Zora Neale Hurston: An American Story
Note: This post is a collaboration between Burt Likko and Chris. Burt wrote a biography of of Zora Neale Hurston for submission to his local secular group’s newsletter. Chris wrote a celebration of Zora Neale Hurston as one of America’s most eloquent and powerful writers. All quotes herein are from Hurston, unless otherwise indicated.
Zora Neale Hurston may very well be the greatest American novelist whom you have not read. Their Eyes Were Watching God, a masterpiece of multi-layered imagery and metaphor undergirding a beautiful but tragic story of love, death, and strength of spirit, is enough to place her among the greatest writers this country has produced. It is a masterpiece of language as much as one of literature: it speaks with a voice.
Hurston’s voice, the voice of a well-educated and well-read author and student of culture who had listened to and felt with people from every walk of life: the educated, the earthly, the mystical, the rich, the very, very poor, the simple, the complex, men, women, black and white, but there are also the voices of the people among whom Hurston was raised, and whom she studied in later life, people with whom identified and clearly loved, but from whom she remained separate, people rarely glimpsed in the “canon,” but who lived lives rich enough in laughter, love, and story to inspire an entire canon of their own, if only we had listened to them as Hurston did. Their Eyes is a treasure, as important a piece of American cultural heritage as anything produced by Faulkner or Twain or Fitzgerald.
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891. Originally from a very small town in southeastern Alabama, she moved at age 4 with her family to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-Black towns incorporated in the United States, a town named, as Hurston tells us in Their Eyes, for one of the only men willing to sell some of his land to a few black people so that they could build a town of their own. A place she called “home.”
Zora’s young years were spent in a community where Blacks held positions of civic authority and possessed all the material trappings of wealth: her father was a Baptist preacher and became the mayor of Eatonville for a time. The Hurstons lived in a gracious eight-bedroom home on a five-acre plantation where they grew guava and raised cattle.
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.
The young Zora quickly developed robust pride and self-confidence. She later described herself as never having learned that either Blacks or women should be the social inferiors of anyone else.
In 1901, northern schoolteachers sent a large parcel of books to Eatonville’s schools, which opened her mind to literature and the arts. The ten-year-old Hurston voraciously consumed them all; later in life she said she was truly “born” in 1901 because of this intellectual awakening. At about this time, she also began to doubt the teachings her father preached every Sunday in church:
My head was full of misty fumes of doubt… Neither could I understand the passionate declarations of love for a being that nobody could see. Your family, your puppy and the new bull-calf, yes. But a spirit away off who found fault with everybody all the time, that was more than I could fathom.
When her mother died in 1904, her father remarried a much younger woman, with whom Zora did not get along – the two came to physical blows several times. Zora was sent to a boarding school but eventually her stepmother arranged to stop the tuition. Expelled, Zora found work as a maid in Miami for wealthy white families and then for a mixed-race traveling theatrical company. She saved her money for more education, and in 1918, at age twenty-six, she graduated from Morgan Academy, the high school arm of a historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland.
She matriculated at Howard University in the District of Columbia, where she co-founded the student newspaper that thrives today at Howard, and studied Spanish, English, Greek, and rhetoric, taking an associate’s degree in 1925. Hurston was then awarded a scholarship at Columbia University, becoming the only Black student in the entire student body. She received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Columbia two years later, studying under one of the discipline’s early giants, Frank Boaz, and alongside the famous Margaret Mead.
While she pursued this academic work, Hurston published many works of fiction. She made a splash on the blossoming social scene in Harlem, New York, with a play called “Color Struck” and a short story called “Spunk,” for which she was nominated for numerous awards. She won second place for both, but her entrance into the awards ceremony – a black-tie, multi-racial dinner event packed with patrons, writers, and socialites – proudly proclaiming her authorship of the play and her vibrant, charismatic acceptance speeches won her many friends and sponsors in the Harlem Renaissance. She became a frequent associate of Langston Hughes (they were neighbors in New Jersey) and W.E.B. DuBois. Sadly, she had a falling-out with Hughes as the two had creative differences over a play the two co-wrote.
She got caught up in the Harlem Renaissance’s politics, and her unique style, her uniquely pro-black culture stance (black culture is at least as good as white culture, at least as worth talking about, at least as worth celebrating, and at least as worth living), along with her separationist views, ultimately left her on the outside looking in.
