Jump at de Sun | The Nation


Jump at de Sun

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Born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, one of eight children, Hurston announced to her father at age 9 that she wanted "a fine black riding horse with white leather saddle and bridles" for Christmas. The horse would be used for her journey "to the edge...the horizon...the belly-band" of the world. John Hurston, who believed that "it did not do for Negroes to have too much spirit," clearly disapproved of such fantasies.

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Kristal Brent Zook
Kristal Brent Zook is a New York-based journalist and author of Black Women's Lives: Stories of Power and Pain (Nation...

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On the other hand, Hurston's mother, a seamstress and Sunday school teacher named Lucy Potts Hurston, was deeply committed to education and aiming high in life. "Jump at de sun," she told Zora, in what has become her own now-famous homily. "We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground." Lucy certainly didn't want no "mealy-mouthed rag doll" for a daughter either.

When her beloved mother died, Hurston was just 13 and the loss was a fundamental tragedy of her life. "Mama died at sundown and changed a world," she later wrote. Her father sent her away to school but promptly neglected to pay the tuition and board, leaving Zora essentially homeless and orphaned. She scrubbed floors until the end of the school term and then waited patiently for John Hurston to pick her up and take her home. "Weeks passed," she recalled. "A letter came. Papa said that the school could adopt me." The school did not.

As complicated as was her relationship with her father, however, Hurston admired his physical strength (he once "licked two men who Mama told him needed to be licked") and willingness to take on white racists with a loaded rifle in the dark woods, if need be. That he took his family to Eatonville, an independent and Negro-governed town founded in 1887, was perhaps one of the greatest gifts he gave his most headstrong daughter. "With two schools and no jailhouse," a large family garden, lakes full of fish, home-raised chickens and eggs, and a pantry "crowded with jars of guava jelly and peach and pear preserves," Eatonville was a place, writes Boyd with simple elegance, "where black people were free from any indoctrination in inferiority."

This profound sense of racial pride served Hurston well. Any other young Negro woman in the 1920s might not have lasted a day among the privileged alumni of Barnard and Columbia, with their "tennis, golf, and riding lessons." White daughters of the wealthy and powerful, Barnard undergrads ten years Hurston's junior laughed cruelly when they heard her, "a black southerner, reciting French."

And it was surely her healthy sense of self-esteem that must have saved Hurston from the mysterious "shot-gun built house" of torture where she lived briefly in her 20s--most likely, speculates Boyd, in a common-law arrangement with an abusive man. About this part of her life, we know almost nothing. Only that Hurston must have "suffered horribly," for "she would never speak directly about her anguish or its causes."

Indeed, Hurston would often speak of marriage as oppressive throughout her life. It was an institution, as she saw it, designed "primarily to protect children and the mothers of children." Not even for her one true love, the fiery Percy Punter, would she sacrifice her career.

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