If you are quasi-obsessed with Black Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston like I am (I know you probably aren't), then you probably know the fairy tale of Alice Walker revitalizing interest Hurston's work in the 1970s, years after the books fell out of print and after Hurston's death. Between Walker and Oprah Winfrey, Hurston's works were thrust into the literary canon more than a decade after she died in 1960, too poor to provide for a funeral or headstone herself.

So Walker went to Fort Pierce, Fla., in search of the grave site, waded through waist-high weeds that probably hid snakes in a neglected, segregated cemetery. She had Hurston's grave marked with a headstone and an epitaph declaring her "Genius of the South," which was a phrase borrowed from a Jean Toomer poem.

Walker wrote about this adventure in an article Ms. Magazine published in 1975. I tracked that article down in a compilation of essays and other writings by Walker called In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. (Walker uses the term "womanist" to describe "a feminist of color.")

The reality (for me, anyway) wasn't as great as the fairy tale. I found it hilarious that Walker falsely told several people that she was Hurston's niece to get them to open up about the impoverished author who had died 13 years before. Walker's continued shock and outrage that fewer people remembered Hurtson in her hometown of Eatonville (which was the first all-black incorporated town) and in Fort Pierce is alternately endearing and annoying.

Perhaps part of Walker's outrage stemmed from the fact that she, herself, was a less-than-rich black female writer (or perhaps I am too reliant on socioeconomic stereotypes of my own time), but I personally don't find it that shocking that folks living on the same street in a VERY modest neighborhood had no idea that a literary genius lived across the street until her health failed more than a decade before.

Consider: 1) Hurston was not widely known at the time; 2) the folks Walker met hadn't lived there at the same time as Hurston (the only reason I have any clue who lived in my neighborhood 10 years ago is because it's new construction - it was a field 10 years ago, I believe); and 3) one can easily imagine that lower working class families with multiple young children don't have time to consider or appreciate many cultural gems around them.

Anyway, once you get past Walker's disappointment in the local population, you get to embrace her reaction to searching for Hurtson's unmarked grave in "Garden of the Heavenly Rest" with a hand-drawn diagram and an employee from the funeral home:
"I stand still for a few seconds, looking at the weeds. Some of them are quite pretty, with tiny yellow flowers. They are thick and healthy, but dead weeds under them have formed a thick grey carpet on the ground. A snake could be lying six inches from my big toe and I wouldn't see it. We move slowly, very slowly, our eyes alter, our legs trembly."
Walker struggles to align the map with the actual cemetery she sees before her, but finally decides on a place for the headstone based on a depression in the ground in what seems to be the right spot (and a few rounds of simply shouting Hurtson's first name. To the relief of the lady from the funeral home, no one responds.) Then, she laments on her inability to afford an extravagant headstone but buys a more modest stone from a "monument man" who sends her back with a flag to mark the proper spot.

This entire narrative begs one major question, for me anyway: If Walker was willing to spend the time and money to fly to Florida, meet up with a (white) student writing her dissertation on Hurtson, and wander around until they found her likely gravesite, WHY didn't she just take it upon herself to clear the weeds out of this one-acre cemetery to make sure they found the right burial site? If no one has maintained the cemetery, how much trouble can one really get themselves into for taking a weedwacker to the weeds? And maybe burning them in a nice little bonfire?

As a dorky side note, Walker indicated on the headstone that Hurston was born in 1901. She wasn't. She was born in 1891 but lopped 10 years off her life when she was 26 and wanted to finish public high school, according to this bio.

As another dorky side note, you need not fear that the town of Eatonville does not appreciate its most famous one-time resident any more. A local association started an annual festival in Hurston's honor. It was part of a larger effort in 1987 to prevent a road-widening project that would have destroyed much of the small town's historic area. As of the 2000 census, Eatonville had about 2,400 residents, 89.3 percent of whom were African American, according to Wikipedia. About a quarter of the population lived below the poverty line.
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2 Responses
  1. Anonymous Says:

    I think you mean epitaph, not epithet. There's a big difference .

  2. jillianduch Says:

    you're right, I do (although I'll admit I had to look both words up in the dictionary to figure out what the problem was). I fixed it, though. Thanks for letting me know :)