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Intersections: Crafting a Voice for Black Culture

Walker's latest book, <I>Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart</I>
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Walker's latest book, Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart

In 1975, writer Alice Walker wrote an essay about her search for Zora Neale Hurston. In the process, Walker helped lift from obscurity the work and life story of the most widely published black woman author of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance. Walker -- author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple -- never met Hurston. But she says she feels a profound connection to her. For Intersections, a series on artists and their inspirations, Walker talks with NPR's Vertamae Grosvenor.

Hurston was a trained anthropologist as well as a writer, and her stories -- about fruit pickers and hoodoo workers in sawmill and turpentine camps -- create an intimate portrait of southern black rural life. For Walker, Hurston looms as a disciplined, loving authority figure, a grandmother of sorts for black culture who provides "cultural nourishment" and "spiritual food."

When Hurston died in 1960, her stories and books had gone out of print. Langston Hughes, who knew Hurston in the 1930s, included Hurston's "The Gilded Six Bits" in a 1967 anthology titled The Best Short Stories by Black Writers. Although Walker also had a story included in that volume, she says it took her years to discover Hurston's work, published just pages away from her own.

Several years later, a neighbor lent Walker a copy of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. That prompted Walker to research Hurston's life and work. In 1973, Walker came across Hurston's unmarked grave in Ft. Pierce, Fla. She purchased a headstone for Hurston's tomb and had it inscribed "A Genius of the South." Later, she edited a Hurston reader, taking its title from a Hurston quote: I Love Myself When I Am Laughing and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive.

Though some have accused Hurston's work of portraying blacks as minstrel characters, Walker says Hurston was "wildly in love with people of color" and wanted to make sure they had a foundation in their own reality.

"Without a foundation in our own reality -- you can see this happening all the time -- people don't know what to do," Walker says."They don't know what to buy, they don't know what kind of house to live in… they don't know who they are. For god's sake and for goddesses' sake… appreciate who you are. There is nobody finer on this planet for you to emulate than yourself."

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Vertamae Grosvenor