Zora Neale Hurston ’28

Note: This is part of a series of profiles about Barnard alumnae. These profiles were originally posted on the old Barnard Archives website.   

Paradoxical Genius of the South

Zora Neale Hurston is one of the most prominent literary figures of the 20th century thanks to her extraordinary contributions to fiction and anthropology, as well as her role in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Her popularity has only increased in the years since her death, and she was an important influence on other notable African-American writers, such as Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. Hurston was born sometime between 1891 and 1901 (most likely the latter date) to the Reverend John and Lucy (Potts) Hurston in Notasulga, Alabama. At the age of three, she moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, where her father became the town’s first mayor. Eatonville was the first African-American township to be incorporated into the United States, and growing up there had a profound effect on Hurston’s life, as she developed at an early age the idea that African-Americans could lead separate and sovereign lives apart from other ethnic groups. In her early youth, because she lived in an all-black community, Hurston never witnessed the brutal racism that most African-Americans experienced at that time, especially in the South. Thus, her perspective on racial issues was considerably different from other African-American writers of her generation.

Hurston’s life changed when her mother became fatally ill in 1910. As one of eight children in her family, she often felt overlooked by her father and second in priority to his job as mayor of Eatonville, but her mother had always encouraged and inspired her personal growth. As she writes in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road: “Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground. Papa did not feel so hopeful. Let well enough alone. It did not do for Negroes to have too much spirit. He was always threatening to break mine or kill me in the attempt.”

Her mother’s funeral was the last time Hurston’s entire family was together. Two weeks later, Hurston moved to Jacksonville, Florida, with her older sister Sarah, and was forever separated from her childhood family and friends: “Life picked me up from the foot of Mama’s bed … and set my feet in strange ways. That moment was the end of a phase in my life… It seemed as she died that the sun went down on purpose to flee away from me. That hour began my wanderings. Not so much in geography, but in time. Then not so much in time as in spirit.”

After living with her sister for a few years, Hurston left to become a maid to a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. From that point on, Hurston was destined to lead a nomadic life, never settling in one place for more than a few years. She traveled around the South with the troupe for a short period of time, ending up in Baltimore, Maryland, where she decided to attend Morgan Academy, a historically all-black preparatory school (now known as Morgan State University). She graduated in 1918 and promptly applied to and matriculated at Howard University in Washington, D.C., which was the start of her higher education. Out of economic necessity, Hurston also held many odd jobs, such as manicurist and maid, but—as was her character—she never held one job for long before she felt the need to find another. She also began to take her writing more seriously at this time, and succeeded in publishing her first story in Howard’s literary magazine, Stylus. Of writing, Hurston said that “[the] force from somewhere in Space which commands you to write in the first place, gives you no choice. You take up the pen when you are told, and write what is commanded. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”

Hurston attended Howard from 1918 to 1924 without completing her undergraduate requirements, as she was constantly involved in other things, such as her many jobs. By 1924, she decided that she was ready for yet another change. She left school to seek her next calling, living on her meager earnings from the short stories she sold to various magazines with increasing frequency to various magazines. She was soon befriended by the editor of Opportunity, an African-American journal, who encouraged her to move from Washington to New York City, which was, then as now, the literary capital of the United States. Following her advice, Hurston was once more on the move, settling in New York City at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.

Upon reaching the big city, Hurston was almost immediately discovered by Annie Nathan Meyer, one of the founders of Barnard College. Meyer was extremely supportive of Hurston’s zest and talent in numerous areas, and offered her a scholarship to the College. Hurston gladly accepted and thus began her studies at Barnard in the fall of 1925, feeling “highly privileged and determined to make the most of it. I did not resolve to be a grind, however, to show the white folks I had brains. I took it for granted that they knew that. Else, why was I at Barnard? Not everyone who cries, ‘Lord! Lord!’ can enter those sacred iron gates.”

