Sunday, March 16, 2003
This is about a white man, a black woman, and a dead novelist whose writing spoke to them both. And this is about a job that passed from him to her: telling the novelist's life story.
Today, the white man, Robert Hemenway, is chancellor of Kansas University. The black woman, Valerie Boyd, is arts editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
And the dead writer is Zora Neale Hurston, the most successful black novelist of the first half of the 20th century.
Hemenway and Boyd were students -- he in the 1960s, she in the 1980s -- when they were ambushed by a Hurston novel titled "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
Hemenway said, "It grabs you by the throat. It possesses you."
Boyd said, "I thought, 'How could she have written this in the 1930s?'"
Boyd answers that question and many others in "Wrapped in Rainbows," a biography of Hurston published in January.
The book comes 26 years after the publication of Hemenway's first-ever biography of Hurston.
At a recent forum at KU, the two discussed the dead writer who had forged a connection between them.
In 1994, Hemenway was talking in Eatonville, Fla., Hurston's birthplace. He said it was time for a new biography of Hurston.
A black woman should write it, he said.
Boyd was in the audience. She felt a calling. And that calling eventually led her to Hurston's grave.
Back in 1970, Hemingway had written that Hurston was buried without a marker. Novelist Alice Walker read that and paid for a marker to be installed.
And so it was that Boyd could visit the grave in the mid 1990s to ask permission of Hurston's spirit to write about her life.
Boyd came bearing gifts: oranges, Pall Mall cigarettes and some money. When a black bird circled the cemetery, she took it as a good omen and set to work.
Hemenway's biography is scholarly in approach and tone. "I'm writing a little bit from the outside," he said. Boyd's is more an insider's view.
This is, in part, the result of her conscious intent to uncover the most minute detail of Hurston's life -- right down to her preference for gardenias and morning glories over other flowers.
The difference in approaches also speaks volumes about changes in the art of biography and in American culture.
A lot of what used to be off-the-record is now on.
Of course, in examining any life that's over and done with, you may find things you'd rather not know.
Boyd says she was afraid of opening records related to an accusation against Hurston in 1948 that she'd molested three 10-year-old boys.
Hurston's passport showed she was out of the country. But that didn't matter. The mere charge ended her career.
For Hemenway, Hurston's resistance to court-ordered classroom integration in 1954 was a hard pill to swallow.
Hurston asked, "Who needs the Supreme Court to bring the races together? What's the big deal about blacks and whites sharing classrooms?"
She said, "I'll never be part of the sobbing school of Negrohood."
Hurston was obviously a force. She filled up any room she entered. "When Zora was there," said poet Sterling Brown, "she was the party."
She could use language so eloquent that it shut people up even if the message disturbed them.
Sometimes her language was stately, as in her pronouncement: "I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots."
Other times, her words were pure, high-end sass. About the president of Columbia University, she said, "Dr. Butler is like a duckbilled platypus gone crazy through the hips."
Hurston paved the way for novelistic giants like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in the second half of the 20th century, says Boyd, who found writing her biography consuming work.
"In some ways," Boyd said, "it felt like a marriage: Here is a person you are bound to for some years, and you MUST work together in order for the relationship to work."
Taped to the wall near Boyd's desk is a quote from a 1936 letter Hurston wrote to a friend. Boyd considers the quote a kind of permission from Hurston to examine the smallest details of her life.
Hurston wrote: "Go inside and look around. If you find anything worth having in my heart, please take it, and even if you only set it with your lesser treasures, I'll be covered with honor and glad."
Zora Neale Hurston must be exceedingly glad.
-- Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at www.research.ku.edu. Martin's e-mail address is email@example.com.