Victoria Bond holds an MFA in creative writing and is a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. T.R. Simon has an M.A. in cultural anthropology and is an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York’s Publishing Certificate Program, where she teaches a course on children’s book publishing. Together, Bond and Simon are co-authors of the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award winner and Edgar Award nominee Zora and Me, the first volume in their historical mystery trilogy imagining the childhood of Black author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. We asked Bond and Simon to interview each other about Hurston’s legacy and completing their trilogy with The Summoner.
T.R. Simon: [Even though she died in 1960,] Zora [Neale Hurston] doesn’t stop publishing and people don’t stop writing or talking about her. Her Harlem Renaissance short story collection Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick was released in early 2020. Barracoon, Hurston’s account of one of the last survivors of the Atlantic slave trade, came out in 2018. There are also a host of picture books about Hurston’s childhood, and the Zora and Me trilogy fictionalizes her as what the New York Times called a “girl detective.” Why is it that almost 130 years after her birth Zora continues to be so relevant?
Victoria Bond: Because Zora was so much before her time, the times are still trying to catch up with her! It’s funny because this past summer with so much chatter about the Harper’s letter on cancel culture I found myself thinking some about Zora’s best-known controversial position against the Brown v. Board of Education decision. And that’s not the only time Zora was accused of being backward or anti-progress! The likes of Richard Wright slammed Zora’s work for celebrating minstrelsy while ignoring the stark realities of racism. So, there are two reasons why Zora was canceled by the mid-20th century literary establishment that probably could even cause quite the brouhaha today: an exploration of Black life that made other Black people uncomfortable, coupled with Black political attitudes that also made Black people uncomfortable. But as we well know, “uncomfortable” is not bad or wrong or lacking. Sometimes the things that make us most uncomfortable are good and dense and complicated, which Zora was personally and professionally.
Her artistry as a novelist and the depth, strength, and originality of her anthropological research is why she is such a remarkable and important American intellectual figure. It’s also of course why she was resurrected from that Land of Forgotten Geniuses where she was entombed for about the last 15 years of her life. The fact that Alice Walker’s work on bringing Zora to the masses mainly rested on a feminist platform speaks to how perspectives shift over time as the cultural landscape changes. And change it has since Zora began to disappear in the 1940s. Canceled by her peers because she was considered retro. Recovered by late 20th-century writers, teachers, and researchers who found her to be utterly modern for how she lived and made her work. Talk about whiplash! And that’s part of why Zora is a kind of a folk hero now and perpetually relevant. At the beginning of my answer I said that Zora was ahead of her time. What I really mean is that Zora was/is timeless.
Simon: Of course I agree. I also believe part of Zora’s timelessness is what I see as her organic feminist ethos. Nosy, opinionated, adventurous, performative, brilliant, and prolific, Zora can’t help but continue to generate interest. A single woman defying all the norms of her time, for Black and white women, traveling throughout the South with a pistol, shunning conventional ideas about marriage and the acceptable role of an educated Black woman, Zora was and is a beacon for women. She dared to live her life completely on her terms. Rather than let racist sexism limit her, I believe she saw it as a personal challenge. Young Zora hit the road, and for as much as her career was defined by excavating the fascinating social and political contours of her childhood hometown Eatonville, [Florida], her way of living was far ahead of its time. Zora is still far ahead of me. I’m not sure that today I would have the temerity to lie about my age to secure the education I wanted, move to a new city and establish myself as a literary and artistic sensation, and then strike out on my own to collect folklore even as the conventional wisdom of my field told me it was unwise to “study one’s own group.” Zora, for however much she was critiqued by Richard Wright and his cohorts, had more artistic moxy and gumption than they did in challenging ideas of white supremacist patriarchy. Fully in line with today’s most progressive ethos, Zora’s work says that we as Black folk are unapologetically here, and every inch of our lives as Black men and women is worthy of representation. Zora is timeless because she still embodies for us today what we should aspire to as women.
Simon: What did/do we believe Zora’s childhood has to teach young folks today?
