"I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality,
rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions."
- Zora Neale Hurston
Writer Zora Neale Hurston definitely walked her own way. And she knew how to make an entrance. On May 1, 1925, while still a young Harlem writer, Zora attended an awards dinner sponsored by Opportunity Magazine, at which she won second place for fiction with her story "Spunk" and second place for drama with her play "Color Struck". She strode into the center of the room, filled with writers and arts patrons, both black and white, dramaticallly tossed her long, multi-colored scarf around her neck, threw back her head and cried out the name of her winning play "Coloooor Struuuuck!" Her exubberant pronouncement literally brought the party to a halt. Afterward, no one remembered the winners of the first place prizes. But Zora Neale Hurston had indeed arrived.
Born in Alabama in 1891, Zora Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida when she was just a toddler. Eatonville was something of an anomoly in turn-of-the-century America, the nation's first all-black incorporated township. It was, as Hurston described "a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse."
Here she had a somewhat idyllic childhood, growing up in an 8-room house on 5 acres of land, and surrounded by this culturally affirming town. In Eatonville, blacks formulated the laws and governed the city. Zora's father, a Baptist preacher, was a town leader and her mother, a school teacher, directed the Christian curricula at the church.
While her strict father tried to squash her spirit, her mother encouraged her to "jump at de sun." Hurston explained "We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground."
Zora's happy childhood came to an abrupt end when her mother died in 1904, when Zora was just 13 years old. Her father very quickly married another, much younger woman. The always hot-headed Zora did NOT get along with her stepmother, in fact, the story goes that she tried to kill her in a fist fight. The stepmother soon convinced Zora's father to send her away to boarding school, but they eventually stopped paying her tuition, and the school had to expelled her.
Zora took a series of menial jobs, eventually joining a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan troupe as a maid to the lead singer. Eventually, she ended up in Baltimore, 26 years old, but still with no high school diploma. In order to qualify for a free high school education, Zora decided to shave 10 years off her age, claiming to be just 16 years old! And after conveniently losing these ten years, she never found them again, claiming to have been born in 1901 for the rest of her life! Do you think I could get away with that? Luckily, she had the looks and the vivacious and youthful spirit to pull it off.
She was graduated from Morgan Academy in Baltimore in 1918, and began her studies at Howard University. At Howard, she was one of the earliest members of Zeta Phi Beta sorority, and co-founded The Hilltop, the university's student newspaper. In 1925, she was offered a scholarship to Barnard College, where she was the only black student. The received her B.A. in Anthropology from Barnard in 1927, when she was 36 years old. But everybody thought she was 26! She went on to spend two years as a graduate student in anthropology at Colombia University.
It was during her time at Barnard and Colombia that Zora elbowed her way into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's, where she befriended poet Langston Hughes and actress/singer Ethel Waters. Though Hurston rarely drank, fellow writer Sterling Brown recalled, "When Zora was there, she was the party." Another friend remembered Hurston's apartment as a spirited "open house" for artists. All this partying didn't keep Hurston from her work, though. She would sometimes write in her bedroom while the party went on in the living room.
Through her career, which spanned 30 years, she published four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, numerous short stories, and many essays, articles and plays. The book considered her masterwork, "Their Eyes Were Watching God", was published in 1937, but it wasn't until her autobiography "Dust Tracks on a Road" was published in 1942, that she finally achieved the well-earned acclaim that had long eluded her. Unfortunately she never achieved financial success.
Like most free-spirited artists, a bit of scandal followed Zora Hurston. She was married twice, but both marriages were short-lived. Her second marraige was to a 23-year old man. She was 48. Though I'm guessing she told him she was 38! She was also rumored to be a lesbian. During her anthropological research, she seriously studied the voodoo culture of New Orleans, which inspired two of her books. In 1948, Zora was falsely accused of molesting a ten year old boy. Though she was able to prove that she wasn't even in the country at the time of the alleged attack, her personal life suffered from the scandal.
During the late forties and fifties, Zora Neale Hurston continued to work as a reporter and writer of magazine articles, but for the most part, her work fell into obscurity. Popular black writers of the time, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison moved black literature into the area of the political struggle for equality and respect. Wright criticized Zora's work as "quaint", and her work fell out of popularity.
Zora Neale Hurston died on Jan. 28, 1960, at age 69, after suffering a stroke. Her neighbors in Fort Pierce, Florida, had to take up a collection for her funeral, but they couldn't collect enough to pay for a headstone, so Hurston was buried in a grave that remained unmarked until 1973.
That year, a young writer named Alice Walker, 9 years before she wrote "The Color Purple" traveled to Fort Pierce in search of the grave of the writer who had inspired her so tremendously. She located the Garden of Heavenly Rest, an over-grown segregated cemetery, made her way through the waist-high weeds and found Zora Neale Hurston's grave. She lay a plain stone headstone, the most she could afford at the time, on which she had engraved "Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South".
Two years later, Walker wrote an article for Ms. Magazine entitled "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston". The article lead to a revived interest and eventual republication of all of Zora's works, and was part of the emergence of a new type of African-American literature, lead by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, which focused on black experiences, but didn't necessary focus on racial or political struggle.
Her home in Fort Pierce is now a Historical Landmark, and they celebrate an annual Zora Fest. She's been listed as one of the top 100 African-Americans in history, she was the subject of a PBS "American Masters" and Oprah just produced a tv version of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" starring Halle Berry. All of which both thrills me and breaks my heart at the same time.
But as Zora herself said "A thing is mighty big when time and distance cannot shake it."
Okay y'all, that's the end of Black History Month. I hope you learned something, and discovered a few amazing people.