ArtThen and Now: History and Possibility in Black Art

Sheree Greer5 months ago816 min

Abandoned. A grave overgrown with grass and choked by weeds. Then, resurrection.

Because of Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and Meridian, Zora Neale Hurston’s headstone bears her legacy, engraved in stone, the words: “A Genius of the South. Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist.” Walker, posing as Hurston’s niece, had travelled to Eatonville, Florida, in search of an ancestral voice, on a mission to venerate a Black woman writer whose work both inspired and informed Walker’s own literary aesthetic.

At the time of Zora Neale Hurston’s death in 1960, much of her work was out-of-print, and her fascinating and groundbreaking work as a fiction writer, folklorist, and anthropologist went largely unmentioned in burgeoning conversations about race, Black American culture, and American history. Georgia-born Alice Walker, whose father worked as a sharecropper and mother as a maid, wrote the article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” for Ms. Magazine in 1975 after a trip to the late writer’s gravesite in Ft. Pierce, Florida, and brought Hurston’s work back into the fore. In the PBS special, American Masters, Walker said of Hurston’s work, “She loved her own culture, even its language,” and that love, which so imbued Hurston’s work, serves as a written history, a constant reminder, and a living tribute to the beauty, resilience, and significance of Black, in particular southern Black, life and culture.

As a Black writer, the story of Alice Walker (re)discovering Zora Neale Hurston, not just for herself but for all of us, remains one of my creative and personal mainstays. It’s a story of connection, inspiration as praxis, a journey into the rich history of Black art, a bridging really, between our past and present that opens into a boundless future for Black artists. Walker said, “the great wonder of having ancestors in your line of work is that you have people who can show you what is possible.” Ancestral influence is real, and its relevance and power are seen through our fight for inclusion and representation, for more complete narratives about the contributions of Black Americans within the fabric of American history overall, for no other reason than that when you can see yourself as a descendant of greatness—particularly through art and invention, entrepreneurship and culture—you can actively and unapologetically (re)create that greatness for yourself, right now and going forward.

In my home office, where I do most of my writing, I have a collage picture frame that boasts photos of the Black ancestor artists whose work and lives inspire and challenge me most. Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, Octavia Butler and Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes, Nina Simone and John Coltrane, Ann Petry, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, and of course, Zora Neale Hurston. These faces of Black brilliance cheer me on when the writing’s going well,
the words flowing and finding their way from my heart to the page in bold bursts of truth and beauty. These faces of Black brilliance hold me accountable when the writing stalls, when I flail about, struggling to make sentences, doubting my work and my place in the world. More importantly though, in a way that goes beyond my own work, those faces of ancestral Black brilliance are evidence that creativity is our birthright and that our stories, told through stanza or paragraph, vocals or instrumentals, matter as both history and possibility, exist as both proof of our greatness and invitation to love ourselves.

Like Walker did with Hurston, we must carry forth the work of (re)discovering and (re)introducing the lives and work of ancestor Black artists who provide the foundation of everything we create today, everything we are today, as an essential exercise for finding our own voices and making our own way.

Sheree Greer

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