Bond: Like many children of color in the United States currently, I grew up going to segregated schools. Data from 2016–2017 shows that nearly 50% of Black kids attend a majority-minority school while almost 70% of white kids attend white-majority schools. The elementary school in my working class community was not equal to those in the neighboring well-to-do white towns. The result was that, like most Black kids, I experienced a great deal of systemic racism without ever interacting with white people. My fascination with Hurston and my interest in writing the Zora and Me trilogy revolved around Eatonville, and the first all-Black incorporated municipality in the U.S. Though urban New Jersey in the 1980s was nothing like bucolic Florida in the Jim Crow South—because everyone was Black in my life, from my family, to my friends, to the teachers, to my pediatrician and dentist, until I was in eighth grade—I’ve had a strong sense all my life of what Black community is and who Black professionals are. And in my Black community, Black history was celebrated. For example, there was not a week that went by when I was in elementary school that I didn’t sing“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” at least once. But don’t get me wrong here. I am in no way pushing a “separate but equal” line of thinking. How resources are distributed, health and educational outcomes, and so many other facets of our lives expose “separate but equal” as a lie and excuse that American democracy posited in order to shellac over our country’s centuries-long status as an apartheid nation. However, what Zora’s childhood teaches us is that whole, intact communities, in any time and place, even under intense social pressures, can raise children who feel, know, and act from a place of abundance, not scarcity, and from their sense of value despite the fact that their parents would be remiss if we didn’t fear for our children’s safety.
Simon: I could not agree more! I grew up going to an integrated public school for a time and then a predominately white private school and boarding school. Zora’s childhood fascinates me because, in the ways that she has reconstituted it in her autobiography, it lives up to my imagination of what loving, self-determining Black community should be. Zora’s stories of Eatonville’s inhabitants show us a world in which Black ways of being prevail even as the larger threat of white supremacy looms beyond its borders. I remain, in particular, being fascinated by Eatonville as an island, a safe haven where Black childhood was allowed to flourish. So often, Black children in fiction are represented as losing childhood innocence. Zora, however, depicted a childhood in which Black innocence is the single most important ingredient in preserving Eatonville as a self-governing entity. At the same time, Zora’s innocence is not simplistic. She knows there’s a wider world of inhospitable whiteness and, in fact, yearns to explore it. And it is precisely the ability to have had innocence in the middle of ferocious Jim Crow segregation that will make her impervious to the forms of racial shaming and attempts of erasure that worked to silence Black women. Eatonville is the wellspring of her self-esteem because as a child she knew the pleasures of following her own will, enjoying the expression of her own imagination, and pursuing her curiosity wherever it led. That childhood entitlement inoculated her against almost all forms of racist discrimination in the future. She experienced racism, but it could not impact her self-esteem. This is the gift of Eatonville in Zora’s life and the gift that you and I sought to give readers in return: a Black childhood that could not be crushed by racism.
Kids are looking for ways to navigate and cope with this 2020 moment the same as adults. What do you think the Zora and Me trilogy can offer readers at a time of environmental, racial, political, and social upheaval, all amid the pandemic?
Bond: Let’s just do a brief recap of what keeps many of us up at night: an easily transmissible infectious disease left to ravage the population, state-sponsored violence normalized in the United States of America, Black people murdered by police in their homes and on the street, and an economic despair that is deep and far-ranging. These are some of the things that I’m thinking about and figuring out how to discuss with my five-year-old son. These are things that kids are thinking and talking about while many of them are unable to go outside because the air is too toxic to breathe, they are experiencing food insecurity, struggling with remote learning, or wondering why the moms in yellow t-shirts were attacked in Portland.
Because our world, especially now, seems to be shattering, I am proud to say that the Zora and Me trilogy has taken on heavy subjects ranging from the legacy of slavery, to lynching, to racial passing, to medical racism. And we’ve written about these subjects because 1) horrible, unfortunate things happen to and around kids all the time and narratives that don’t acknowledge and honor that reality gaslight young readers, and 2) kids need to know about the history of racial violence so they can understand what racial disparities are and why they exist. In each book of this series, the characters are grappling with a racially motivated murder. They deal with the events by trying to understand why it happened in the first place. One positive that has come out of 2020 is that white people are finally trying to educate themselves about racism and Black people’s history in this country. The Zora and Me trilogy is a good fit for that journey.
Simon: Zora’s life is a master course in resilience. If there’s one thing I hope young readers gain from our trilogy, it’s that while adversity is inevitable, we must try to meet it with a spirit of resilience. Zora faced so much adversity, from the death of her mother, to having to interrupt her education, to facing the racist sexism of Jim Crow in not just the South but the North, too. Every time life knocked Zora down she popped right back up. It’s not that Zora didn’t feel loss and pain—her mother’s death was the most excruciating loss of her life—but pain did not intimidate her. The fear of pain did not stop her. Instead, Zora used her talents, writing and performing, to mitigate both her own pain and the pain that segregation caused all Black folk at the time. By envisioning ways of being on the page that imbued Black folk with agency in who and how we loved, in how we constituted liberatory community, in how we held each other above the water line of racism, Zora’s writing helps us be more resilient. We wanted to introduce Zora’s ways of being resilient to young people who must today, just like Zora did as a child, face the two-headed hydra of ongoing racism and sexism.
Zora and Me: The Summoner by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon. Candlewick, $17.99 Oct. 13 ISBN 978-0-7636-4299-0