October 07, 2015

Women of Doubt: Zora Neale Hurston is a recovered icon

In the summer of 1973, a young woman walked alone through the tall weeds and grass of a cemetery  in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Knowing Florida, it was probably warm.

She was approaching the end of a journey of (re) discovery, one that led her to an unmarked grave.

In "Celebrating Zora Neale Hurston '28", Monica Miller of Barnard College writes:

Lying to local residents that she was Hurston’s niece in order to gain their trust, Walker journeyed to Florida to claim Hurston as an ancestor despite her troubles. In an act of veneration and appreciation, Walker paid the ultimate respect to Hurston on that trip—she located her unmarked grave in the snake-infested high grass of the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida, and placed a stone marker on it: 

Zora Neale Hurston
‘A Genius of the South’
Novelist  Folklorist  Anthropologist
1901 – 1960 6

The woman walking through the grass, which you may have guessed, was the distinguished author Alice Walker, and she recovered an icon from that unmarked grave: Zora Neale Hurston.

Source: Zora Neale Hurston Official Site / zoranealehurston.com

Who Was Zora Neale Hurston?

Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama.

As a toddler, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the town that Hurston would consider home. She seemed to remember very little or nothing about her time in Alabama. 1 It was this town that served as the backdrop for Hurston's masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

It's hard to say exactly why Hurston's parents made the move from Alabama, but chances are good that the thought of living in one of the first municipalities entirely incorporated by persons of color was (understandably) alluring.

Source: Town of Eatonville / townofeatonville.com

And that is what Eatonville, incorporated in 1887 in Orange County, about six miles north of Orlando, offered: "one of the first self-governing, all-black municipalities in the United States". 4

For Hurston, this meant a relatively unique upbringing:

In Eatonville, Zora was never indoctrinated in inferiority, and she could see the evidence of black achievement all around her. She could look to town hall and see black men, including her father, John Hurston, formulating the laws that governed Eatonville. She could look to the Sunday Schools of the town's two churches and see black women, including her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, directing the Christian curricula. She could look to the porch of the village store and see black men and women passing worlds through their mouths in the form of colorful, engaging stories. 
Growing up in this culturally affirming setting in an eight-room house on five acres of land, Zora had a relatively happy childhood, despite frequent clashes with her preacher-father, who sometimes sought to "squinch" her rambunctious spirit, she recalled. Her mother, on the other hand, urged young Zora and her seven siblings to "jump at de sun." Hurston explained, "We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground." 1

After her mother's death and her father's remarriage, Hurston was left to mostly fend for herself, working as a maid and performing other menial labor, until in 1917, at 26 years old, she made her way to Baltimore, where she posed as ten years younger in order to finish her high school education.1

From 1921 to 1924, Hurston attended Howard University before attaining a scholarship to Barnard College in 1925, where she studied anthropology under Frank Boaz. 5 She graduated from Barnard in 1928.

Hurston's work was prolific, especially given that her anthropological background uniquely situated her to capture African American culture. African Americans for Humanism says:

Zora Neale Hurston was an extremely influential writer and folklorist of the Harlem Rennaissance; in addition to her four novels, including her 1937 masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God, she published more than fifty short stories, plays, and essays. Hurston was also a respected anthropologist whose research on oral cultures and folk traditions in the Caribbean informed much of her writing. She conducted ethnographic research in Jamaica and Haiti in the late 1930s on a Guggenheim Fellowship; her 1938 work Tell My Horse documents her studies of indigenous ritual in both countries. Today, she is lauded for her contributions to academic understanding of African American folklore, and for her representations of language and oral tradition in her work. 2

Hurston was reputedly an interesting and colorful presence:

By all accounts, Zora Neale Hurston could walk into a roomful of strangers and, a few minutes and a few stories later, leave them so completely charmed that they often found themselves offering to help her in any way they could. 1

Despite the amazing work that she produced, Hurston fell on hard times during the Great Depression and the World Wars, a similar plight to many writers of color who had participated in the Harlem Renaissance. When she succumbed to a stroke on January 28, 1960, at age 69, her neighbors had to take up a collection to cover her funeral costs, and she was buried with no marker in Ft. Pierce.

Her work fell into the unknown, nearly dropping into the abyss of history, until Alice Walker's struggle to recover it. In March 1975, Walker published her piece "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" in Ms. magazine, leading to a resurgence of interest in the icon.

What Did Zora Neale Hurston Say?

Many, many, many beautiful and eloquent things, but today, I'd like to share this bit from an essay called "Religion" in her autobiography Dust Tracks On a Road, published in 1942:

“Strong, self-determining men are notorious for their lack of reverence.  
. . . Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws. The ever-sleepless sea in its bed, crying out 'How long?' to Time; million-formed and never motionless flame; the contemplation of these two aspects alone, affords me sufficient food for ten spans of my expected lifetime. It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me. Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels. The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn, is glory enough for me. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.”

This is as quoted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

I especially love the line: Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.

That thought is amazing.


I have to say, as someone who was majoring in English before switching to business, I was shocked to see that Zora Neale Hurston was nearly lost to history. Their Eyes Were Watching God is an especially incredible novel, one that I strongly believe every single human being should read at some point.

I am so incredibly grateful that this voice was saved from anonymity and returned to a rightful place among the greatest authors our nation has ever produced--I only wish that it had happened in her lifetime, so that she could have reaped the advantages (especially financial).


1 Boyd, Valerie. "About Zora Neal Hurston". The Official Website of Zora Neale Hurston. <http://zoranealehurston.com/about/index.html> Retrieved October 6, 2015.

2 "Zora Neale Hurston: Harlem Renaissance Writer and Anthropologist". African Americans for Huamnism. <http://www.aahumanism.net/history/view/zora_neale_hurston> Retrieved October 6, 2015.

3 "About Us". Town of Eatonville Website. <http://townofeatonville.com/About.html> Retrieved October 6, 2015.

4 "Eatonville, Florida". Wikipedia. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eatonville,_Florida> Retrieved October 6, 2015

5 "Zora Neale Hurston". Encyclopedia Britannica. <http://www.britannica.com/biography/Zora-Neale-Hurston> Retrieved October 6, 2015.

6 Miller, Monica "Celebrating Zora Neale Hurston '28". Barnard College. <http://barnard.edu/news/archaeology-classic-celebrating-zora-neale-hurston-28> Retrieved October 6, 2015.

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