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By Autumn Brown, Managing Editor
On January 7, 1891, Zora Neale Hurston was born to John Hurston, a carpenter and Baptist preacher, and Lucy Potts Hurston, a former schoolteacher. Born in Notasulga, Alabama, Hurston was the fifth of eight children.
While still a toddler, Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida. She was never indoctrinated in inferiority, and she could see the evidence of black achievement all around her. Hurston could look to the town hall and see black men, including her father, formulating the laws that governed Eatonville. She could also look to the Sunday schools of the town’s churches and see black women, like her mother, directing the Christian curricula.
Hurston’s writing reflected her upbringing. During a time when Black people were reduced to mere ciphers, to beings who only react to omnipresent racial oppression, and whose psyches were deemed “pathological,” Hurston thought these ideas degrading, its propagation a trap, and railed against it.
She said that such ideology was upheld by “the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a dirty deal.” Unlike Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, both dominant male literary figures, Hurston deliberately ignored this “false picture that [was] distorted.”
Freedom, she wrote, “was something internal. . . . The man himself must make his own emancipation.” And with that, she declared her first novel a manifesto against whites’ “arrogance,” assuming that “Black lives are only defensive reactions to white actions.”
Hurston did not calculate her strategy to please; she didn’t pander to a condescending white readership; rather, she named emotions in a language both profoundly personal and culturally specific through her writing.
A trailblazer before her time, Hurston’s use of black vernacular speech and rituals, in ways subtle and various to chart the coming to consciousness of black women, was an approach so glaringly absent in other Black fiction.
Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was bold and feminist, the first to be explicitly so in the African American tradition. Through the novel’s protagonist, Janie, we witness her journey from object to subject. This novel is a project of finding a voice, as Hurston uses language as an instrument of injury and salvation, of selfhood and empowerment.
Hurston wrote of Black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings. Her work signifies her multiple canonizations in the Black, the American, and feminist traditions. Her collections center on the quality of imagination that makes the lives in her stories whole and splendid.
Her work celebrates rather than moralizes; it shows rather than tells. Her use of a divided voice, a double voice unreconciled, is a verbal analog of her dual experiences as a woman in a male-dominated world and as a black person in a nonblack world, a woman writer’s revision of W.E.B. DuBois’s metaphor of “double consciousness” for the hyphenated African American.
During the Harlem Renaissance (beginning the 1920s), a dominant black woman writer, Hurston’s fame, reached its pinnacle in 1943. Just seven years later, she served as a maid in Rivo Alto, Florida, ten years after she passed in the County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida, in 1960.
Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple, rediscovered Hurston and her literary contributions, buried in an unmarked grave in the garden of the heavenly rest, a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida.
So how did she and her work virtually disappear from dominant literary discourse? Often, the depth of black women’s intellectual contributions is underestimated. Their “minds and talents have been suppressed by the pots and kettles symbolic of black women’s subordination.”
Zora Neale Hurston, a prolific writer indeed, lying buried in an unmarked grave creates a parallel between her unmarked grave and the recognition of her intellectual contributions to the literary field.
Hurston’s “unrecognized and unheralded work, scattered and long out of print” is just one example of how black women intellectuals often remain in a vestibule withheld from the dominant discourse.
The rediscovery of Hurston and her writings is essential in establishing a maternal literary ancestry. So from one Capricorn to another, I wish Zora Neale Hurston a Happy Birthday, and I express my gratitude for her fearless writing and bold stance in the world of literature.
There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves. The soul lives in a sickly air. People can be slave-ships in shoes.
(Excerpt from Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road)
Works by Zora Neale Hurston
Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1934
Mules and Men, 1935
Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937
Tell My Horse, 1938
Moses, Man of the Mountain, 1939
Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942
Seraph on the Suwanee, 1948
I Love Myself When I Am Laughing. . . . & Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, 1979
The Sanctified Church, 1981Spunk: The Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston, 1985