote about Barnicle highlights the chief shortcoming of Bagge’s Fire!! Bagge produces a scene in which Hurston and Lomax watch Barnicle photograph a black boy eating a watermelon. In the panels, Hurston takes umbrage with how this would look without context to Barnicle’s “Yankee friends!” She endeavors to write a letter to Lomax’s father, John, about this transgression, and there the story ends. It is only in the notes at the end of his book that Bagge admits that this might be an incredibly one-sided telling. According to his research, it appeared that Hurston was distrustful of Barnicle more for her far-left politics, and for the triangular relationship between her, Zora, and Alan, than for her racial insensitivities. This echoes Hurston’s similar issues with Langston Hughes, which centered on the poet’s flirtation with communism and the complicated relationship between him, Zora, and their typist (and Godmother’s spy) Louise Thompson.
I feel torn here, because I think Bagge makes a valid point that we should take Hurston’s impressions of racism seriously, as well as acknowledge the kind of racism that pervaded even the most well-meaning circles. In the service of not undermining these goals, though, he leaves it to an endnote to pad out this episode. The problem is that a biography is about a particular person who has all sorts of strengths and faults. To leave those to an endnote in some ways undermines the author’s role in forming an accurate portrayal of a subject.
As opposed to a traditional biographer, a graphic biographer has less room to elaborate some of the nuance of, say, Hurston’s encounter with Norse mythology, white teachers, family tensions, and the political climate of the turn-of-the-century Deep South. Some compression is necessary. Graphic biography is not inoculated against some of the tendencies of the biopic, which also requires compression in the service of a good story. This need to shorten is something that doesn’t necessarily constrain traditional biographies. However, it strikes me that some of the best examples of this genre, such as Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe or some of the graphic histories overseen by Paul Buhle, allow room for opining from the author.
Bagge returns throughout the course of the book to Hurston’s strident and singular views, and he doesn’t shy away from her contrarian and provocative political beliefs on race, colonialism, and culture. Probably the best example of this occurs toward the end of the book. Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road was slated for publication on the eve of US involvement in World War II, and in it she polemicized against “Anglos” and the hypocrisy with which the United States treated concepts of “freedom” and “democracy” at home, as opposed to their reaction against totalitarianism abroad.
Her editor at Lippincott cut out some of the more controversial remarks, which Bagge argues was probably a good thing for Hurston’s image. But it most likely was an early precipitant for her search for a new publisher. And in any case, Hurston was no shrinking violet and her views were widely known — albeit often in warped form. For example, someone at the World Telegraph implied that she was pro–Jim Crow, which she clearly was not. Bagge gives Hurston ample room to defend herself and clarify her position, which anticipates the one Malcolm X and others would emphasize in the coming decades.
Because of the peculiar status of Eatonville, Bagge assumes that Hurston probably experienced little of the oppressive racism of the Jim Crow South. Rather, he suggests, her formative experience with racism came with her life in the North, where racial animosity wasn’t codified in the way it was in the South. According to Bagge, Hurston saw racism as “unpredictable and arbitrary” and thus thought of it as personal rather than institutional. Her defense of segregation rested on her experience as an anthropologist and folklorist. While she had no problem with people wanting to live wherever they pleased, she saw African-American culture as unique and worth preserving. For this reason she viewed state-enforced desegregation with suspicion.
In Fire!!, this sequence precedes the tailspin into obscurity that Hurston experienced toward the end of her life. Bagge in this way implies that despite Hurston’s great success, her views were at odds with the direction of the country, and particularly those of middle-class African Americans, who saw desegregation as essential to equality. Hurston was, to be sure, not enamored of many of the darlings of black politics, such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr., whose powerful cult of personality hid his ineffectual politics and playboy reputation. But there were other causes for her reputation’s precipitous decline. She was implicated wrongly in a scandalous child abuse accusation, which caused many of her colleagues to abandon her or (as in the case of Hughes) heap scorn on her. By this time, too, the Harlem Renaissance had been succeeded at the forefront of black cultural production by the Richard Wright–dominated left, and Hurston felt that her politics also alienated her from this group.
Hurston’s last great literary triumph was her coverage of Ruby McCollum’s murder trial. McCollum was accused of killing a wealthy white state senator, C. Leroy Adams — who, according to McCollum, repeatedly raped her and forced her to bear his children. McCollum’s self-defense plea was undercut by the fact that she was barred from testifying at her own trial. After McCollum was sentenced to death, Hurston, with the aid of the white journalist William Bradford Huie, was able to find her. After years of advocacy, Hurston got McCollum’s sentence commuted, after which she was transferred to a mental institution.
By this time, Hurston was living in relative obscurity in Florida. This was partly of her own volition, as she chose not to maintain close relationships with black or white intellectual circles. However, she kept busy as a writer, earning a living as an editor, librarian, and high school teacher. Unfortunately, she was never able to publish another book, which contributed to her obscurity at the time Alice Walker took her trip to discover Hurston’s grave.
Though it is a scant 72 pages of color panels, Fire!! does much to deliver Hurston’s biography in a readable and entertaining format. Bagge provides suggestions for further reading, and includes copious amounts of notes, archival photographs, and references that elaborate on the pages and panels of the biography. Bagge’s visual style, which is all curving arms, expressive faces, and motion, is also quite enjoyable. But he is careful to work from archival materials whenever possible, which makes his images pop from the page despite his panels’ small size.
A friend of mine, a graduate student of anthropology, recently told me that his department is looking to update and expand the scope of its reading list for undergraduates beyond the field’s musty classics. When I told him about Fire!!, he asked if it would be worth presenting to them — particularly because Hurston’s maverick anthropological and folklore research can seem accessible, resonant, and novel in an academic setting. At first I thought that the cartoonish nature of Bagges’s imagery belied the depth of Hurston’s work. But having let it rattle around in my head for a while longer, I am inclined to take back my initial hesitancy.
Bagge has done his research, and he presents Hurston’s personal trajectory while still portraying her as a serious scholar. Her anthropological career is well worth understanding, and her empathetic and open-minded approach to her subjects worth emulating. It also serves as an appropriate companion piece to her fiction, providing information about her biography and intellectual circles that deepens our understanding of her prose. Overall, Bagge provides a bright, highly moving introduction to a figure who is no longer obscure, but the full range of whose accomplishments we have yet to take into account.