Chapter 10: Research
Research is “formalized curiosity,” according to Zora, and it played a significant role in her post-college professional development. Zora’s mentor and professor Franz Boas, whom she called Papa Franz, sent her on a journey to collect Southern folklore after she graduated from Barnard. Thus began a stormy period of research in which Zora risked her life for her work. “My life was in danger several times,” she recalls.
For example, there was an incident in Polk County, Florida, where Zora was almost murdered. She had formed a friendship with “Big Sweet,” a tough black woman who ran with a rough crowd. Big Sweet provided Zora with plenty of helpful research material, but she did much more than that: she protected Zora from a woman named Lucy who tried to kill Zora with a knife.
After this incident, Zora fled to New Orleans, where she immersed herself in the study of Hoodoo, a kind of “sympathetic magic.” She submitted herself to several Hoodoo rituals, including a three-day period where she had to lie on a couch naked with no food. She then moved on to the Bahamas to study black Bahamian culture. In the Bahamas, she weathered a five-day hurricane and fell in love with Bahamian music. Later, in 1932, Zora successfully concertized that music for an audience of white people in New York City.
Zora also visited the British West Indies and Haiti, where she met and photographed a zombie. “This act had never happened before in the history of man,” she says of the photograph. From her research, she penned the novel Tell My Horse, which is also sometimes published as Voodoo Gods.
Yet another of Zora’s books, Barracoon, drew inspiration from research collected in Mobile, Alabama. Barracoon is about Cudjo Lewis, a black man Zora met while performing research for the Journal of Negro History. Lewis lived in Takkoi as a slave and immigrated to the US in 1859, one of the last African slaves to be delivered to America.
Chapter 11: Books and Things
Inspiration for Zora’s first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, arrived in 1929, several years before she wrote it. While researching Southern black folklore, Zora realized that she didn’t want to write about fictional characters from a racial perspective. Rather, she wanted to write about them from a human perspective.
“I was afraid to tell the story the way I wanted,” says Zora, who put off writing the novel for three years. In the meantime, she assembled a concert of authentic black music and had it performed at the John Golden Theater in New York City in 1932. The concert dramatized life for Southern blacks, portraying “a working day on a railroad camp” with authentic songs and dances. Zora believes that the concert influenced American music culture for the better.
By 1932, the Great Depression had drained Zora’s financial resources, so she revisited the idea of Jonah’s Gourd Vine. She wrote and sold the novel, and an acceptance letter and check arrived from the publisher just in time, as she was broke and had been evicted by her landlord that very day for nonpayment of rent.
Zora’s most popular novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God , was published several years later. Zora recalls writing this novel in Haiti: “It was dammed up in me, and I wrote it under internal pressure in seven weeks.” She says she wishes she could write it again; as a wiser person, there are things about it she would change. She concludes, however, that this is the nature of writing and...
(This entire section contains 1194 words.)
publishing. A writer might change her mind about her novel later, but “if writers were too wise, perhaps no books would be written at all.”
Chapter 12: My People! My People!
Zora explores the saying “My people! My people!” and how black people often moan this phrase about other black people. “Well-mannered Negroes groan out” when they notice other blacks “with their shoes off, stuffing themselves with fried fish, bananas and peanuts, and throwing garbage on the floor,” she observes.
Zora goes on to describe the “folk labels” of her time. A person with “Race Prejudice” was a white man who felt superior to blacks. A “Race Man” was a black man who championed his race; he “always kept the glory and honor of his race before him.” Another label she describes is “Race Consciousness.” This was the notion that black people should stick together in solidarity. Zora muses that the ideal of Race Consciousness was highly unrealistic. “Like all other mirages,” she says, “it faded as I came close enough to look.”
The mirage confused Zora as a child. She points to the formal speeches she heard in school, where black men would shine positive light on the accomplishments of other black men, like the invention of the steam engine and cotton gin. “Over the fences next day,” she recalls, “it would be agreed that it was a wonderful speech.” Therefore, it would confuse Zora when she heard those same people uttering phrases like, “Dat’s just like a nigger!”
Zora refers to several monkey parables that have been told about black people over time. Upheld by white and black people alike, the parables depict black people as uneducated, unrefined animals. How could proud black people advance these monkey parables? Zora grappled with that question, and the hypocrisy suggested by it, for years. Finally, she found peace. “Light came to me,” she recalls, “when I realized I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole.” With the clichés lifted from her mind, she finds freedom in viewing all races as the same.
Chapter 13: Two Women in Particular
Zora shines a spotlight on two special women in her life in this chapter. The first is Fannie Hurst, a famous writer who hired Zora as her personal secretary while Zora studied at Barnard. Miss Hurst’s interesting personality was one of both childishness and seriousness. To characterize this, Zora recalls a time when Ms. Hurst led them on an impromptu two-week trip to Canada. Zora was treated to a stream of Canadian sights, cities, hotels, and meals. Only at the trip’s conclusion did Ms. Hurst’s carefree air dissipate into seriousness again as she talked to Zora about her next novel.
The second special woman Zora recalls is singer Ethel Waters. Zora had wanted to meet Ethel for a long time; finally, at a dinner party, they were introduced. The women immediately struck up a friendship, and in this chapter, Zora analyzes her friend’s personality and musical talent. Zora says, “She is shy, and you must convince her that she is really wanted before she will open up her tender parts and show you.” Zora also laments that the world may never know the extent of Ethel’s true talent.
Zora concludes this chapter by reflecting on her friendships and expressing gratitude for them. She draws the analogy that life without true friends would be like “milking a bear to get cream for your morning coffee.” In other words, a life without friendships like those she had with Fannie Hurst and Ethel Waters would be a difficult one indeed.