Zora Neale Hurston is a towering figure in Harlem Renaissance. Her story is complex, like herself and her novels.
This episode is part of Series 6: Ground-Breaking Novelists.
In this series of novelists, it has not escaped my notice that most (but not all) of my episodes have been about women who were white, middle-to-upper class, and English-speaking. I would hate for you to run away with the idea that those were the only women writing novels. They were not. They were just the ones most likely to have the education to write one, the opportunity to get it published, and an impact that is noticeable when your English-speaking podcast host runs searches in English.
One of many other groups writing novels were the African Americans. I said in episode 6.2 that there is great contention over what is the first novel. Other firsts are equally contentious, so some will claim that the first novel written in English by a black woman was the 1859 book Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson. (O’Meally). Others have claimed it’s too autobiographical to count as a novel, and either way it wasn’t successful enough to have much impact. It was forgotten entirely, in fact, until the early 1980s when a Yale professor named Henry Louis Gates, Jr., unearthed a copy in a used bookstore.
Another contender for first black female novel is Hannah Crafts’ The Bondswoman’s Narrative. It was written sometime in the 1850s, so quite possibly before Harriet Wilson’s. But it wasn’t published, which is unsurprising. It was still in manuscript form when the self-same Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bought it at auction and thereby upset his own former claim that Wilson was the first female African-American novelist (Williams, 140).
But while African-American literature certainly got started in the 19th century, it really came into its own in the 20th with the Harlem Renaissance, and the towering female figure there is Zora Neale Hurston.
Zora was a difficult person, and she starts being difficult right at the very beginning because for a long time people thought she was born about 1901 until the census proved otherwise. She was actually born in January of 1891. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, which is near Orlando.
Eatonville was the first incorporated all-black city in the US. According to Zora’s own words, it was a” city of five lakes, three croquet courts, 300 brown skins, 300 good swimmers, plenty of guavas, 2 schools, and no jailhouse” (quoted in Abbott, 176). Everyone she knew was black: the mayor, the minister, the doctor, the teacher. All of them looked like her. She didn’t grow up feeling like her color made her a second-class citizen because it didn’t make her a second-class citizen, not in Eatonville. This would be important in her writing and her attitudes for the rest of her life.
Unfortunately, her mother died. Zora did not get on well with the new stepmother. And when we say “did not get on well,” we mean it. One fight was nearly fatal. All her life Zora would have a legendary temper. It did not make her relationships easy.
At age thirteen, she was sent to school in Jacksonville, which was a good distance from stepmom. But Jacksonville was not an all-black city, and Zora found out for the first time what it meant to be a colored girl.
Midway through school, Zora moved to Nashville where her brother lived: Her idea was to continue high school. Her brother’s idea was to have Zora take care of his children and not attend high school. That was not cool, so Zora ran off and did neither.
Instead she got a job as a wardrobe girl with a touring theater company, which gave her a great intro to drama, lots of available books, and an education in how to deal with white people.
She took night classes where she could and in Baltimore she heard a reading of Kubla Khan which convinced her that literature was her future. She was aware that she needed more education, and Maryland gave a free education to anyone between 6 and 20. Zora was 26, but that was easily handled. She registered as age 16, piece of cake, no problem, thus beginning the confusion about her date of birth.
After some college prep courses, Zora got into Howard University, and received her associates degree. She continued attending classes for the next few years, but she would earn no other degree. It wasn’t easy to go to school and support yourself as a waitress, even then.
While at Howard, Zora published her first poems and stories, and in January 1925, she moved to New York. But not to Harlem. She lived on the West Side and started studying anthropology at Columbia.
But she was very interested in the intellectual and artistic group gathering in Harlem. All of them (Langston Hughes among them) were in their late teens or early 20s and Zora was pretending to be that same age, so she fit right in. She kept her apartment open for visits at all hours where she served Southern favorites, like eel, okra, and buttermilk.
She called her group the Niggerati (her word, not mine) and she was their self-proclaimed queen. She behaved something like a queen too. She wore bright colors and draped herself in jewelry. She smoked in public and told racy stories. She accentuated her Southern accent, sang spirituals, and played the harmonica. She arrived in New York knowing no one, but that didn’t matter. As one writer put it, “she had the gift of walking into hearts” (Taylor, 22).
The academics at Columbia liked her too and encouraged her to go pro with her anthropology. It was a new era for black culture, and academia was starting to take notice. They wanted to study black culture and folklore, but there would be a whole lot of barriers for your traditional white, male professor because why should your average black grandma tell him anything?
