“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 sword in my hands.”
—Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston Photographer: Carl Van Vechten. Silver geletin print, 1938 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Zora Neale Hurston was born on this day in Notasulag, Alabama, USA in 1891. Today is the 121st Anniversary of her birth.
Hurston was fifth of eight children born to John and Lucy Ann Hurston. Her father was a preacher, a tenant farmer and a carpenter. When Hurston was three the family moved to Eatonville, Florida. Hurston saw Eatonville as utopia where African-Americans could “live as they desired, independent of white society and all its ways.” [Women In History — Zora Neale Hurston] Her father was mayor of the town for a while, and Hurston enjoyed a happy childhood. While her preacher father tried to control his daughter’s exuberant love of life, her mother indulged her joyous nature.
“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to “jump at de sun.” We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”–Zora Neale Hurston
Her idyllic childhood ended at thirteen with the death of her mother. Shortly afterward her father remarried. Hurston said she was “Passed around the family like a bad penny.” They sent her to a boarding school, but when they stopped paying for her tuition she was kicked out.
Zora worked a series of menial jobs over the ensuing years, struggled to finish her schooling, and eventually joined a Gilbert & Sullivan traveling troupe as a maid to the lead singer. In 1917, she turned up in Baltimore; by then, she was 26 years old and still hadn’t finished high school. Needing to present herself as a teenager to qualify for free public schooling, she lopped 10 years off her life–giving her age as 16 and the year of her birth as 1901. [zoranealehurston.com/about]
Hurston finished Morgan Academy and in 1918 she went to Howard University in Washington, DC where she began pursue her literary career. She had her first story, “John Redding Goes to Sea” published in The Howard University literary magazine The Stylus. More stories followed and Hurston began to be noticed by the literary set of the Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes. She transferred to Barnard College in New York and earned her degree in 1928.
The Harlem Renaissance was a period during which black artists broke with the traditional dialectal works and imitating white writers to explore black culture and express pride in their race. This was expressed in literature, music, art, in addition to other forms of artistic expression. Zora and her stories about Eatonville became a major force in shaping these ideals. Additionally, she combined her studies in anthropology with her literary output. [Women In History — Zora Neale Hurston]
She received a Rosenwald fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship to do anthropological field research int he mid 1930s.
Zora Neale Hurston, beating the hountar, or mama drum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine came out in 1934. She followed that up with Mules and Men , a folklore classic based on her anthropological work in the South.
In 1937 she traveled to Jamaica and Haiti on a Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct field research on African rituals and voodoo. While in Haiti she wrote her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in seven weeks time.
Cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God
Janie, the protagonist, returns to her home town at the beginning of the novel. She
recalls all the crucial moments of her life, from t he time she first discovers that she is a “colored” little girl…to the moment she returns to Eatonville, Florida, from the Everglades, not swindled and deceived, as had been expected, but heartbroken, yet boldly defiant, after having toiled in the bean fields, survived a hurricane and lost the man she loved. [Their Eyes Were Watching God, Forward]
Hurston prose is rich and colorful while her dialogue is dense with authentic slang. Here’s how she drops you into the story near the beginning of the novel…
So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgement….
Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.
“What she doin’ coming back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on?– Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in? — Where’s all dat money her husband took and died and left here? What dat ole forty year ole ‘omen doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal? …. [Their Eyes Were Watching God, Chapter One]
It takes a few pages to get used to, but the novel is more than worth the effort.
Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston: Eatonville, Florida (Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida)
Other Major Hurston works include Tell My Horse, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Seraph on the Suwanee and her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road.
Sadly, “Hurston never received the financial rewards she deserved. (The largest royalty she ever earned from any of her books was $943.75.)” [zoranealehurston.com/about] As the 40’s waned so did her career.
Never in her works did she address the issue of racism of whites toward blacks, and as this became a nascent theme among black writers in the post World War II ear of civil rights, Hurston’s literary influence faded. She further scathed her own reputation by railing the civil rights movement and supporting ultraconservative politicians. [Women In History — Zora Neale Hurston]
She opposed the New Deal and the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. She struggled to get published, and took on jobs as a maid and a substitute teacher to try to make ends meet.
In 1959 she suffered from a stroke and had to enter the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She died there in January of 1960 of hypertensive heart disease. Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave.