Wisdom Fiction (Part 2) by Elise M. Edwards


Elise Edwards“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

In my previous two posts, I’ve discussed the wisdom that can be found in black women’s literature. Continuing this series, I’m sharing a statement from the most well-known novel written by Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was an American novelist, folklorist, anthropologist, and cultural critic whose work was first published in the 1920s-1940s. Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937 and has since been reissued and adapted into film.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” This quote is one that has circled around my mind every New Year and every birthday for many years. These times of year are when I’m likely to reflect on the previous year and wonder what has come from it.

What kind of year was 2015? Concerning gender and racial justice, I don’t know whether we got questions or answers. If 2015 provided answers, they weren’t satisfactory to feminists. The #SayHerName Movement emerged in 2015 alongside other movements like #BlackLivesMatter to call attention to violence and police brutality against black women and LGBT persons. I question whether critics who assert statements like “all lives matter” and “police lives matter” are more invested in criticizing the rhetoric of a movement than preventing needless deaths, trauma, and injury.

This past year also featured intense public battles over funding to Planned Parenthood and women’s health initiatives, high profile rape cases (Bill Cosby), terrorist attacks by Boko Haram and Da’esh that perpetrate violence against women, and a persistent Syrian refugee crisis that overwhelmingly affects women and children. According to the UN Refugee Agency, “Over the past three years, 2.8 million people have fled the civil war in Syria – nearly four in five of them are women and children. There are now 145,000 Syrian refugee families in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq headed by women, a quarter of all Syrian families on the run.”

How does Zora Neale Hurston help us address these conflicts and the numerous others that warrant our action? Her words call me to reflect and look at what is occurring in my local context, national arena, and global stage. They call me to assess whether my scholarship, my teaching, and my blogging are asking relevant questions and providing thoughtful answers (at least occasionally). And finally, Hurston calls me to examine my inward state as I look outward. Have I given adequate time and attention to pursuing questions of the self or responding to my most elemental needs and desires? I have mercifully survived another year. Have I flourished?

Zora Neale Hurston was a courageous woman committed to her craft, to folklore, and to art. She wrote and published despite sexism, racism, ageism, and scandals. She persisted and survived, but did she flourish? When she died, she was poor and uncelebrated and was buried in an unmarked grave. There’s no appropriate way to romanticize the harsh realities she faced. However, I’m encouraged that her legacy endures. I’m grateful that interest in her writings and her life resurged after her death and are integral to womanist theological discourse (an ethical approach primarily by, for, and about black women and their communities). Katie Cannon, a foremother of womanist ethics, wrote about Hurston’s writings in “Resources for a Constructive Ethic: The Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston” in Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community. In Hurston’s work, Cannon finds descriptions of a positive sense of self that exists among marginalized Blacks living in the early and middle decades of the 20th century. She also finds a deep commitment to Black life.

A positive sense of self and commitment to life can be difficult to maintain when you face opposition for the work you do. As feminists and supporters of feminism, it is critical that we take the time for self-reflection and self-care. We may find positive descriptions of ourselves in art and in the responses of those who love and support us. But we will not be able to sustain a healthy sense of self without making space for our spirit to connect to the forces that are life-giving. I name the force that is life-giving “God” and I access God through the teachings of and about Jesus and through very particular Christian communities that affirm my gendered and racialized being. When I enter spaces that are more hostile, I am able to draw from this spiritual well to remember my purpose and my true self. In 2016, I commit to practices that nurture my spirit.

Friends, as you negotiate 2016’s pressing questions and answers, I hope you find the life-giving resources that you need to continue in your pursuit of justice.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

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Categories: Activism, Black Feminism, Books, Christianity, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Fiction, Folklore, Justice, Politics, Racism, Rape, Rape Culture, Reform, Reproductive Justice, Social Justice, Violence Against Women, War and Peace, Womanist Theology, women of color

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12 replies

  1. Thank you for this beautiful essay. I love Zora Neale Hurston.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. No matter the color of our skin, we do indeed need life-giving resources, not just in 2016 but to the ends of our lives. Thanks for writing this.

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  3. Thank you for evoking the wisdom, brave and determined life, and memorable words of Zora Neale Hurston. Her words resonate and inspire in this beautiful, thoughtful post.

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  4. Hi and thanks Elise! One of the most imaginative, historic black women I’ve met is HARRIET POWERS, known as the “mother of African-American quilting,” and who was born into slavery in Athens, Georgia on October 29, 1837 (died in 1911). I have a website devoted to her work and an endearing photo of her there too, please see earlywomenmasters.net/powers/

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    • I will take a look. Quilting can be a very powerful medium. I’m familiar with contemporary artists, but had not heard of Harriet Powers. Have you read The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd? It’s a fictional account of Sarah Grimke and the enslaved woman given to her named Handful (or Hetty). Handful is a skilled seamstress who learned to make story quilts from her mother who was taught by her mother. There’s a powerful narrative about personal history and agency in their quilts. I wouldn’t be surprised if the author’s research included material on Powers.

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  5. Where do those who are on the front lines find the strength to go on. For you it is the Black church, others turn to other forms of spirituality, this is good, but it does not ensure that we also care for ourselves. We have been taught to give everything to others We must also understand that to love your neighbor as yourself also means to love your self and take time to enjoy life, for as Simone de Beauvoir said, “if we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” Thanks for raising these questions. We need to keep asking them.

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  6. Thanks for celebrating Zora Neale Hurston, feminist literature, and women’s literature as ways to see ourselves and our world. Over 30 years ago, when I was getting my bachelor’s degree in English, no matter which literature class I took, there were NO contemporary women writers on assigned or suggested reading lists. I was so upset by this, I was determined to only read fiction by women. I can still remember the delicious wonder of reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Women writers changed my life immensely and for the good.

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