But Zora had no such barriers. She was perfect.
Or perhaps not quite perfect. She loved the folklore all right, but writing it up in a dry and boring academic journal was not her preferred method. She could and did do that, but she wanted to use it as a springboard for creative expression and forget about all this academic integrity stuff. She defined folklore as “the arts of the people before they find out that there is any such thing as art,” but she also wrote, “It is almost useless to collect material to lie upon the shelves of scientific societies. It should be used for the purpose to which it is best suited. The Negro material is eminently suited to drama and music. In fact it is drama and music, and the world and America in particular needs what this folk material holds” (quoted in Taylor, 58, 137). In the long run, I think America agrees with her. It is certainly hard to imagine what American drama and especially American music would be without the African-American components.
But in the short run, Zora needed money, and drama and music have never been the most certain ways of getting it. She worked as a secretary, very briefly, because her employer said she was the world’s worst secretary. She was better as a chauffeur, and I strongly suspect she was the type who didn’t care too much about speed limits.
In 1927, Zora had several associations funding her as she collected folklore all across the south. This was Zora in her element. She had no one to tell her where to go or what to do. Just her, her own car, her gun in a shoulder holster for protection, as she drove all over the south talking to anybody and everybody. She wrote down what they said, and perhaps even more importantly, how they said it. She had a great ear for dialect.
In a complete coincidence, she happened to run across Langston Hughes, and she talked him into accompanying her for weeks, meeting among others, the last two living people who had come over from Africa on a slave ship. On their return to New York, Langston introduced Zora to Mrs. Charlotte Mason. When you read about it now, Mrs. Mason was a repellent person, but that is not how Zora, Langston, and many others felt about her. She was rich, white, interested in what she called the “primitive” cultures and arts, such as Native American or African American. She also believed she could read thoughts: she had a psychic connection with people, including Zora. She also insisted they call her godmother, proclaimed herself a “black God,” claimed to be more truly black than most black people, and tried to control their every move.
Repellent, right? But there is no doubt that she paid well for the privilege of being so arrogant. She handed out lavish presents which were rather desperately needed, and she also entered more formal types of patronage. Langston was already on her bankroll. And in December 1927, Zora was too. She was given $200 a month, a shiny new car, and a movie camera. In return she would collect folklore and keep detailed itemized expenses. If that were all, I’d say fair enough, I guess, but Zora was never to reveal the source of her money and all of her output would belong to Mrs. Mason. Zora couldn’t even show it to anyone else without permission.
Zora, as I said, was a difficult person, and in due time she would renege on all of this in one way or another.
Not that she didn’t do some of it. She got full funding for trips to the South and the Bahamas. She went to New Orleans and studied hoodoo. And she was no isolated academic standing back taking notes on a clipboard. According to her own account, she lay facedown in the nude, her navel on a snakeskin, without food for sixty-nine hours. She took it seriously.
But none of this was really what she wanted to do. She wrote stories, but Mrs. Mason wouldn’t let her publish them. She wanted to write a play, but Mrs. Mason thought the theater was vulgar. Mrs. Mason said her expenses were extravagant. The constant supervision was degrading, but she needed the money, and like I said, neither Zora, nor Langston, seems to have viewed Mrs. Mason the way she appears to me. They genuinely loved and respected her, even as she frustrated them.
The solution according to Langston was to openly and honestly break with Mrs. Mason. which he did. The solution according to Zora was to circumvent the rules, which she did. She published an essay called “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” without permission and glossed over the reprimand by claiming it was submitted before she signed Mrs. Mason’s contract. She also started a play, coauthored with Langston. She was supposed to be writing up her folklore reports, but never mind that.
Unfortunately, this play idea went badly from the start. They talked it through, they wrote some, then they had a disagreement about compensation of their typist. And maybe it was more than that because that seems a trivial thing to give so much trouble, but Zora stopped taking Langton’s calls. She threw away the parts Langston had written and put on her name alone.
In October 1930, Zora copyrighted her play under the name De Turkey and de Law. She showed it to the head of the theater guild, who refused it. But one of his employees sent it to at theater company in Cleveland. Who decided they liked it and showed it to Langston Hughes, who happened to be visiting.
