Learning that Zora Neale Hurston died in a county home alone and broke made me sad and angry. Yet, after reading Alice Walker’s article In Search of Zora Neale Hurston that appeared in Ms magazine in 1975, I let those feelings go. Zora left no room in her life for pity and “was not a teary sort herself,” Walker explains. Zora was a force and through her writing, we get that.
When I moved to St. Augustine, Florida, I noticed a historical marker in front of a house indicating Zora lived there for a while. Reading the biography, Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd, I discovered Zora was also married in St. Augustine early on in her life and conducted some anthropological research here at one point. Recently, a small park in town was named for her. All of this baited me to uncover more about this intriguing woman.
Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, is credited with reviving Zora, discovering her while in college and documenting the pilgrimage she made to Eatonville and St. Piece, Florida to discover Zora’s unmarked grave. While there, Walker spoke with several people who knew Zora and one in particular shed light on Zora’s later years. Dr. Benton, says,
“Sometimes she’d run out of groceries – after she got sick – she’d call me. ‘Come over here and see ‘bout me’, she’d say. And I’d take her shopping and buy her groceries.” When Alice inquires about Zora’s funeral, he insists, “She didn’t have a pauper’s funeral! Everybody around here loved Zora.”
Of course they did.
I imagine Zora, which means dawn, was named by her mother who saw a light in her daughter, the beginning of something refreshingly untainted. Her father saw trouble, a girl who didn’t know her place and would pay the price. Zora’s mother died when she was thirteen and from there she was on her own, bouncing from place to place, continually striving for an education (which she masterfully achieved attending Howard University, Barnard College and Columbia University), and eventually playing a central role in the Harlem Renaissance.
Growing up in Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black community in the United States, set the stage for Zora’s strength and confidence and her full embodiment of the richness of her black experience. She exuded a lushness, free from the disheartening and often tragic narratives understandably told by others subjected to white dominance and mistreatment their entire lives.
Make no mistake, once away from Eatonville, Zora experienced discrimination as much as the next, but she chose not to let it define her, not to let it seep into who she was.
As Zora said,
“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
This position, somewhat unusual and not always popular, was definitively Zora’s and her experience in New York City fortified it. As Valerie Boyd says,
“In Harlem, the sense of me-ness that Zora had felt so profoundly as a child in Eatonville – the freedom to thrive as an individual within the embrace of community – was fully restored”(94).
Zora’s enchantment and her anthropological training inspired her to devote years traveling around collecting black folk stories, the likes of which had never been recorded and shared. Along with her own childhood in Eatonville, this folklore fueled her storytelling. Although criticized by other writers for not conforming to literary tradition, Zora held fast to her style, especially the display of regional dialect.
Barbara Christian, former Berkeley professor of African American Studies, explains in her book, Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers,
“a persistent and major theme throughout Afro-America women’s literature [is] our attempt to define and express our totality rather than being defined by others.”
Christian goes on to say,
“In this attempt, Hurston was the pioneer in whose path black women writers of the ‘70s and ‘80s have followed. Though 45 years separate Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple, the two novels embody many similar concerns and methods, ones that characterize the black women’s literary tradition — a tradition now in full flower through the work of such writers as [Alice Walker], Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange and Audre Lorde.
“This fresh and much-needed perspective was met with incomprehension by the male literary establishment. In his review [of Their Eyes Were Watching God] in New Masses, Richard Wright said the novel lacked “a basic idea or theme that lends itself to significant interpretation.” Hurston’s dialogue, he said, “manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes. . . . . The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought.”
“Many male reviewers and critics have reacted with similar hostility and incomprehension to The Color Purple. But to be blind to the definitions these and other women writers give to women’s experience is to deny the validity of that experience.”
Zora’s most notable work mentioned above, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), depicts a vibrant, yet often dark world where the central character, Janie, ultimately discovers liberating love along with her own identity. Janie proclaims,
“Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
Who knew this better than Zora?
Richard Bruce Nugent, fellow Harlem Renaissance artist, said of Zora, “She was one of the most alive people” he knew (Boyd 117). When you read Zora’s work, you cannot help but agree.
Zora Neale Hurston is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Maria Dintino 2017
Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. Teachers College Press, 1985.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1990.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Zora Neale Hurston. Ms magazine, 1975.