magnolia blossom is a little-known short story by renowned Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston about a Black and Indigenous woman who falls in love with a man her father despises. Rather than give in to her father’s cruel demands, Magnolia Flower runs away with her lover and lives happily ever after.
Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to become an anti-racist and National Book Award winner, adapted Hurston’s 1925 story and collaborated with Loveis Wise, an illustrator and graduate of the University of Arts of Philadelphia, on this dynamic new children’s book.
Kendi and Wise will discuss the book on September 22 at the Elaine C. Levitt Auditorium at the University of the Arts. Admission tickets are $20.
in the Hurston’s fiery original, Magnolia’s father Bentley, escapes slavery and settles down with a community of blacks and Native Americans known as the Maroons. But he becomes every bit as mean as his former enslavers, mistreating his wife, treating his workers with contempt, and refusing to let Magnolia marry her suitor John, a fair-skinned black man, raising questions of colorism. Hurston’s narrator is an ancient river that ripples through the Maroon people’s village and tells the love story to a fast-flowing stream.
In Kendi’s reimagining, Bentley is cast as an evil stepfather who dislikes John because he is poor. The lyrical conversation between river and stream is the focus of this story and in the end love triumphs.
We spoke to Kendi about the beauty of Hurston’s work, eh magnolia blossom fits with Kendi’s anti-racism mission and why, in the book ban era, it is bold to reinterpret Hurston’s explicit stories of black life in the late 19th century.
Responses have been edited for clarity.
I read this short story when I was in graduate school (at Temple University). I’ve read everything Zora has done. In March 2020 I listened to the audio book, Hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick while I ran The nation had just closed and I was able to capture the beauty of the images, especially the essence of Magnolia Flower, an Afro-Indigenous woman who wouldn’t stop saying no and was willing to fight for love. I decided I wanted to find a way to scale it down and make it accessible to kids.
I think the story about colorism was the hardest for me because I couldn’t find a way to connect it to the larger story so that it could be understood by a 4 year old. But I thought I could tell a 4 year old that you had people in bondage who ran away and formed a community with other people who were being driven off their land.
This is exactly why I was so excited to adopt Zora Neale Hurston for children. Yes, she’s fiery, direct, and has a kind of funk that doesn’t mess around. But her work is also about the vastness of humanity. she is honest That’s what attracts children. That’s what attracts my daughter. I want children to connect with such a writer.
The goal of those who ban books is to get authors to question the kinds of books we create. [They want us] rethink, censor yourself and not publish books that tell the full and honest truth about this nation’s past of racism. The book bans have pushed me to do even more and to write stories that share the truth. And there is no better, more honest and more uncompromising storyteller of black life than Zora Neale Hurston.
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This is the kind of story that introduces young people to slavery and settler colonialism by taking them through the door of a love story. For us to be anti-racist, we need to understand the past and how that legacy impacts equality today. One of the positions I have resisted is that slavery and poverty dehumanized people. The violence of slavery was not the whole of black existence. What magnolia blossom shows that despite the pain and nightmares of slavery and the forced displacement of people from their lands, Black and Indigenous people have still found love, they have still found joy, and it is that love and that joy that fuels their resistance to change of these conditions has fueled.
I’m making six children’s books adapted from Zora’s work. The first is magnolia blossom. The second, coming out in March, is titled The Making of Butterfliesand it’s based on Zoras mules and men. It’s a funny folk tale that shows how the Creator mistakenly created butterflies. It’s a cute, funny story that I thought would fascinate the youngest children.