Langston was not pleased. He called. Zora wouldn’t talk, but she did write him a long letter, which is quite honestly, a bit of a tangle. She goes over the typist fiasco and the money confusion. Then she claims she doesn’t care about money or glory. Then she says she felt obliged to go it alone. Then she says he is her best friend but she’s not in love with him, but she felt so hurt she couldn’t tell him what she really thought. Then she says he made some suggestions about the play, but she didn’t incorporate them, so the work is all hers.
Langston had not yet received this letter when he took his version of the play with its original title The Mule Bone to the copyright office and got it registered to him and Zora. The change in title obviously confused the official, who didn’t realize it had already been copyrighted.
And believe it or not, everything just got worse from there. The play was never staged. The relationship was never repaired. Years later, Langston was absolutely cutting in his autobiography, while Zora’s autobiography barely mentioned him at all. A strange end to the two most important figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston marked his falling out with Zora as the end of the Harlem Renaissance, Scholars disagree, largely because Zora had yet to write her most important work. The 1930s were difficult for her. She lost half of her stipend from Mrs. Mason, and then the other half of it. She dated a much younger man named Percy Punter. She had actually already been married and if I said nothing about it, it was because it was so short-lived, it hardly seemed important. Punter wanted to marry her. But he also wanted her to give up her career. She later said he was the “real love of her life” but also “he was the master kind. All or nothing, for him” (zoranealehurston.com).
Ultimately it was not a healthy relationship and sounds more like mutual jealousy than it does like love. When it became violent, Zora had to get out. She was offered the Guggenheim fellowship, which she took, and sailed to Jamaica and then Haiti to collect more folklore.
It was there that she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks, as the emotions and all the experiences of her life poured out of her.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
The mainstream press liked it reasonably well. But the critics, not so much. In particular, the African-American critics didn’t like it, which must have been a real blow.
The problem was that in Zora’s view, the purpose of African-American art was to celebrate the speech, stories, and culture of African-Americans. But times were moving on and increasingly the purpose of African-American art was to speak truth to power and highlight the injustice that was still happening every day across the country. Zora’s work did not fit that agenda, therefore it was no good.
Now I was a bit surprised when I read about this. It was many years ago that I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and maybe I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been, but I certainly thought it talked about injustice, struggle, and all of that. The quote I remembered best turns out to be the most famous quote, and it goes like this:
“De white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule of de world so fur as Ah can see.”(Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, quoted in Delbanco, 104)
I certainly thought there was some truth to power in that statement.
But on further research that turns out to be sort of the problem. See, truth to power only sounds like a good idea when you feel you are on the truth side of the equation. When you are on the power side of the equation, it’s not so pleasant, as many white people are still making clear today. Zora’s book paced black men on the power side, highlighting the ways they have mistreated black women. She put white people on the power side as well, but that wasn’t the focus of the work. She didn’t fit the prevailing narrative when she had a grandmother character say to her granddaughter “Ah can’t die easy thinkin’ maybe da menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outa you” (quoted in Delbanco, 107).
All of the black opinion makers criticizing her work were men, and this was not a message they wanted to hear. They also found her careful attention to dialect and folklore humiliating. It would make white people laugh, they thought, when what African Americans needed was respect. Having failed to write the correct truth to the correct power, Zora rounded off her tumble into obscurity by a number of political and personal debacles.
She had always been impulsive, quick to anger, and very, very good with her words. It wasn’t a winning combination when it came to making long lasting friendships, and Langston Hughes was not the only one to find himself no longer in favor. Just one example: when she felt a fellow folklorist was claiming credit for her work, she wrote him a long letter which included statements like “I felt if I never saw… you until day after judgment, it would be too soon.” And “Maybe you would be all right if you had somebody to think for you until you took up that function yourself” (Clappetti, 603).
Whether her complaints were justified or not, you kind of doubt that a letter like that is going to improve the situation.
On a political level, Zora was very conservative. She made multiple statements in favor of segregation, which did not win her many friends in the social justice community. To understand her position, I think it’s necessary to remember where she grew up. She grew up in a thriving all-black community that always affirmed her culture. Her community was separate and at least in her mind, it actually was equal, and also in her mind, that was a good thing. She never saw blacks as uneducated, poverty-stricken, or second class, because in her childhood, they weren’t. As a child, she never had the experience of looking at a white world of opportunity and knowing she could not participate because of her skin color.
Now as an adult she certainly did see all of that and more. She was different than the mainstream culture and she reveled in the difference. Her mode of defense was humor. She wrote:
“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.”(Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)
Or in another well-quoted quip:
“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 or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”(Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)
About desegregation specifically, she wrote ” I can see no tragedy in being too dark to attend a white school social affair . . . The whole matter revolves around the self-respect of my people. How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?” (Hurston, “Court Order Can’t Make Races Mix”).
