Niagara Gazette

Opinion

February 19, 2014

BRADBERRY: Zora Neale Hurston and R. Nathaniel Dett, folklorists

Niagara Gazette —

Life can be so short, yet so full, I thought as I stood reading the headstone, “Genius of the South, 1901 – 1960, Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist” atop Zora Neal Hurston’s grave in Fort Pierce, Florida where she died poor and penniless in the County Home on Thursday January 28, 1960.

Hurston, author of at least ten books, novels, dozens of short stories and plays including the best seller “Their Eyes Were Watching God” grew up in tiny segregated, all black Eatonville, in Orange County, Florida (http://www.townofeatonville.com/) not far from Sanford where, seventeen year old Travon Martin died, not far from Jacksonville, Florida where the seventeen year old was slain.

Historic Eatonville, “The Town That Freedom Built, the oldest incorporated African American municipality in America, Established in 1887”, brags the sign that greets travelers as they approach, “One of the 25 Cultural Tourism success stories in the United States.”

Historic indeed!

I had that same feeling nearly a decade ago while I stood at the foot of R. Nathaniel Dett’s (“Listen to the Lambs”) grave just a few miles from where he lived much of his early life in Niagara Falls, not far from the crossings where Tubman and others traversed in search of some modicum of relief from slavery’s heavy chains in Canada.

Hurston and Dett have a lot in common; they traveled in the same literary circles during the Harlem Renaissance, a particularly active period, named after a1925 anthology by Alain Locke though Hurston frequently challenged Dett to write and perform more “spiritual music” rooted more in the tradition of the people than the “neo spirituals” which she considered to be the outgrowth of “glee clubs.”

Though their styles varied, Hurston and Dett wrote about the struggles of being black in America during extraordinarily hard times; both were folklorists, one in music and song, the other in prose, both master story-tellers, writing the very stuff that history is made of.

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