With characteristic self-confidence, she responded to attitudes of racism and discrimination in some parts of high New York society not with anger but confusion: “Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
She was married twice, both brief and tempestuous relationships as her strong independence and self-assertion ran against prevailing gender norms of feminine subservience. After her second divorce, she rejected the notion of marriage entirely, taking instead briefer relationships with a string of handsome and usually younger men. While “serial monogamy” is generally acceptable by the norms of the 2010’s, three generations ago this was scandalous behavior – which later would rebound to her disadvantage.
While her Harlem Renaissance contemporary W.E.B. DuBois protested churches’ historical support of slavery, Hurston more overtly eschewed religious notions altogether. She wrote of her freethought in 1948:
Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws… It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such.
She rejected the fear of death by noting that the material that was in her body would persist even when her consciousness ended: “Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men?”
She did anthropological field work in the American South, collecting folklore and documenting social customs of African-Americans (then called “Blacks” or “Negroes”) under the financial sponsorship of wealthy whites in New York. This led to the publication of her first major academic work, “Mules and Men,” which also inspired her first full-length novel, “Jonah’s Gourd Vine,” the first of four novels. Hurston also wrote another anthropological work after completing a two-year fellowship studying folklore and social customs of Blacks in Jamaica, Haiti, and Honduras.
In addition to her four novels, she also wrote dozens of short stories and plays, and was a story consultant for Paramount Pictures, all based on the foundation of this collection of folklore and sometimes archly critical observation of the social practices of African-Americans in the segregated and semi-segregated communities of the American South.
Their Eyes Were Watching God remains a prominent classic of African-American literature to this day. Her signature novel was inspired by the failure of a brief but intense romance with a younger man while she was doing field research in the Caribbean; her protagonist’s fierce independence makes her reject dominant society personified by two inconsiderate husbands in favor of finding her own power:
So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time. But when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things. What things? She didn’t know exactly. Her breath was gusty and short. She knew things that nobody had ever told her. For instance, the words of the trees and the wind. She often spoke to falling seeds and said, “Ah hope you fall on soft ground,” because she had heard seeds saying that to each other as they passed. She knew the world was a stallion rolling in the blue pasture of ether. She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.
The novel’s title comes from a passage found in the book’s climax, as a horrible hurricane bears down on Janie, Hurston’s protagonist, and her husband Tea Cake, a passage typical of the starkness and beauty of Hurston’s narrational prose:
They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.
Here Hurston speaks in her own voice, the voice of a Barnard graduate, novelist, and anthropologist. It is her voice that sets her story, in prose overflowing with natural and religious imagery and metaphor. Hers is a narrator who always knows what her characters feel, not because she can see into their minds, but because she too has felt it, making her prose intensely personal, but never giving in to sentimentalism.
When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another
Intertwined with Hurston’s narrational voice are those of her characters, the voices she heard growing up and in her anthropological explorations, voices as distinct from hers as it is possible for voices to be, but voices from the same heart:
Then you must tell ’em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.
“Lawd, Lawd, Lawd,” that same Charlie Jones exclaimeds rushing over to Daisy. “It must be uh recess in heben if St. Peter is lettin’ his angels out lak dis. You got three men already layin’ at de point uh death ’bout yuh, and heah’s uhnother fool dat’s willin’ tuh make time on yo’ gang.”
Passages like these, at times in conversations extended over many pages, can make the book tough going at first, but the contrast between the book’s two voices is integral to the work itself.
The representation of her sources of langauge seems to be her principal concern, as she constantly shifts back and forth between her “literate” narrator’s voice and a highly idiomatic black voice found in wondeful passages of free indirect discourse. Hurston moves in and out of these distinct voices effortlessly, seamlessly, just as she does in Their Eyes to chart Janie’s coming to conciousness. It is this usage of a divided voice, a double voice unreconciled, that strikes me as her great achievement, a verbal analogue of her double experience as a woman in a male-dominated world and as a black person in a nonblack world, a woman writer’s revision of W. E. B. Du Bois’ metaphor of “double consciousness” for the hyphenated African-American. — Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
However slow the “highly idiomatic black voice” of her characters may make the reading in the beginning, the reader quickly falls under Hurston’s spell, and the dual voices, the two complimentary viewpoints of the novel, merge in one’s mind and one’s reading to form a spectacular whole. One might even find oneself thinking in both voices long after putting the book down.
