From 30 January through 2 February, 2019, the ZORA! Festival in Eatonville joined with the University of Central Florida and CAAR (Collegium for African American Research) to host a nourishing and memorable gathering, attracting an international cohort of scholars to honor a famous but undeservedly neglected writer, Zora Neale Hurston. My contribution consisted of drawing Zora into the same orbit with Alice Walker, Soraya Miré and Khady Koita, the latter three having wielded their pens against FGM as fierce, unrelenting campaigners for the genital integrity of girls. Privileged to present in session 14, “Zora Neale Hurston in Conversation with Other Writers,” chaired by Claire Oberon Garcia, I was joined by panelists John Gruesser (Sam Houston State University, USA) who has a chapter in my book on Alice Walker; Arlette Frund (l’Université de Tours, France), with whom I attended the first CAAR conference in Tenerife more than two decades ago; and Anne Adams (Cornell University), who published my first essay on FGM novels in her anthology, edited with Carole Boyce Davies, Ngambika. Studies of Women in African Literature (1986). Conversely, Anne Adams critiqued a Ghanaian youth novel against excision in my book Empathy and Rage.
So the sister (and brother-) hood I conjured among our authors was in evidence among presenters, too. Even if, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes it, Zora’s “is a rhetoric of division, rather than a fiction of psychological or cultural unity.”
He is characterizing the complexity of Zora’s multiple selves – anthropologist, autobiographer, short-story writer, novelist and entertainer – negotiated under patriarchal white supremacy but guided in research by the father of cultural relativism, Franz Boas.
Renowned for “sharpening her oyster knife,” expressing astonishment that anyone would wish to deny themselves the pleasure of “her company,” Zora throws the gauntlet down to racism, flamboyant in defiance of its aim to shame.
The spirit and confidence exhibited by the “genius of the South” are inflected throughout Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy, and, I will argue, in two representative memoirs by Miré and Khady whose protagonists, like Tashi, have endured genital wounds, protested publicly, and published excruciating yet poetic tales condemning FGM.
That Zora grew up in Eatonville, the first registered all-black town, likely contributed to her “unshakeable sense of identity” (Valerie Boyd). This in turn lay the foundation for absorbing her mother’s encouragement. “Jump at the Sun,” the matriarch advised, a metaphor for successful agency in a broader world. An undogmatic “folklorist who insisted on black pride,” Zora inspired reverence in Alice Walker who helped ensure the older artist’s legacy.
These four authors – Hurston, Walker, Miré, and Khady (Koita)– adhere to one another by virtue of their courage. Despite infibulation, excision and clitoridectomy designed to produce somatic and psychological inferiority, — in Simone de Beauvoir’s sense that “women are made, not born” and here subject to assaults literally cutting them down to size –, Khady Koita in Mutilée (2005)* and Soraya Miré in Girl with Three Legs (2011) reclaim and perform, like Zora, an integrity of character that permits them to take enormous risks in ‘coming out’ as cut in the Diaspora.
Thus, far from withered, they jump from the page as larger than life.
Today, the sexism that insists on genital wounding harvests increased opprobrium, often with defaming xenophobic intent in Western cultures that are, by the way, not without their own clitoridectomy outbreaks. History notwithstanding, currently right-wing rhetoric coopts and distorts both the meaning of ‘female circumcision’ to indigenous practitioners and the internal opposition. Indeed, although December 2016 witnessed the very first, long overdue ‘Summit’ of activists in the US, many of them first generation immigrants who had been subjected to the blade, that gathering came twenty years after other host nations had begun acting with and on behalf of girls. Zora’s confidence and Alice Walker’s advocacy can be detected in this US response.
A chronicle of Walker’s influence and reception, my book presents the fraught history of a US movement to end FGM. And Alice approved.
Thus, despite the present nadir of racist discourse condoned outrageously by governments, concern for girls’ and women’s health and rights appears defiant with increasing numbers of self-confident, outspoken advocates for genital integrity. As Walker notes, “Zora is a great inspirer. She gives people permission to be themselves,” a clear rejection of definitions that would limit the humanity of others.
* [Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights. Trans. Tobe Levin. Orig. 2005]