|VOL. 1 NO. 2 SEPTEMBER 1999|
Charlotte Hunt was never on the best seller list. She never had a poem in the American Poetry Review and, as far as I know, she never wrote a single story. Yet this smiling, round-faced high school teacher had a profound effect on American literature. It is an ongoing effect-- one that will continue to be felt for at least another half century.
In 1973, Charlotte Hunt and Alice Walker located Zora Neale Hurston's unmarked grave in a knee-high, snake-infested wasteland of a graveyard in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Both Hunt and Walker, who had met at Central Michigan University, had an ongoing interest in the nearly forgotten African-American novelist and folklorist. Hurston was the subject of Hunt's graduate dissertation, for which Charlotte had amassed what was probably the largest collection of information on Zora then in existence. For Walker, Zora was both history and inspiration, and both women were appalled at the neglect to which Zora had fallen victim.
Again, it was 1973. Hurston had been dead thirteen years and Walker would not publish "The Color Purple" for nearly a decade. And except for "Their Eyes Were Watching God," considered Hurston's masterpiece, all of Zora Neale Hurston's books were out of print. Yet Zora's influence on Walker's writing begins in "The Color Purple," especially in her use of dialect and folklore. Walker has acknowledged that Hurston was not only her literary aunt, but the aunt of all African-American writers.
Charlotte Hunt was neither a writer nor was she African-American. She simply loved great literature and hated injustice. Her storytelling ability and enthusiasm instilled in her high school students a love of good writing and of reading. She would often purchase multiple copies of a book she had enjoyed to give out to promising students. Once she purchased thirty copies of Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" for that purpose.
But to shorten a story that should by all rights be much longer, Charlotte Hunt and Alice Walker found Zora Neale Hurston's grave and Walker paid for a modest headstone to mark it. It was all she could afford at the time. Years later, Charlotte toured Florida on a lecture circuit, educating Floridians about the accomplishments of their forgotten daughter. Alice Walker wrote "The Color Purple." And regardless of what people think of "The Color Purple", it is impossible to deny that it is a landmark African-American novel that is approached closely only by "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
The popularity of "The Color Purple" changed many editors' minds about publishing other African-American writers. In 1973, a black writer had to be extraordinarily gifted even to be published at all; someone like James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison or Alice Walker. In 1999 we have Terry McMillan, Omar Tryee, Shenika Jackson, Anita Bunkley, and their like-- writers who wouldn't have gotten a second reading thirty years ago-- making tons of money. Because of "The Color Purple," other gifted young writers such as Gloria Naylor and Rita Dove have won major awards. Because of "The Color Purple," Toni Morrison-- as gifted a writer as anyone in the U.S.-- won the Nobel Prize. Our literature has changed forever. It has become richer, fuller, more colorful and more representative of our population.
Here's the point. All this could not have happened without "The Color Purple." And "The Color Purple" could not have been written without Alice Walker's almost obsessive interest in Zora Neale Hurston. Perhaps she could have maintained this intensity without Charlotte Hunt's help; we'll never know. The fact remains that they made the journey together. A gracious woman, Alice Walker has acknowledged Charlotte Hunt's involvement with Zora Neale Hurston in her book "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," and also in an essay for "Zora! A Woman and Her Community," published on the occasion of the first annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival in her home town of Eatonville, Florida, in 1990.
Due to the efforts of Charlotte Hunt and Alice Walker, there are more of Zora Neale Hurstons writings in print now than there were in her lifetime. She has finally gotten the recognition that she deserves and has become the literary ancestor that Hunt and Walker always knew she was.
Charlotte Hunt died in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1996 of cancer at the age of 55. She spoke to Alice Walker on the phone only a few days before her death, completing the cycle that began in Michigan almost a quarter of a century before. There is an inscription from Walker in one the books in Charlotte's collection. It reads: "For Charlotte who showed me 'her' Florida & brought me closer to Zora." In Walker's essay "Anything We Love Can Be Saved: The Resurrection of Zora Neale Hurston and Her Work," she sums it up by saying, "And we were successful, I think, Charlotte Hunt and I, for we lifted the pall of embarrassment at our people's negligence off ourselves."
Yes they did.
- P. V. LeForge
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