Celebrating Women’s History with Zora Neale Hurston

photo from Amber Chandler

I’m one of those quote collectors. I have the catchy signs in my house, journals filled with snippets of conversations, and novels full of underlined (and sometimes starred) sentences that jumped straight from the page and into my psyche. My master’s degree is in Southern Women’s Literature, and I discovered Zora Neale Hurston when I was in my early 20s. She was a fixture in the Harlem Renaissance (the Library of Congress Primary Source Set is awesome), and her apartment was said to be a whole different kind of salon. She was not perfect, and her life was one heck of a roller coaster, eventually leaving her penniless and alone, buried in an unmarked grave.

It wasn’t until author Alice Walker revived Hurston’s writing and reputation in the 1970s with “Searching for Zora Neale Hurston,” published in Ms. Magazine, that academia ever took notice. Not everyone liked her. Some people found her writing tiresome, and some thought she was affected. Some of her contemporaries said she pandered to white folks, and several of the key male figures of her time viciously critiqued her work. However, despite the tumult of her life, she held her head high and was known for her verve in all situations, something that I appreciate more and more as I get older. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I’d like to share some of the “Zora-isms” that might resonate with you, as they have with me.

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

This is a great hook for teaching research. Years ago, I used to do the I-Search paper, pretty much as described in ReadWriteThink’s strategy guide, “Promoting Student-Directed Inquiry with the I-Search Paper.” At the time, I felt very rebellious and progressive. Use the word “I” in a research paper? Gasps all around. Now, I promote collaborative writing and passion projects (if you want to learn more, you can watch the webinar “Play to Their Passions”), and I love problem-based learning where student engagement and inquiry are key. I love this “Popsicle Bridge” lesson that gives students a problem to solve, and they collaborate in all aspects. Research, especially now, with answers only a Google search away, must be driven by “burning questions.” As an ELA teacher, I feel so freed to bring the individual student’s curiosity into my classroom to be “poked and pried with purpose.”

“No matter how far a person can go, the horizon is still way beyond you.”

Back when I was first learning about Zora Neale Hurston, I wasn’t sure what I was going to be when I grew up with my bachelor’s in Communications and master’s in Southern Women’s Literature, and it would be a few more years before I landed on “teacher.” Instead, what struck me then about Zora, and continues to speak to me, is her wisdom that is tinged with the tiniest bit of resignation, and a twist of badass. The quote above is one I should get tattooed somewhere. I’m a reacher, a striver, an always-onto-the-next-thing girl, and it can lead to perpetual motion—and eventual exhaustion. More than once, I’ve woken up and thought, “Who got me into this mess?” as I was stretched far too thin. The truth is, you don’t “get there,” and though I know this cerebrally, I need to listen more with my heart to this one.

“I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” 

This is my girl Zora. I love this confidence and chutzpah, and the underlying belief that even if things don’t always appear that way, the world is your oyster. I like too that Zora wields her own way, not waiting for anyone to clear it for her. This is her appeal to me, but it was exactly this attitude that did not always make her friends, because she wouldn’t always contribute the types of writing and ideology that others in the Harlem Renaissance wanted. I feel this way about how to face the litany of complaints about schools. I can’t stare at the problems, and I am always making my next plan for the best way to reach students, even if it doesn’t fall into a prescribed pedagogy. I’m not waiting for someone to give me the “right” curriculum or plan but, like Zora, I aspire to make my own way.

“Those that don’t got it, can’t show it. Those that got it, can’t hide it.”

And then there’s this. I just love the “this little light of mine” feel to it, especially for young women. What better way to boost our girls’ confidence than to encourage them to find their “it,” and let it show? I have conversations about this with my daughter often. I love quirky, and I find that people who are truly themselves really “can’t hide it.” The sooner we embrace a culture of acceptance within our families and classrooms, allowing students to pursue their passions and find their own truth instead of creating carbon copies, the sooner we’ll see enduring change in the world. The fact is, Zora had it right. If we help students develop as individuals, they won’t be able to conform. They won’t be able to go low. They won’t be able to sit back in the face of inequity. They will have an inner strength of character that they won’t be able to hide.

Around the same time I was studying Zora Neale Hurston, I was lucky enough to happen upon a brightly decked-out older woman reading from her poetry in a bookstore café. The book was called Unflappable Women, and I had never heard that word before. As Esther Buffler, an energetic and simply glowing little old lady read her poems and told stories with both squeals of laughter and liquid eyes, I was obsessively jotting down my thoughts about Zora Neale Hurston for my master’s thesis. That was the word I was looking for, the word that captured her sass and spirit, and sadness too, an attitude that withstands all that the world has to offer. I may not have known what I was going to do when I grew up, but I knew one thing: I was going to be unflappable.