She was born poor in the South and died the same way, but in between those events, Zora earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1928 from Barnard College, Columbia University. A Black woman getting a degree in New York City before the Great Depression? I was impressed. I needed to know more. Until I found Zora, I couldn’t articulate what had been missing in my life.
I first discovered her in a Black Lit class in college. I was shocked that I had never heard of her before. I had read Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni. The great works of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid and others hadn’t been published yet. So it wasn’t nearly enough. And into that void walked Zora.
You have to remember, it was the ’60s. Black female writers were hard to come by. Stories about Black girls were scarcer still. I was sick of Nancy Drew. Once I lucked up on a novel about a Black girl. It was your typical coming-of-age tale, with the twist of how she encountered and dealt with racial discrimination. Now here was a story I could relate to. I attended Catholic school for 12 years and received regular lessons in veiled and unveiled prejudice from the nuns, staff and students. So I wrote my monthly book report on the Black chick and turned it in. Easy-peasy, right? Not.
Next thing I know, my hometown teacher, Sister R., is summoning my parents to school for a conference. Pretty serious stuff — my parents were upset. What had I done? Sister R., a racist in a habit, then informed my parents that the book report proved that I had psychological problems. The report, she said, was clear evidence that I disliked myself, hated being Black, and probably needed therapy.
Now Mama and Daddy were just blue-collar, Southern-bred Black folks. But they weren’t going to be sold a bill of goods just because someone was wearing a crucifix around their neck. Whatever kind of crazy I was, not being proud of being Black wasn’t one of them.
Sister R. hated the fact that I was Black. (We might have even still been Negro then). I grew up in a bedroom community of New York City, and it was all about the Blackness in my household, Malcom X, Lady Day, the Apollo…). Like every Black household — but Sister R. didn’t know that. But because of her reactions, even at 12, I understood I was onto something. I just had to wait a few years until I found Zora.
My parents were “salty” about the whole incident. Their attitude was “what the hell is wrong with her?!?” They doubled up on their efforts to school me about the racism I would encounter in life. Daddy was real mad about losing hours on his job to listen to Sister R.’s rants. Like Bernie Mac would say, “This is some BULL-shit.”