Anisfield-Wolf recipient Zora Neale Hurston would have turned 129 years old January 7. To celebrate her birthday, the editors of ZORA, an online magazine eponymously named after the Harlem Renaissance writer and pioneering anthropologist, compiled the ZORA Canon, its definitive list of the best books written by African American women.
Novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge (“We Love You, Charlie Freeman”) writes that the editors decided to take up the task when they realized no one seemed to have published a comprehensive list of black women authors, a baffling fact considering the robust reading habits of black women.
Collectively, they took steps to remedy that omission. “Taken together, the works don’t just make up a novel canon,” Greenidge writes in the introduction. “They form a revealing mosaic of the black American experience during the time period.”
Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner Jesmyn Ward was one of the six panelists who selected the works, ranging from poetry to plays, nonfiction to short stories and novels. Alongside Ward was Malaika Adero, a former vice president and senior editor for Atria Books; Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson and author of “Negroland;” Ayana Mathis, a professor and bestselling author of “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie;” Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and author of “Thick”; and Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies whose most recent book is “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.”
The 100 works are divided into five sections, spanning 160 years of literature: “A Fight For Our Humanity” (1859-1900), “A Rebirth of the Arts” (1924-1953), “Civil Rights & Black Power” (1959-1975), and “The Strength of Self Worth” (1976-1999) and “A Radical Future” (2000-2010).
Browse the list and you’ll find Anisfield-Wolf winners peppered throughout: Toni Morrison appears four times (“Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved,” and “A Mercy”) and Rita Dove gets a nod for 1986’s “Thomas and Beulah.” Sonia Sanchez, our 2019 lifetime achievement winner, is recognized twice for her 1970s poetry collections: “We a BaddDDD People” and “I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems.”
As ZORA senior editor Morgan Jerkins debuted the list on Twitter, she noted: “For those academics who are scratching their heads over how to make their syllabi more diverse, here you go. You have 100 books to choose from and they were chosen from the best of the best.”
And to cap the birthday off, Amistad Press is giving away free electronic copies of Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Visit www.CelebratingZora.com for downloading instructions.
As we wrote before, Isabel Wilkerson has been educating her fans on the impact of the Great Migration by posting stories of prominent African Americans to her Facebook page. Recently, she profiled Zora Neale Hurston, one of our favorite writers and one of the literary world’s greatest treasures.
We loved what she had to say about Hurston so much that we decided to share it with you here:
On this day, January 7, in 1891 or 1901, beloved author Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Ala., to Rev. John and Lucy Hurston. She grew up in the all-black town of Eatonville, Fla., and went north as a young woman, just as the Great Migration was starting during World War I. She attended what is now Morgan State University and then Howard University, where she got her first story published in the literary magazine, Stylus, and co-founded the student newspaper, the Hilltop, while working odd jobs as a maid and a manicurist.
She went to New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and, in 1928, became the first black student known to graduate Barnard College. There, she majored in English and studied anthropology, but was not permitted to live in the dormitories. As was her way, she never complained. She once famously said: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
She would become a renowned folklorist and novelist, acclaimed for her 1937 masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which some see as drawn from parts of her own life. Five years later, she published an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, about her many journeys, but her star faded as she appeared removed from the changing politics of the day. In 1946, she supported the Republican who was opposing Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, the most famous black politician of the era. Powell won reelection by a landslide, and the election seemed a window into the distance between her southern traditionalism and a growing push for equality in the North.
She returned to Florida and, in January 1960, she died in a welfare home in Fort Pierce, Fla., after suffering a stroke. She has grown more legendary in death than even in life after acclaimed novelist Alice Walker went in search of her unmarked grave, erected a headstone in her honor, and helped return her to her rightful place in literary history.
Hurston has inspired generations of writers with her free-spirited wit and imagination and her love of black southern folkways. “I am not tragically colored,” she once said. “There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes….No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
1943 winner Zora Neale Hurston left behind an incredible legacy. One of her greatest gifts, Their Eyes Were Watching God, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. In honor of her achievement, Cleveland State University is hosting a four-day conference to recognize her contribution to the literary world.
