Honoring Hurston's Contributions

Farah Jasmine Griffin — a professor of English and African-American studies at Columbia University — brings us the third installment in her series, honoring the six most influential African-American writers. Today, she pays tribute to Zora Neale Hurston.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now, from the business of publishing to the art of black literature.

All this month, Farah Jasmine Griffin has been sharing her list of the most influential black American writers ever. Griffin is a professor of English and Comparative Literature, and African-American Studies at Columbia University. Her first two choices were 19th century greats Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglas. Today, she points us to Harlem Renaissance legend, Zora Neale Hurston.

Professor FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN (African American Studies, Columbia University): I chose Hurston for a number of reasons. One, simply the quality and variety of her work as a novelist, short story writer, anthropologist, folklorist, playwright. I don't know of any writer who is as accomplished in as many genres and forms as Hurston is. But I also chose her because of her influence on a generation of writers, especially African-American women writers, who had emerge in the 1970s, and who, themselves, would change the landscape of American literature.

Hurston was fairly well known as a younger writer, especially as a participant of the Harlem Renaissance. She was known for her short stories, but as the fashion in literature begin to change, and we get the emergence of young male writers like Richard Wright, she sort of falls, I guess, out of fashion. And I think both sexism and racism, and the kind of American culture industry sort of buried her beneath the emergence of male writers, black and white.

In the '70s, after the Black Power movement and the feminist movement, young black women writers looking for four mothers, sort of rediscover Hurston and bring her back to a wider audience. Hurston is dealing with the interpersonal aspects of black life, the aspects of black life that happened beyond the gaze of white people. And, in so doing, I think she testifies to black people's humanity.

I think that the most well-known line is probably the black woman who's the mule of the world, but in "Their Eyes Were Watching God", there's so many eloquent and beautiful statements that go beyond that. And I think the descriptions of the love shared between Tea Cake and Janie that are passionate and sensual and egalitarian are among the most beautiful lines in the book. The closing lines of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" - my favorite lines of the book: Then Tea Cake came prancing around her, where she was, and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl, of course he wasn't dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fishnet, pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes. She called in her soul to come and see.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That was Farah Jasmine Griffin on Zora Neale Hurston, one of my personal favorites, and one of her six picks as the most influential black writers ever. Griffin is professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University.

You can find more of her choices and weigh in with your own at our blog: nprnewsandviews.org.

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