A Grandmother’s Birthday, A Granddaughter’s Gratitude on Pub Day by Victoria Bond
In 1942, in Newark, New Jersey, a pretty, petite Black girl named Dolores Hill tested into an honors English class. A high school sophomore, an excellent dancer, and an avid reader, Dolores felt uncomfortable in the course. Her new classmates, who had been on the same college preparatory track for at least a year were all white, knew each other, and lived in the same, if not similar neighborhoods in what was then a thriving Newark. Dolores had different friends, (Black ones), lived in a different neighborhood, (a Black neighborhood), and had not considered college in light of the work opportunities made recently available to African Americans and women by the war effort. The teacher, an exacting woman, seemed to Dolores then very, very old. Now ninety-three, Dolores who is my grandmother, can’t recall the teacher’s name, but in retrospect she doesn’t think the instructor was actually a day over thirty. However, the thing that nearly eighty years of life hasn’t been able to wipe from my grandmother’s memory is just how hostile that woman was to having a single Black student in her advanced class.
She seated my grandmother in the back of the room. When other students had their hands up, the teacher rubbernecked and called instead on my grandmother. The blackboard may have been at the front of the room, but the Black girl was in the rear, so that’s where the attention of the teacher and the other students were focused. My grandmother rose to the challenge. A test on literary terms was coming up. My grandmother studied non-stop. On the day the students were due to receive their exam grades, my grandmother was nervous. With the graded tests in hand, the teacher walked the aisles of desks espousing disappointedly about how only one student in the class earned a perfect score. She stopped cold at my grandmother’s desk, angrily placed the marked paper down, and declared, “It was Dolores Hill.” The next day my grandmother was removed from honors English. She was relieved. Instead of studying over lunch, she returned to reading for pleasure in the library during recess. During freshman year, also over lunch, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, had turned my grandmother into a lifelong reader. Chasing the high that book supplied her with, my grandmother has spent the rest of her long life reading obsessively, in her prime, up to six or seven novels a month.
This story of my grandmother’s happens to be at the top of my mind now because my novel, Zora & Me: The Summoner, the finale of the Zora & Me Trilogy, publishes on October 13th, 2020, my grandmother’s 93rd birthday. Inspired by the childhood of novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, the series, which I co-created with T.R. Simon, tells the story of a Black girl genius determined to understand the mysteries that inform the world around her. In our novels, the mysteries Zora unravels hinge on Black people’s struggle for justuce in a context where the misuse and murder of Black life was par for the American course. Unlike the fictionalized Zora I’ve co-created, the mysteries that interested me as a girl were the ones I read and then watched with my grandmother on PBS: Sherlock, Poirot and Miss Marple. The mystery novels I most loved were paperback gothics that my grandmother turned me onto featuring terrified young heroines fleeing mid-19th century death-trap estates. And the books I read and reread were the ten or twelve poetry anthologies that my grandmother brought home after the East Orange Public Library where she worked discarded them. One of those books, Golden Slippers: An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers edited by Arna Bontemps, whose birthday also happens to be October 13th, changed my life. That book in particular presented me with something that the stories I devoured then didn’t offer: the model of a Black voice with which to speak my world.
In Golden Slippers, I met the likes of Georgia Douglass Johnson, Paul Lawerence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. The sounds of words, the beauty of the images they conjured, and how neatly and precisely those images were arranged on sculpted lines moved me to try to write. For years I wrote only poetry, it dominated my reading as a teen and college student, and I got a MFA in poetry. When I began to read Zora Neale Hurston’s writing back in high school the poetry of it awed me. Lines like these from her autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road, “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows with a harp and a sword in my hands.” Or this one from her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, “No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep,” is the kind of writing that inspired me to pursue this vocation in the first place. Sentences and phrases like those are the treasure I pursue when I read. They are also the target that I privilege above all else when I write.
In my work on the Zora & Me Trilogy, three things that my grandmother seeded in my reading as a child have joined: mysteries, historical fiction, and a distinctly historical African American voice. I think about the audaciousness of the real-life Zora and other often quoted lines of hers come to mind: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” It was never beyond my grandmother why that teacher booted her from the honors class. What I can’t deny is the grace it has been in my life that my grandmother shared her love of books and stories with me. Happy Birthday, Grandma. I love you.
Victoria Bond is the coauthor, with T. R. Simon, of the John Steptoe New Talent Author Award winner Zora and Me. She holds an MFA in creative writing and is a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. Victoria Bond lives in New Jersey with her family.
Join Words Bookstore for the virtual book launch of Zora and Me: The Summoner today at 7 PM. Click here for tickets.