The Watching God and Reading Hurston conference will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God while encouraging participants to consider Hurston’s contributions to world culture, especially as those contributions relate to the study of religion and spirituality in the history of Africa and the Diaspora. [More information]
In the short video above, get a peek at the type of woman Zora Neale Hurston was in the biography, “Jump at the Sun.” For more information, visit the link.
Huffington Post’s Black Voices rounded up 50 books the editors think every African American should read (they added on Twitter that of course the list has value to everyone, but these books focus primarily on the black experience in America). We were thrilled to see how many Anisfield-Wolf winners were on the list, proving to us once again that our winners stand out in the crowded literary field.
“Annie Allen” (1949)
“Breath, Eyes, Memory” (1999)
“Half Of A Yellow Sun” (2008)
“Invisible Man” (1952)
Edward P. Jones
“The Known World” (2003)
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1987)
“Song of Solomon” (1977), “Sula” (1973) and “The Bluest Eye” (1970)
“The Weary Blues” (1925)
Zora Neale Hurston
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)
“White Teeth” (2000)
“The Warmth of Other Suns” (2010)
“Devil in a Blue Dress” (1990)
Ernest J. Gaines
“A Lesson Before Dying” (1993)
No, it’s not a “best books of all-time” list, but the list assembled by the Library of Congress, to celebrate the works that most define our nation’s history, is pretty close. There’s some stand-outs, like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat. But the list particularly caught our eye because there are several Anisfield-Wolf winners on the list—and we’re thrilled. Check out who made the cut. Descriptions are pulled from the Library of Congress website:
Langston Hughes, “The Weary Blues” (1925)
Langston Hughes was one of the greatest poets of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and intellectual flowering that fostered a new black cultural identity in the 1920s and 1930s. His poem “The Weary Blues,” also the title of this poetry collection, won first prize in a contest held by Opportunity magazine. After the awards ceremony, the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten approached Hughes about putting together a book of verse and got him a contract with his own publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. Van Vechten contributed an essay, “Introducing Langston Hughes,” to the volume. The book laid the foundation for Hughes’s literary career, and several poems remain popular with his admirers.
Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)
Although it was published in 1937, it was not until the 1970s that “Their Eyes Were Watching God” became regarded as a masterwork. It had initially been rejected by African American critics as facile and simplistic, in part because its characters spoke in dialect. Alice Walker’s 1975 Ms. magazine essay, “Looking for Zora,” led to a critical reevaluation of the book, which is now considered to have paved the way for younger black writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.
Gwendolyn Brooks, “A Street in Bronzeville” (1945)
“A Street in Bronzeville” was Brooks’s first book of poetry. It details, in stark terms, the oppression of blacks in a Chicago neighborhood. Critics hailed the book, and in 1950 Brooks became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was also appointed as U.S. Poet Laureate by the Librarian of Congress in 1985.
Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man” (1952)
Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is told by an unnamed narrator who views himself as someone many in society do not see, much less pay attention to. Ellison addresses what it means to be an African-American in a world hostile to the rights of a minority, on the cusp of the emerging civil rights movement that was to change society irrevocably.
Malcolm X and Alex Haley, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965)
When “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (born Malcolm Little) was published, The New York Times called it a “brilliant, painful, important book,” and it has become a classic American autobiography. Written in collaboration with Alex Haley (author of “Roots”), the book expressed for many African-Americans what the mainstream civil rights movement did not: their anger and frustration with the intractability of racial injustice.
Toni Morrison, “Beloved” (1987)
Toni Morrison won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her post-Civil War novel based on the true story of an escaped slave and the tragic consequences when a posse comes to reclaim her. The author won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, and in 2006 The New York Times named “Beloved” “the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years.”
Chairing the jury for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is one of the single pleasures of my life. The thought that a poet – a white, female poet – had the foresight to endow a prize to honor excellence and diversity, at the height of the Great Depression, is something of a miracle, isn’t it? And in a few days, we will honor her commitment to racial equality and justice by recognizing this year’s winners of her prize, the 76th such occasion. It is humbling to thumb through the names of previous winners, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and three Nobel laureates, Wole Soyinka, Toni Morrison, and Derek Walcott. God bless Edith Anisfield Wolf, and the Cleveland Foundation for so judiciously protecting her legacy.