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Her words brought to life

December 05, 2004|Paula L. Woods | Paula L. Woods is the author of "Dirty Laundry."

A trailblazer and key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) defied categorization. She was a folklorist, a novelist, a playwright and an inspiration to such writers as Alice Walker (who placed a headstone on Hurston's unmarked Florida grave in 1973) and Toni Morrison. Fond of wearing slacks and jaunty hats and smoking cigarettes, Hurston was an independent woman at a time when the personal price for such self-expression was high.

Her niece, Lucy Anne Hurston, captures the essence of that indomitable spirit in "Speak, So You Can Speak Again" (Doubleday: 36 pp., $29.95 with CD), a unique and highly personal interactive biography written with the cooperation of the Hurston estate and the assistance of editor Malaika Adero. These carefully researched pages of text and photographs are augmented by an amazing treasure trove of facsimiles of Zora Neale Hurston's first published short story, her correspondence, typescripts of poetry and plays as well as a handwritten copy of the first chapter of her seminal novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

There are even handmade Christmas cards and a dictionary of Harlem slang. The ephemera of Hurston's rich and varied life is handsomely presented, some items replicating original burn and tear marks in tipped-in envelopes and pockets accompanying the text, making discovering them akin to finding the letters of a beloved family member in a dusty attic.

But what will thrill Hurston fans and those readers interested in exploring America's cultural roots most is listening to the author on an accompanying CD sing songs she collected for the Library of Congress during her many anthropological forays among Southern black folk and relate her struggles to write and pay the rent. It is a magical and moving portrait of a singular American voice. *

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