Looking for Zora’s Nieces: Black Historians of the Future
Image by Donte Neal
There is something to be said about the magic of Black women and time travel when we consider the lengths of erased history that Alice Walker had to unearth to arrive at the unmarked plot of land novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston’s body was left to. It would be Walker’s commitment to time and magic that would transplant the future of innumerable Black women (and men) in the arms and works of one of their favorite aunties.
In preserving the life, death, and genius of Hurston, Walker transfused a portal for which Auntie Zora is allowed to share the magic of her prophecy that highlights the histories of a people that the world assures does not exist. Walker articulated a well-known lesson for Black women--a now forced rite of passage for the consequence of their existence--that their protection of one another would have to extend beyond life because even in death, the systems that siphon the genius and essence from Black women feed on their continued erasure and suppression.
The goal of time-travel, Walker teaches in her essay Looking for Zora, is never to just carry her long-lost, but not forgotten Aunt to the future, but to create the space, within time, to hold the past accountable while defeating the very systems that forced her Aunt into a nameless and loveless grave, buried under the weeds of time.
Auntie Zora and Alice mastered survival and immortality by refining the blueprint to Black time-travel. In short, they defined Black vitality in the preservation of its history. Thus the history of blackness then becomes one of our greatest and most precious tools towards freedom. A tool that needs to arrive upon unborn and young afro-futurist fighters so they can do their part in dismantling the adaptive yet repetitive and thus predictable oppressive forces they will encounter. A tool that must be racialized Black and gendered woman, because it, too, is often forgotten or fumbled into the hands of the untrained and unworthy. Black women historian educators are the saving grace to a country that doesn’t deserve breath.
So, what is the Black woman educator to America? This is a question that can be only answered, first, by defining what America is without her?
Recognized by her milky-pale skin that stretches longingly westward with deceitful pureness, only to be interrupted in color by the strawberry hues latent in her cheeks and blonde locks, Columbia exists within the hopes of her countrymen. Her ripe flesh is pellucidly veiled with ambition and god’s will for her to know and have more, thus birthing desire and fear. Desire, for her patriots who will model wives and daughters in her likeness, and fear from the enemies and aggressors she creates to stand firm under her destruction. She is erotically exalted at her thighs, breast, and feet by her disciples who confuse their lust betwixt titillation of self and death of others. Columbia is the spitting image of the history of the U.S. government: immortally violent and “innocently” immoral. As a surprise to no one, no less, Auntie Zora as she reminds us “Gods always behave like the people who make them.”
America then, is, no doubt, a white woman fashioned for the ownership of her husband and father. A white woman that smiles wildly as she feverishly latches onto memories of a stolen throne to that she has now “found” in the classroom of Black children’s. Columbia’s royalty is then created through the shameless juxtaposition of patriotic greed against the longing of our youths’ misplaced hope for the future when their possibility actually rests impatiently in the past. This is how the fair and benevolent Miss Columbia and her educational system fulfills the legacy of failing Black children. More poignantly, this is how Black children are lost to the future, as they fail to survive the present.
“I read somewhere that [Hurston] was against school desegregation because she felt it was an insult to Black teachers.” - Alice Walker
Desegregation, while a symbolic sign of progress for the U.S., attacked and undermined the labor of the Black women educators who, according to Mathilda Moseley, friend and classmate of Hurston, were so well-versed in their role that “...by the time [students] would leave school…” which only went to the 8th grade, “...they would know college subjects.” For this, Ms. Columbia has never forgiven Auntie Zora’s aunts for preparing her to wield the power of history under the thumb of her pen. So it is to no surprise that those most negatively affected by desegregation were the Black women educators and their children, who were erased from significance and time to render Ms. Columbia as the paragon of effectiveness.
Since that moment in history, Black youth have been struggling to break the racist and systemically class-biased “achievement gap” that forces them to shrink their genius into academic archetypes that are designed to fail them culturally but still render them responsible for locating perseverance to achieve. When they cannot, their ability is rewritten to undergird an academic deficient pathology innate to Black youth. Thus the onus of failure is repeatedly placed on students until academia feels beyond both their personhood and culture.
That is why finding solutions for America can only be achieved by finding Zora’s nieces, who are primed to deliver Black futures from the present into the past, by holding a mirror painfully close to the very things that aim to destroy them, but, ultimately, destroys Ms. Columbia. Auntie Zora’s nieces are many but are still at risk of meeting the fate of Auntie Zora, before they ever have an opportunity to meet her.
I have found Auntie Zora’s nieces in two Black U.S. historian-teachers, Ms. Jocelyn Thomas and Ms. Lisa Daniels, who have made it their personal responsibility to traverse the boundaries of time to better prepare their students in hopes that they “walk away understanding the ways that power has been used by different groups to both exploit and resist exploitation”. They are deliberate in their honesty, without privileging the consumption of Black pain. “I don't think we do a very good job of honoring the dead when we casually consume their horrific final moments. We often presume that when we show these images that they will invoke a singular empathetic and communal response to grief. That is not always true. I'm weary of inviting people inside of Black grief only for them to tarnish the moment by fetishizing or dismissing our pain.”, Ms. Thomas shares about her decision not to show lynching in her class. It is because of the courage of these two Black women Historians that our futures are secure in the minds and hearts of their students.
Auntie Zora’s Nieces, all primary sorcerers of history, are trained in the magic of knowing the path to the past that elucidates the future. They wield this power precisely so they can, like Oya, destroy the wickedness of America to rebuild her in the images of those who are truly worthy of looking earnestly, without having to becloud the reflection that stares back. Because as Ms. Daniels affirms, “A Black woman teaching American History is a revolutionary act.” The revolution within their aura is what makes them the worthy to the keys of time and salvation.
“I will fight for my country, but I will not lie for her.” -Zora Neale Hurston
Ronald E. Lynch, Jr. is a writer, editor, and fearless Afro-futurist educator from the land of Houston, Texas. He is committed to helping Black, Latinx, and/or queer youth find liberation in the ways that make the most sense to their agency and survival. Ron is an alumnus of Morehouse College where he studied Cinema, Television, and Emerging Media Studies & Film and Spanish. He is a co-founder and co-director of The Black Teacher Association. More importantly, Ron loves his little raggedy children. They have taught him more things than he could’ve ever wish to have taught them.