She maybe failed to appreciate that the vast majority of African Americans did not grow up with that idyllic childhood and did find a little pigmentation more or less to be a very significant barrier. The critics said she was selling out to white people, both in politics and in literature. Her folklore, they said, would be more accurate if every comic story was “followed by a beating or a lynching.” (Delbanco, 105), though why you would expect a collection of folklore to say anything about lynching is beyond me. I have no problem with people of color writing honestly about their experiences as people of color, but it’s hardly equality if that’s all they are allowed to write. White authors, after all, are allowed to write about many different topics.
Zora fought back with statements like “Negroes are supposed to write about the Race Problem. I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color” (quoted in Delbanco, 107). From a distance of decades and having no personal stake in the matter, I think I can understand her attitude. I understand not wanting to think of yourself as a victim, even when you actually are a victim. But it did her no favors at the time.
The final blow to her reputation came when she was accused of molesting a 10-year-old boy. It was not true, which was quickly proved by the fact that she wasn’t even in the country at the time. But of course a retraction rarely gets the same press coverage as the original inflammatory story.
Zora was remembered as a madwoman: volatile, explosive, and unpredictably angry, an embarrassment to her race. All of her books went out of print. Mrs. Mason had long since died. Zora supported herself as a maid, as a librarian, as a substitute teacher. She was frequently fired.
She died in 1960, alone and mostly forgotten. Her grave was unmarked.
It was not until the 1970s that Zora’s name came back into the public eye. The person pushing Zora’s name was Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple. As a black feminist, Walker had far more sympathy for Zora and her stories than any male critic ever had. Other black women including trendsetters like Oprah Winfrey and writers like Toni Morrison warmed to the theme. A new form of racial pride wanted to celebrate their blackness, as Zora had. Today Their Eyes Were Watching God is an integral part of not just African-American literature, but American literature in general. It is the most widely read book written by an African-American (Taylor, 4). It regularly features on the required reading lists for high school and colleges classes, and scholars use its publication to date the end of the Harlem Renaissance.
Zora has at last achieved the glory she did crave (whatever she may have claimed to the contrary). She just didn’t live long enough to see it.
My major source today was Zora and Langston by Yuval Taylor, as well as several papers and websites all of which are listed on the website at herhalfofhistory.com. Follow me on Twitter @her_half or on Facebook at Her Half of History. Next week is the wrapup of ground-breaking novelists. Among other things, I’ll tell you briefly why I chose the ones I chose to tell you who all I didn’t choose, but you should definitely read. After that there will be a three week break as usual before I start Series 7. Thanks!
Abbott, Dorothy. “Recovering Zora Neale Hurston’s Work.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 12, no. 1 (1991): 175–81. https://doi.org/10.2307/3346584.
Cappetti, Carla, and Zora Neale Hurston. “Defending Hurston against Her Legend: Two Previously Unpublished Letters.” Amerikastudien / American Studies 55, no. 4 (2010): 602–14. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41158717.
Delbanco, Andrew. “The Political Incorrectness of Zora Neale Hurston.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 18 (1997): 103–8. https://doi.org/10.2307/2998779.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “Court Order Can’t Make Races Mix.” Orlando Sentinel, 11 Aug. 1955, faculty.gordonstate.edu/lsanders-senu/CourtOrderCantMakeRacesMix.pdf. Accessed 28 Mar. 2022.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” The World Tomorrow, May 1928, http://www.casa-arts.org/cms/lib/PA01925203/Centricity/Domain/50/Hurston%20How%20it%20Feels%20to%20Be%20Colored%20Me.pdf. Accessed 28 Mar. 2022.
O’Meally, Robert, and Henry Louis Gates. Review of Slavery’s Shadow, by Harriet E. Wilson. Callaloo, no. 20 (1984): 157–58. https://doi.org/10.2307/2930697.
Taylor, Yuval. Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal. New York, Ny, W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.
Williams, Adebayo, and Henry Louis Gates. Review of Of Human Bondage and Literary Triumphs: Hannah Crafts and the Morphology of the Slave Narrative, by Hannah Crafts. Research in African Literatures 34, no. 1 (2003): 137–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3821101.
“Zora Neale Hurston.” Zoranealehurston.com, 2018, http://www.zoranealehurston.com/.