Anthropologist, novelist, folklorist, essayist and luminary of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston dazzled her peers and patrons almost immediately upon her arrival in New York City in 1925, when she made a show-stopping grand entrance at a formal literary affair, flinging a red scarf around her neck and stopping all conversation with her animated storytelling and antics. “I would like to know her,” declared Langston Hughes. She had a “blazing zest for life,” opined celebrity writer Fannie Hurst. Annie Nathan Meyer, a founder of Barnard College, did them one better: She promptly offered Hurston entrance into Columbia University’s sister college, making her the first black student to attend Barnard.
Over the course of her life, Hurston would publish several dozen essays, short stories and poems, and seven books, including her notoriously deceptive (some would say ingeniously “dissembling”) autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. Nine more books–essays, folklore, short stories and a play–would appear in print posthumously, following Alice Walker’s “rediscovery” of Hurston in the 1970s. According to Carla Kaplan, editor of Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters and a professor at the University of Southern California, this resurrection of the long-forgotten writer has yielded over 800 more books (including sixteen for children), articles, chapters, dissertations, reference guides and biographical essays about Hurston over the past three decades. That some 2,000 spectators showed up at Central Park last summer for a reading of her work is further evidence that Zora mania continues to be in full swing.
Yet, even with Kaplan’s 880-page tome (complete with exhaustive introductory essays, annotations, footnotes and glossary), and Valerie Boyd’s gracefully penned biography, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (the first since Robert Hemenway’s landmark 1977 effort, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography), we’re left with the same dogged question: Who was Hurston, really? What makes such a dreamer dream? What fuels the inner life and spirit that it may reach beyond its present circumstances? We’ve heard much about Hurston the enigma; the Zora of contradictions and paradox and light. And by all accounts, including the two latest contributions, Hurston was indeed a bold and iconoclastic force.
Picture Zora: flagrantly smoking Pall Malls in public with an openly gay male friend; measuring the heads of strangers on Harlem street corners in famously brazen anthropometry experiments; driving a car (alone, female, along backwoods Southern roads in the 1920s, packing a chrome-plated pistol); marrying men decades her junior and promptly leaving them, while habitually lopping ten years or more off her own age.
We’re intrigued by this Hurston: the Harlemite partygoer who loved music and dance, the folk, “lying sessions” and home-cooked pots of fried shrimp and okra served with “gingerbread and a jug of buttermilk.” This was Zora “with her harmonica and head full of stories…all greased curls, bangles, and slashes of red.”
And then there’s my favorite image: a time when Hurston was so broke that she actually borrowed money from a beggar. “On her way to catch the subway,” writes Boyd, arts editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “she was stopped by a blind panhandler holding out his cup. Taking some change from the cup for her subway fare, Zora said: ‘I need money worse than you today. Lend me this! Next time, I’ll give it back.'”
That Hurston could be so audacious in some contexts, and so obsequious in others (“You are the spring and summer of my existence,” she wrote in a letter to Charlotte Osgood Mason, a supporter and employer), is only part of the mystery.
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.
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.
Instead, she basked in the light of the Harlem Renaissance during an era when all things Negro were “in vogue.” Just two years after her explosion onto the New York literary scene, Hurston was awarded $1,400 from Carter G. Woodson, director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and from the American Folklore Society for what must have seemed like a lifelong dream come true: a six-month research project recording “the stories, superstitions, songs, dances, jokes, customs, and mannerisms of the black South.”
During this time, she interviewed Cudjo Lewis, thought to be the only survivor from the Chlotilde, the last slave ship to dock in this country. What touched Hurston most about Kossola (his African name), writes Boyd, “was how much he continued to miss his people back in Nigeria” even seventy-five years later. “I lonely for my folks,” he told Hurston. “It gave me something to feel about,” she reflected. Hurston was a master at moving within and among very different worlds. As comfortable as she was at Barnard, she was even more so traveling to the sawmill quarters; the turpentine, phosphate, prison and railroad camps; and the black churches and juke joints of the South, where she faithfully recorded the songs, lullabies, sermons and rituals of her beloved folk.
Back in New York, Langston Hughes, who would become Hurston’s dearest friend until a bitter falling out over their collaborative play Mule Bone, arranged for her to meet his patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, the wealthy widow of a prominent physician. Already in her 70s at the time, Mason was, Boyd tells us, an “amateur anthropologist” herself, who had worked “among the Indians of the Great Plains.” Like Hurston, she too believed in the innately superior “cosmic energies and intuitive powers” of “primitive people.”
With Alain Locke as her most trusted adviser, Mason, who was white, donated as much as $75,000 to Negro writers and artists during this time, writes Boyd. And when she hired Hurston to continue her anthropological research (their legal contract stipulated that Mason would own everything: transcripts, data, music and film recordings) at $200 a month, the arrangement, which lasted four years, was both confining and liberating for the fiercely independent Hurston.
As many scholars have noted, the letters from Hurston to her “Godmother” (as Mason insisted on being called) are often the most painful to read, signed as they are by “your little pickanniny.” To picture Hurston, an accomplished and by then middle-aged woman, referring to herself as “your black gal…scratching my nappy head” would be unthinkable today.
