Barbara and Zora: Reflections on Reading as Tribute
by Whitney Lorraine
My grandmother left small town North Carolina when her family realized that her big mouth was going to get her killed one day. Grandma asked too many questions for a short dark skinned black woman in the South. She spoke out of turn. She was too smart for her own good. Knowing her, she probably held gazes instead of looking away.
She left for the city— Fayetteville— to get her college degree, before following her military man to Washington DC. There, she earned her master’s degree at American University, concentrating in Special Education. Strict, patient, and determined, she taught behaviorally challenged children for over 30 years before retiring.
I was no match for her. Bright yet rebellious, I attempted to reject everything she taught. Attempted being the operative word. She refused to buy digital clocks and watches until I learned how to properly tell time. She refused to give me the 5 cents when I failed to calculate tax on a candy bar. She charted my good days on the fridge, and took me to the movies when they began to outnumber the bad days. Kudos Grandma, for sitting through The Ring while I kept my face covered throughout the majority of the film.
When I discovered books, it was Grandma who would spend hours with me at Borders bookstore (Rest in Peace Borders), when I couldn’t decide between the latest “I’m a witch discovering my powers in high school” and “the new boy in school is really hot but has a secret” books. As a teenager, she was the person who drove in the dark when I absolutely had to pick up Deathly Hallows at midnight. She cultivated my intellectual development while others emphasized my athletic ability.
When she passed, two cancers simultaneously overtaking her body, I searched her home for something I could take with me. Her modest estate wouldn’t be released for months following, but I was looking for something with more sentimental value than monetary. Walking around the house in her plush white cotton robe, my gaze settled on a bookshelf near the door to the garage.
Moses, Man of the Mountain. Seraph on the Suwanee. Their Eyes Were Watching God.
There were more, but those were the three I took. Taking more felt less like picking a token and more like the beginnings of clearing her home.
Now, these three books sit together on my bookshelf, an altar to a woman who quite literally taught me everything I know. I’ve made a pact to myself to spend her birth month—August—familiarizing myself with Zora Neale Hurston’s work as my own personal tribute. I’ll finish these three, interspersing them with her poems and short stories, before moving on to Mules and Men, which was left on the shelf in North Carolina.
I like to think she saw herself in these books. Perhaps somewhere in Hurston’s accented dialogue are echoes of our family in North Carolina. But I also like to think she saw herself in a bold and unyielding woman like Zora Neale Hurston— maybe in reading more of Zora, I’ll find that I have Barbara on my bookshelf too.
Whitney Lorraine is a 20-something book reviewer and blogger at Brown Books & Green Tea, where she focuses on diverse literature. Born and raised in Maryland with roots in the Bahamas, she’s hopelessly devoted to seafood, tea, and rum. She’s also quite friendly, so hit her up on Twitter or Instagram with great book recommendations!
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