Monday, January 08, 2007
Negro Spirituals and Zora Neale Hurston
Presently I’m reading a Zora Neale Hurston biography called Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd. It’s an amazing retelling of Hurston’s life, starting with her birth in Alabama and her colorful and dramatic life with her family in Eatonville, Florida.
Boyd depicts Zora, born January 7, 1891, as a spunky, inquisitive, imaginative and playful character. Her life was beset with great tragedy when she reached adolescence—her mother died and her dad remarried in a hurry. She was virtually kicked out of the family house and had to fend for herself shortly after that.
I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’ve read enough to know that Hurston was a great lover of African-American history and culture. She reveled in the folktales, magical practices, and dialect of black southern life. Her love for her people led her to study anthropology at Columbia University’s Barnard College while she continued to study literature at the same school.
Hurston wrote several short stories and essays for magazines such as the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, the Urban League’s Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, and a few literary journals. In a 1925 essay in The Messenger, Hurston criticized some Howard University students who had protested singing Negro Spirituals for the school’s white president. This was evidently a ritual that was performed each year. In Wrapped in Rainbows, Boyd wrote that the students “denounced the down home spirituals for their poor grammar, and they pointed out that spirituals were not sung in white universities.” But Zora defended the practice and remembered her participation in the singing events with pride. She defended the songs as “authentic and valuable expressions of black folk culture,” Boyd wrote.
Decades after Zora published her defensive essay on the practice of singing Negro Spirituals at Howard University, students at Howard High School in Chattanooga were gleefully keeping the tradition alive. They began singing the songs when they gathered at the home of Howard’s music teacher, Edmonia Johnson Simmons. By 1974 the singing group had formed a group now known as the Chattanooga Choral Society for the Preservation of African American Song.
Two of my favorite famous Negro Spirituals are “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
Check out a detailed chronology of events in Zora Neale Hurston’s life at ChickenBones: A Journal. This remarkable literary figure and lover of African-American culture died on January 28, 1960.