The Induction of Zora Neale Hurston

November 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Today, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine inducted Zora Neale Hurston into the Poets Corner during the Sunday Evensong. It was, as the annual inductions always are, full of gorgeous choral music and solemn ritual, with a candlelit procession to the stone where her words “The dream is the truth” were inscribed. Cathedral Poet in Residence Marilyn Nelson talked about what that means for us today, when dreamers and what one might call “dream studies” (the humanities) are being cut from college curricula and treated with general scorn. There is enormous sadness in this for those of us who remember a different era, remember college as being, among other things, a dreamtime. Then she read from Ta-Nehesi’s Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. He uses the word “dreamer” to refer to those lost in the illusion and prison of the American Dream: those who must suffer to create it for others, those who work for it and never achieve it, and those who think they have it and as a result are blind to those around them. Marilyn is inclined to restore the idea of the dream as something hopeful and forward-looking, something that cannot be destroyed by history.

I loved Ta-Nehisi’s book, which I read the week it came out; its darkness was a corrective, a fierce defense of truth as a necessary cleansing, and the growth that comes from having done that, having thrown off, as much as a person can, the murderous glare of society that breaks Black lives.

Who is society? Is it you and me? Only the racist policeman? Where is it exactly? I don’t know the answer to this. I take those tests online that have you respond to words and images quickly to uncover hidden bias: “black” teamed with “good” or “dangerous”—which pairing do you see first?—and find in myself, in the testers’ words, “some racism.” And so. The flaws are there. Coates has them too. What stands out is his uncompromising determination to speak what he has experienced, and the conclusions he has reached—whatever you may think of them. Hurston’s work has that quality as well, with more of the novelist’s embellishment and surrender to enchantment. (And she had her strong opinions and interests, which many disagreed with, and which may have led to her slipping out of the canon for a while.)

We do need—young people especially need—the space and time, the continuous encouragement of art (seeing it, listening and reading it) to create worlds that may never leave our thoughts, or may find a page or a canvas or an instrument, or build an intimacy with friend or lover that remains private always. Dreams are stitched into our lives in small ways as well as the grand—poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world—manner. Dreams light the afternoon walk, the evening dinner preparation, the bedtime storytelling (to child, partner or cat); dreams excrete the atmosphere in which the self can breathe.

And they also veil reality. They distract, they play games with the other—the longed for, hated, neglected or misunderstood other—they are the substance of lies and desire. Hurston writes about her characters Janie and Tea Cake, in Their Eyes were Seeing God, “She couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung above him. He was a glance from God.”

Later, after a bite from a rabid dog, he tries to kill her. Dreams are dangerous. Every attempt to truly live is.

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