Five Cents for Zora

Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten, 1938

Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten, 1938

A few years ago, I read Langston Hughes’ autobiography, The Big Sea. In addition to stories of his own experiences in Paris and Harlem among the minds and creatives that made up the Harlem Renaissance, some of the most interesting things he talked about was his time spent with the irrepressible sheer force of personality that was author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston.

I recently came across a story from it that I had written down because it stood out to me. I remember laughing when I first read it, imagining her practically bouncing down a Harlem street doing this. Hughes said:

“She tells this story on herself, about needing a nickel to go downtown one day and wondering where on earth she would get it. As she approached the subway, she was stopped by a blind beggar holding out his cup.

‘Please help the blind! Help the blind! A nickel for the blind!’

‘I need money worse than you today,’ said Miss Hurston, taking five cents from his cup. ‘Lend me this! Next time, I’ll give it back.’ And she went on downtown.”

I remember the first time I read her masterwork Their Eyes Were Watching God and it was your usual dissected-to-death-beyond-meaning school assignment. Honestly, I didn’t really appreciate it until re-reading it years later and that time, it was the nuances of the words, the way she could make a character’s voice so true and her snap-crackle-pop way of writing that were more clear to me.

As a writer, it’s something you hope for…that the reader actually “gets” what you are trying to say. Otherwise, something can become lost. It goes without saying that we writers need readers and I think that we can evolve as readers. That at some point something “kicks” in and we become better readers. When I say “better” reader, I’m not talking about what we read–as to me the medium and genre doesn’t matter–but how we read and understand it.

I mean really, if the story’s not speaking to you…why would you listen?

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