Dubbed “America’s favorite black conservative” and “Genius of the South”, Zora Neale Hurston was an American folklorist, anthropologist, and author during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. She is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zora was born on January 7, 1891. She was was the fifth of eight children. Her father, John Hurston was a Baptist preacher, tenant farmer, and carpenter and her mother, Lucy a school teacher. She was born and grew up in Notasulga, Alabama. When Zora was three, the family moved to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-Black towns to be incorporated in the United States. Life was great in Eatonville. It was the place Zora felt more at home and sometimes called her birthplace. It was the town where her father became the mayor and the place where African Americans could live as they desired, independent of white society.
In 1901, some northern schoolteachers visited Eatonville and gave Zora a number of books which opened her mind to literature which explains why she sometimes describes her “birth” as taking place in that year. She spent the remainder of her childhood in Eatonville, and describes the experience of growing up in Eatonville in her 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”.
Three years later in 1904, Zora’s mother died and her father remarried. The immediacy of this second marriage to Matte Moge caused a bit of a scandal and it was even rumored that John had relations with Matte before his first wife died. Zora and her step-mother violently quarrelled. She was sent away to a boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida. Eventually her father and step-mother stopped paying her tuition and she was expelled. To survive, Zora worked as a maid to the lead singer in a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan theatrical company.
In 1917, Zora attended Morgan Academy, the high school division of the African American Morgan College in Baltimore, Maryland. It was at this time that the 26 year old began to claim 1901 as her date of birth possibly to qualify for a free high-school education and to reflect her literary birth. She graduated from Morgan Academy in 1918. That same year Zora began undergraduate studies at Howard University, where she became one of the earliest initiates of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and co-founded The Hilltop, the university’s student newspaper. While she was there, she took courses in Spanish, English, Greek and public speaking and earned an Associate’s Degree in 1920. In 1921, she wrote a short story, John Redding Goes to Sea, which qualified her to become a member of Alaine Locke’s literary club, The Stylus. Zora left Howard University in 1924 and a year later she was offered a scholarship to Barnard College, Columbia University where she was the college’s sole black student. In 1927, at the age of 36 Zora received her B.A. in anthropology. She worked with the likes of Franz Boas of Columbia University, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. After graduating from Barnard, Zora spent two years as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University.
On a more personal note, Zora was married twice. In 1927, she married Herbert Sheen, a jazz musician and former classmate at Howard who would later become a physician, but the marriage ended in 1931. In 1939, while Hurston was working for the WPA, she married Albert Price, a 23-year-old fellow WPA employee, and 25 years her junior, but this marriage ended after only seven months.
Zora’s love for anthropology took her on some extensive trips to the Caribbean and the American South. In 1936 and 1937, she traveled to Jamaica and to Haiti with support from the Guggenheim Foundation from which her anthropological work Tell My Horse published in 1938 emerged. She also lived in Honduras, at the north coastal town of Puerto Cortés from October 1947 to February 1948. She travelled to Central America fuelled by the idea of locating either Mayan ruins or ruins of an undiscovered civilization. While in Puerto Cortés, she wrote much of Seraph on the Suwanee, a a story of two people at once deeply in love and deeply at odds, set among the community of “Florida Crackers” at the turn of the twentieth century. Zora was noted for writing primarily about blacks in Florida yet in this book, her characters were a “cracker” couple. Perhaps it was being in a Honduras, surrounded by a culture different from her own that inspired her to write this book. She was interested the Miskito Zambu, a mixed-race (African-Indigenous American) population group occupying the Caribbean coast of Central America, focused on the region of the Honduras-Nicaragua border.and Garifuna, descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African people.
Little did Zora know that when she returned to her native country in 1948, she would face a terrible scandal. She was falsely accused of molesting a ten-year-old boy (another writeup says there were three boys) and even though the case was dismissed after she presented evidence that she was in Honduras when the alleged crime took place in the U.S., her personal life was seriously disrupted by the scandal.
Zora was a Republican. She supported the presidential campaign of Senator Robert A. Taft. They both were opposed to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and Roosevelt’s and Truman’s interventionist foreign policy. In the original draft of her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she compared the United States government to a “fence” in stolen goods and to a Mafia-like protection racket and thought it ironic that the same “people who claim that it is a noble thing to die for freedom and democracy … wax frothy if anyone points out the inconsistency of their morals…. We, too, consider machine gun bullets good laxatives for heathens who get constipated with toxic ideas about a country of their own.” She had a lot to say about those who sought “freedoms” for those abroad, but denied it to people in their home countries: Roosevelt “can call names across an ocean” for his Four Freedoms, but he did not have “the courage to speak even softly at home.” When Truman dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, she called him “the Butcher of Asia.”
She opposed the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954 because she was of the opinion that if separate schools were truly equal, educating black students in physical proximity to white students would not result in better education. She worried that integration would bring about the demise of black schools and black teachers which were the means through which cultural tradition would be passed on to future generations of African Americans. She wrote of her opposition in in a letter, stating, “Court Order Can’t Make the Races Mix”. She opposed preferential treatment for blacks. “If I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.” She opposed what is now referred to as Affirmative Action.
Zora has had her share of criticism from her literary contemporaries, most notably, Richard Wright. In his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, he wrote: … The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is “quaint,” the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the “superior” race. For decades, Zora’s work slid into obscurity due to a number of cultural and political reasons but thanks to Alice Walker’s article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”, published in the March 1975 issue of Ms. magazine interest in Zora’s work has been revived.
Zora spent her later years as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers. When she moved to Fort Pierce, she took jobs where she could find them, such substitute teacher and maid. During a period of financial and medical difficulties, Zora was forced to enter St. Lucie County Welfare Home where she suffered a stroke. She died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960, and was buried at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her remains were in an unmarked grave until 1973, when novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried, and decided to mark it as hers. What a sad end for this remarkable woman whose true happiness came from her work.
In celebration of Black History Month, Notes to Women salute Zora Neale Hurston who had the courage to disagree with the philosophies supported by many of her colleagues in the Harlem Renaissance. Her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, celebrates her life in an annual festival. Her home in Fort Pierce is a National Historic Landmark. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Zora Neale Hurston on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. She poured herself into her work and left a legacy of literary work that would hail her as one of the most important black writers of the 20th century.
Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.
When one is too old for love, one finds great comfort in good dinners.
Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me.
I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.
“I don’t know any more about the future than you do. I hope that it will be full of work, because I have come to know by experience that work is the nearest thing to happiness that I can find. . . I want a busy life, a just mind and a timely death.”