Black HERstory: Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (b. January 7th, 1891 – d. January 28th, 1960)

Today’s feature is on author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Active during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora published 4 novels and more than 50 short stories, plays, and essays. You may know her best for her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God“.

Zora, aside from being a great author, was a gifted and active student. “In 1918, Hurston 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. Hurston left Howard in 1924 and in 1925 was offered a scholarship to Barnard College where she was the college’s sole black student. Hurston received her B.A. in anthropology in 1927, when she was 36.”

Unfortunately, like Paul Robeson, Zora and her work eventually faded into obscurity, mostly due to her political views and writing style. Being a folklorist she stayed true to the dialect of the time and this style of writing was later perceived to be rooted in racist tradition. For example:

“Dat’s a big ole resurrection lie, Ned. Uh slew-foot, drag-leg lie at dat, and Ah dare yuh tuh hit me too. You know Ahm uh fightin’ dawg and mah hide is worth money. Hit me if you dare! Ah’ll wash yo’ tub uh ‘gator guts and dat quick.”

She was also a republican “who was generally sympathetic to the Old Right and a fan of Booker T. Washington‘s self-help politics. She disagreed with the philosophies (including Communism and the New Deal) supported by many of her colleagues in the Harlem Renaissance.” But she was not a social conservative for her writings showed “skepticism toward traditional religion and affinity for feminist individualism”.

Zora, in her late years, due to financial and medical difficulties, died penniless in St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She was then buried in an unmarked grave but “in 1973 African-American novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried in Fort Pierce,Florida and decided to mark it as hers.”

Zora was a deft writer who became a major player in the Harlem Renaissance despite her contrary beliefs. Acknowledgement of her contributions to our culture has since been resorted but most still do not know of Ms. Hurston and the distinguish life that she has led. They have yet to know of her work and what she meant to our culture.

Here is an excerpt from her 1928 essay How It Feels to Be Colored Me:

I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief.

I remember the very day that I became colored. Up to my thirteenth year I lived in the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a colored town. The only white people I knew passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando. The native whites rode dusty horses, the Northern tourists chugged down the sandy village road in automobiles. The town knew the Southerners and never stopped cane chewing when they passed. But the Northerners were something else again. They were peered at cautiously from behind curtains by the timid. The more venturesome would come out on the porch to watch them go past and got just as much pleasure out of the tourists as the tourists got out of the village.

The front porch might seem a daring place for the rest of the town, but it was a gallery seat for me. My favorite place was atop the gatepost. Proscenium box for a born first-nighter. Not only did I enjoy the show, but I didn’t mind the actors knowing that I liked it. I usually spoke to them in passing. I’d wave at them and when they returned my salute, I would say something like this: “Howdy-do-well-I-thank-you-where-you-goin’?” Usually automobile or the horse paused at this, and after a queer exchange of compliments, I would probably “go a piece of the way” with them, as we say in farthest Florida. If one of my family happened to come to the front in time to see me, of course negotiations would be rudely broken off. But even so, it is clear that I was the first “welcome-to-our-state” Floridian, and I hope the Miami Chamber of Commerce will please take notice.

During this period, white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there. They liked to hear me “speak pieces” and sing and wanted to see me dance the parse-me-la, and gave me generously of their small silver for doing these things, which seemed strange to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to stop, only they didn’t know it. The colored people gave no dimes. They deplored any joyful tendencies in me, but I was their Zora nevertheless. I belonged to them, to the nearby hotels, to the county–everybody’s Zora.

But changes came in the family when I was thirteen, and I was sent to school in Jacksonville. I left Eatonville, the town of the oleanders, a Zora. When I disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville, she was no more. It seemed that I had suffered a sea change. I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl. I found it out in certain ways. In my heart as well as in the mirror, I became a fast brown–warranted not to rub nor run.

But 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 but 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 of less. No, I do not weep at the world–I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.

Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you. The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential slave said “On the line!” The Reconstruction said “Get set!” and the generation before said “Go!” I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep. Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it. No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost. It is thrilling to think–to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame. It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep.

The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult. No brown specter pulls up a chair beside me when I sit down to eat. No dark ghost thrusts its leg against mine in bed. The game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting.

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