Just as at Howard, Hurston was never solely a student at Barnard, but also engaged in numerous other activities. She became personal secretary to one of the most popular and highest-paid writers of her time, Fannie Hurst, who was greatly impressed after reading one of Hurston’s short stories, “Spunk.” Hurston became Hurst’s protégé and was greatly influenced by her throughout her years as Hurst’s secretary. Another extremely important influence in Hurston’s life during this period was Franz Boas, her professor in the majority of the anthropology classes she took at Barnard and Columbia. By his ideas and his example, he inspired her in the anthropological quests she was to embark on in the years ahead.

On February 29, 1928, Hurston finally received her undergraduate degree, becoming the first African-American student known to have graduated from Barnard. Although she was not permitted to reside in the dormitories and may have confronted other obstacles while at Barnard, she never complained about racial prejudice at the College: “I have no lurid tales to tell of race discrimination at Barnard. I made a few friends in the first few days. … The Social Register crowd at Barnard soon took me up, and I soon became Barnard’s sacred black cow. If you had not had lunch with me, you had not shot from taw. I was secretary to Fannie Hurst and living at her 67th Street duplex apartment, so things were going very well with me.”

As Alice Walker said in the 1975 Helen Rogers Reid Lecture at Barnard, Hurston “went to Barnard to learn how to study what she really wanted to learn: the ways of her own people, and what ancient rituals, customs, and beliefs had made them unique.” She was never set back by her color, but instead immersed herself in the study of her people’s culture.

The same year that she graduated from Barnard, Hurston wrote the following:

“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.”

She graduated from Barnard with a major in English (not anthropology, as is often reported) and a minor in geology. Along with her B.A., she was also awarded a fellowship by the Rosenwald Foundation for two years of anthropological work at Columbia University.

Franz Boas became Hurston’s mentor during her two years of graduate study at Columbia, after which she once again felt the urge to try new things and see new places. She decided to return to the South, and in 1931 she traveled primarily in Florida to gather experience and knowledge of the African-American folklore which she valued so highly. In the years following this research, she also worked as a drama instructor at Bethune-Cookman College in Florida. But Hurston never lost touch with her alma mater. In 1932, she contributed her expertise in African-American folk songs, dances, and rituals to the drama Black Souls, produced by Annie Nathan Meyer as a benefit for Barnard.

In 1934, she published her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine. The story takes place in a small, all-black Florida town, much like Eatonville, and draws heavily on the anthropological and folkloric research that had occupied Hurston during the four previous years of her life. Her second book, Of Mules and Men (1935), also focuses on the African-American culture in which she had always been immersed. As a guest of honor at a 1935 meeting of the Barnard Club of Bergen County, New Jersey, Hurston described her experiences collecting folklore for Of Mules and Men and autographed copies of the book for the Barnard alumnae and guests in attendance.

Her greatest literary success, however, came in 1937 with the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the most autobiographical of her works. This novel about two fictional characters, Teacake and Janie, was much inspired by her childhood, as one of Janie’s husbands is actually the mayor of the non-fictional Eatonville, as was Hurston’s father. Hurston said of Their Eyes Were Watching God, “There is no book more important to me than this.” Janie is nomadic, much like Hurston, and she has three different husbands, the first two of which intensely dissatisfy her. This parallels Hurston’s own love life, which included two divorces.

In the same year, 1937, Hurston was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, which she used to travel to Jamaica, Haiti, Bermuda, and Honduras. In each country she collected more folklore, which continued to inform and inspire her writings, including her fourth book, Tell My Horse (1938), which relates to Haitian vodou ceremonies. The following year, another of her books was published: Moses, Man of the Mountain, a story of the emancipation of the Hebrews with emphasis on the aspects she felt appealed most to African-Americans. Though these later books were only mildly well received, she did have one last literary success: her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Published in 1942, it paints a vivid picture of her wanderings, starting in the South and continuing throughout the Americas.

