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An Inspiration for Independent Individuals

Valerie Boyd's Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston

It is the classic All-American story: A young talented, driven individual makes it against all odds. But the portrait of created in Valerie Boyd's biography of Zora Neale Hurston is hardly that simplistic. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neal Hurston is the story of an extraordinary woman and her extraordinary life.

Hurston's lively and independent character comes alive on the pages through Boyd's thorough research and extensive quoting from Hurston's correspondence. We see a woman who refuses to be tied down to the traditional roles delegated to her gender and race, even the expectations from other prominent African-American leaders. Yet at the same time, as a writer and anthropologist, her career is guided by the desire to present the inherent beauty of "her culture," that of an African-American woman from the South.

The title, Wrapped in Rainbows, is taken from an African-American folk saying Hurston most likely heard throughout her youth. To a certain extent, however, the title belies the strength of Hurston's character and dogged persistence, encouraging the false perception that her successes are not of her own creation but rather an individual who was blessed and "wrapped in rainbows."

Similarly, at times Boyd's commentary is stilted which takes away from the richness of the story. At one particular point Boyd indicates that something is about to happen that will mar Hurston's hard earned happiness. It is a cheap trick, particularly when just a page later we learn that the "personal tragedy" did not have a negative effect on her life. They are small and irritating flaws in an otherwise genuinely compelling tale.

After a semi-idyllic youth in Eatonville, which would later serve as the setting for some of her most provoking work, Hurston was virtually abandoned by her father. Forced to fend for herself from the age of 13, she struggled to finish high school. Finally at the age of 26, she took matters into her own hands and enrolled in Baltimore's public education as a 16-year-old. A talented if not consistent student she attended Howard University and became the first African-American woman at Barnard.

Her love of life becomes particularly apparent as Boyd follows her through the Harlem Renaissance. We see her development as a professional writer and anthropologist, writing her two masterpieces Mules and Men and later Their Eyes Were Watching God. During this time the friendships and mentors that defined her life come to fruition, friendships with Langston Hughes, the author Frannie Hurst and anthropologist Frank Boas.

Her explorations of voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica combined with her field studies in the American south brought her recognition as the most prominent authority in African-American folklore and culture. In fact, while in Haiti she claimed to photograph a zombie which Boyd describes. Unfortunately, the zombie photograph is not included amongst the photos in Wrapped in Rainbows. Boyd continues to follow Hurston through a variety of professional difficulties and the accusations that eventually lead to the obscurity of her final days.

It is a dramatic and inspiring story about the woman who has been "triply canonized-in the black, the American, and the feminist literary traditions" and refused to be defined as anything but an individual.

Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston
by Valerie Boyd
Scribner; ISBN: 0684842300
Hardcover, 528 pages (December 2002)

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