For all its beautiful and original language, the novel’s power ultimately derives from its timeless, simple story: a girl is married off before she’s ready to a man she does not love, to the extent that she understand what love is, and ultimately becomes frustrated and runs away, because that life, the life she is expected to live, cannot hold the fullness of her spirit. She makes her way to Eatonville, the legendary all-black town, and finds love along the way. Her new husband takes over the town the moment he arrives, starts a general store, and becomes its first mayor. She lives there with him as a sort of queen of the town, always present in the store, but even this pedestal is too stifling. With her husband she is expected to be seen, not heard, though she desperately wants to be heard, particularly her laughter, free laughter, as the laughter of them men who hang around the store laughing with each other. When her husband dies, she meets a vagabond many years her younger, and runs off with him to live from day to day, ultimately arriving in the Everglades, working in the fields with her hands, barely getting by but fully alive for the first time.
The themes of Their Eyes Were Watching God echo in the most famous work of Hurston’s literary protégé, Alice Walker, in the celebrated epistolary novel The Color Purple. But that knowledge is not the same thing as reading the masterpiece itself. The reader may have trouble turning the final pages, but upon doing so, the urge will be to immediately turn back to the frontispiece and start over.
Hurston’s personal story ends in a way more bitter than sweet. In 1948, Hurston was accused of “improper relations” with a ten-year-old boy. Half an adult lifetime of taking younger lovers and two failed marriages were cited against her, and although she was able to prove that she had been traveling outside of the country at the time of the alleged incident, her social standing diminished greatly after the accusation. She then did herself no favors with the leaders of the African-American community when she later criticized the Supreme Court’s 1955 decision Brown v. Board of Education. Her positive experiences in an all-Black rural community as a child and in all-Black schools as a young adult, and frank confusion at the reality of segregation in the urban world, were almost certainly at the root of her suggestion that separated communities had been good for Blacks.
She never realized much money from her writing – her most lucrative work, a 1942 autobiography titled “Dust Tracks on a Road,” gained lifetime earnings of $943.75. Through literary and academic sponsorship she had managed to pursue most of a Ph.D. in anthropology and she always saw herself as a writer first and foremost. But she paid her bills through speaking engagements, teaching, employment as a librarian for the United States Air Force, and stints providing domestic help for wealthy white families in New York and Miami – work she did even in her later years after she had achieved some degree of fame.
Before the scandal that expelled her from the respectable circles of Harlem Renaissance figures, she had explored with W.E.B. DuBois the idea of a shared cemetery for prominent African-American artists; DuBois had summarily dismissed the idea. By the late 1950’s she was living in a welfare-supported group home in Fort Pierce, Florida. She died there in 1960 and her fellow residents took up a collection for funeral expenses.There was not enough money to pay for a headstone, so she rested in an unmarked grave until 1973.
There are times — and finding Zora Hurston’s grave was one of them — when normal responses of grief, horror, and so on do not make sense because they bear no real relation to the depth of the emotion one feels. It was impossible for me to cry when I saw the field full of weeds where Zora is. Partly this is because I have come to know Zora through her books and she was not a teary sort of person herself; but partly, too, it is because there is a point at which even grief feels absurd. And at this point, laughter gushes up to retrieve sanity. — Alice Walker
It wasn’t until almost 15 years after her death, when Alice Walker wrote an essay for MS. magazine titled “Looking for Zora”, that Hurston began to get the recognition she deserved. The article told how Walker found the grave of her mentor, and purchased a stone with the epitaph: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”
But the epitaph wasn’t the end of the story. Thanks to Walker, her mentor wasn’t just read again — with the scent Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s still in the wind, and a new feminism fighting its way to the cultural center, Hurston’s work, which celebrated black people, and especially strong black women (even if not in a way that might appeal to many feminists today, at least not directly), was devoured.
- Boyd, Valerie (undated), About Zora Neale Hurston, accessed at: http://zoranealehurston.com/about/
- Lee, Adam, The Contributions of Freethinkers: Zora Neale Hurston, July 15, 2009, accessed at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2009/07/the-contributions-of-freethinkers-vii/
- Hurston, Zora Neale, Dust Tracks on a Road. New York: Harper Collins (1942).
- Hurston, Zora Neale; compiled by Walker, Alice, I Love Myself When I am Laughing… And Then Again when I am Looking Mean and Impressive, New York: The Feminist Press (1979).
- Author unlisted on The Biography Channel website. Zora Neale Hurston. Retrieved 11:53, Sep 13, 2013, from http://www.biography.com/people/zora-neale-hurston-93
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.