Just before her autobiography was published, Hurston was on the writing staff of Paramount Studios in Hollywood, after which she lived on a houseboat in Daytona Beach, Florida, where she continued to write on a freelance basis. Her fame, however, began to dwindle with the progress of the civil rights movement, as her views were not in accordance with the majority of those in the movement. As a utopian, Hurston felt that African-Americans could attain sovereignty apart from whites. As explained by her biographer, Robert Hemenway:

“Zora’s standard for comparison was always the Eatonville of her childhood, a proud, self-governing, all-black village that felt no need of integration and, in fact, resisted it so that an Afro-American culture could thrive without interference. She never quite acknowledged that there were few Eatonvilles. … In her last years her personal political test failed to acknowledge either the diversity of the Southern black experience or the need to react against the tyranny that would characterize their life.”

During the congressional race of 1946, Hurston worked for the campaign of Grant Reynolds, a Republican candidate for the 22nd District (Harlem) in New York City. As the national chairman of the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training (which would later successfully lobby President Harry Truman to desegregate the U.S. military), as well as a student at Columbia University Law School, Reynolds was a moderate figure on the issue of integration, closely allied with the labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Reynolds’ opponent in the race was one-term incumbent Democrat Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the most famous and charismatic African-American politician of the day. Hurston strongly disagreed with Powell’s absolute integrationism, e.g., his radical position that no federal funds be granted to any institution or program that practiced segregation. But Powell won by a landslide in the general election, demonstrating how the moderate views on race espoused by Reynolds and Hurston were fast becoming obsolete. In part because Hurston never revised her political opinions to match the times, she fell into obscurity and poverty toward the end of her life.

In 1959, Hurston suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered. The following year, on January 28, 1960, she passed away in a welfare home in Fort Pierce, Florida. Having left no money for a headstone, she was buried in an unmarked grave. Since then, Hurston’s genius has been rediscovered and her fame revived as her considerable accomplishments have become more widely known and appreciated. In the early 1970s, Alice Walker traveled to Florida in search of Hurston’s burial site, visiting places which seemed familiar even to her, a stranger, through Hurston’s vivid descriptions of the area. Walker located Hurston’s grave on August 15, 1973, and erected a headstone on which she had the following words engraved:

“Zora Neale Hurston, ‘A Genius of the South,’ Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist, 1901-1960.”

— Stephanie Pahler ’05

Sources

Boulware, Marcus H. The Oratory of Negro Leaders, 1900-1968. Westport, CT: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

“The Desegregation of the Armed Forces.” Project WhistleStop: Harry S. Truman Digital Archive. Retrieved December 13, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.whistlestop.org/study_collections/desegregation/large/desegre….

Dickinson, Laurie. “Zora Neale Hurston.” Voices From the Gaps: Women Writers of Color. Retrieved December 19, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://voices.cla.umn.edu/authors/ZoraNealeHurston.html>.

Gallaher, Tim. “Zora Neale Hurston.” Personal WWW Page for Tim Gallaher. Updated October 8, 1997. Retrieved December 19, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://www-hsc.usc.edu/~gallaher/hurston/hurston.html>.

Hamilton, Charles V. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1991.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Hinton, Kip Austin. “Zora Neale Hurston.” Updated November 19, 2000. Retrieved December 19, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://i.am/zora>.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” 1928. Barnard Electronic Archive and Teaching Laboratory. Retrieved December 14, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://beatl.barnard.columbia.edu/wsharpe/citylit/colored_me.htm>.

“Hurston, Zora Neale.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2001. Retrieved December 13, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://encarta.msn.com>.

Powell, Adam Clayton Jr. Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. New York: The Dial Press, 1971.

Academic transcript of Zora Neale Hurston ’28 (photocopy); “From Coast To Coast.” Barnard College Alumnae Monthly, December 1935, p. 10; Feeny, Helen M. “Fighter Against Complacency and Ignorance.” Barnard College Alumnae Monthly, fall 1946, pp. 6-7; and Stadler, Quandra Prettyman. “Learning What She Wanted.” Barnard College Alumnae Magazine, winter 1979, pp. 16-17. (Barnard College Archives).

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