Sisters Under the Skin

One of the unexpected pleasures afforded by running this site is the chance to speak about female literary friendship on stage as well as write about it on screen, so Emily and I are particularly looking forward to our October 15th Festival Fringe event at the Ilkley Playhouse.

Ilkley Literature Fringe Festival

On account of their skin colours, author friends Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings could not have appeared together in their local theatre: an injustice that we find particularly resonant since we too are from different ethnic backgrounds.

Gainesville Theatre, Florida, was not desegregated until the late 1960s, decades after Hurston and Rawlings became friends. When these authors met in 1942, in many parts of the United States the pair could not have sat in the same railroad waiting room, ridden the same bus, sunbathed on the same beach, eaten at the same restaurant table or drunk from the same water fountain.

Demonstration in front of a segregated theatre in Florida in 1962.  State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/4528
Demonstration in front of a segregated theatre in Florida in 1962.
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/4528

What’s more, Florida was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. The state’s barbarous white supremacists lynched more people per capita than anywhere else in the country. Just two years into Hurston’s friendship with Rawlings, a fifteen year old black boy was brutally murdered in the city of Live Oak in Florida for having dared to pen a love note to a white girl. Willie Howard wrote in his Christmas card to Cynthia Goff: ‘I love your name. I love your voice. For a S.H. [sweetheart] you are my choice’. For this, he was kidnapped along with his father, driven to the banks of the Suwanee River, his hands and feet bound, and instructed either to jump or be shot. His father was forced to watch at gunpoint while his son drowned.

Played out against such a vicious backdrop of racism, the friendship between Hurston and Rawlings was radical indeed. Rawlings’s love and admiration for Hurston caused her to confront her own deeply entrenched prejudices, and both women ended up lending their support to racial equality campaigns. However, their efforts did not meet with a huge level of success during their lifetimes. The racism that their friendship defied hounded them even in death: both women’s bodies were buried in segregated cemeteries.

Thankfully, we have never faced racially motivated opposition to our friendship. Some people actually consider us so alike that they have even mistaken us for sisters. And yet, our own society is far from colour blind. The UK’s literary scene is a case in point. Just 4% of people in the publishing industry in England and Wales are Black/Asian/Minority/Ethnic (BAME), while 14% of the population of England and Wales are BAME (UK 2011 census). Such lack of diversity among the gatekeepers has resulted in a woeful lack of publishing opportunities for BAME authors.

We are particularly proud that our Ilkley Festival Fringe event follows the SI Leeds Literary Prize ceremony, since this award ‘aims to act as a loudspeaker for Black and Asian women’s voices, and a platform to discover exciting new talent, from a group largely under-represented on our bookshelves’.

Emily was a runner-up in 2012, so we also have personal reasons for feeling delighted to continue our relationship with Soroptimist International. And yet we cannot help but wish for a world in which their prize would be unnecessary – a world in which all our sisters’ voices would stand an equal chance of getting heard.

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