And of course, this is one of the grand paradoxes of Hurston’s legacy: the simultaneously loving but deeply race-tainted relationships she shared. While Fannie Hurst was certainly a treasured friend (upon learning of Hurston’s financial struggles during her first term at Barnard, she even hired her as a personal secretary), for example, Hurston referred to her peer either as “Miss Hurst” or as “Fannie Hurst.” For the celebrity author, on the other hand, Hurston remained just plain “Zora.” And when the friends decided to take a road trip together, Hurston actually functioned as chauffeur for Hurst, who rode in the back seat.
From the start, white patronage was intricately interwoven with Hurston’s dreams. Even as a child, her reading skills so impressed white educators that she was rewarded with “stuffed dates and candied ginger,” a hundred new pennies, a hymnbook, The Swiss Family Robinson, a book of fairy tales and a box full of clothes and books–“Gulliver’s Travels, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Dick Whittington, Greek and Roman Myths, and best of all, Norse Tales.” Later, working as a maid for the traveling Gilbert and Sullivan theater company, she was “stuffed with ice cream sodas and Coca-Cola” for making white performers laugh.
Hurston honed this skill and used it well, but it wasn’t enough.
Crushingly, Hurston’s closest circle of white friends and colleagues betrayed her, as Boyd indicates, in their letters of recommendation for her 1934 Guggenheim fellowship application. In a confidential note, Hurston’s mentor, anthropological giant Franz Boas, accused her of using “methods…more journalistic than scientific.” Hurst called her an “erratic worker” and a “curious example of a sophisticated negro mind” (whatever that means), and even Carl Van Vechten had so little to say (two sentences in all) that his support could hardly be deemed enthusiastic.
But with the setback came a profound and wonderful turn of events. Charged by her new publisher, J.B. Lippincott, with transforming a collection of folklore, Mules and Men, from a “scientific manuscript into a narrative [for] average, nonacademic readers,” Hurston rose to the challenge brilliantly. Emerging with a work that was “part folklore, part hoodoo chronicle, and part immersion journalism,” as Boyd describes it, Hurston wove each of these elements together seamlessly. The book received rave reviews, and when Hurston again applied for a Guggenheim in 1936, she was approved for two consecutive years.
For me, it is this era of her life that is most fascinating. For a brief moment, Hurston is free of the confines of social mores, white patronage and even the narrow parameters of the black-college bourgeoisie (where she made several fleeting attempts to teach over the years). Again we see a glimpse of the writer who in the fall of 1929 stumbled upon a Bahamian “jumping dance” while collecting folklore in Florida and within weeks, if not days, was headed for Nassau to explore Bahamian culture further. Even contending with the effects of a storm that destroyed more than 300 homes (including the one she was staying in before making a narrow escape), Hurston managed to collect twenty songs and three reels of dance footage in two weeks, including a “Fire Dance” that would later become part of her critically acclaimed theatrical production The Great Day.
I love this Zora: the adventurer who doesn’t have to answer to anyone. And she emerges most poignantly in both books: the inner artist who finds her creative voice, at long last, during the fourth decade of her life.
Now, as she writes in her second Guggenheim application, she wants to “study obeah practices in the Caribbean,” but this time “without the scientific constraints” of being a PhD candidate. Hurston intended to continue collecting folklore–in Jamaica and Haiti–not just for its own sake but as the raw material for her fiction. Energized by “internal pressure,” she began work on a new novel during that same period, working nights after spending long days in the field. In just seven weeks she completed Their Eyes Were Watching God: a feminist classic universally regarded as her greatest masterpiece (and the basis for a long-awaited Oprah Winfrey production starring Halle Berry, no less).
With Guggenheim support, Hurston tracked the Maroons of Jamaica, where she witnessed a conjure doctor successfully commanding “thousands of croaking frogs in the bush to hush.” She traipsed across the mountainous terrain with a team of men on a wild boar hunt, “[stumbling] along with my camera and note book,” as she noted, “and a few little womanish things like comb and tooth brush and towel.” And in Haiti she found eight “authentic cases” of zombies, one of whom she photographed in a hospital. This woman with “blank face and lifeless eyes” was identified by her brother as having died and been buried thirty years earlier. We see this Hurston sporadically throughout her life–for example, in the 1940s when she travels to Honduras to collect folklore among the Paya and Zambu Indians. But never again do we see her with this degree of artistic and financial freedom.
Indeed, most of her peers had given up trying to make a living as writers. Jessie Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson and Marita Bonner had all retreated into teaching or domesticity, while Nella Larsen, rocked by a “plagiarism scandal and a humiliating divorce,” became a nurse. Nor were the men having much luck with longevity. Countee Cullen became a high school French teacher and Wallace Thurman “burned out” prematurely, dying at age 32. Even Langston Hughes struggled with a “pile of rejection slips.” In fact, many prominent Harlem Renaissance figures–Alain Locke, Sterling Brown, Charles S. Johnson–relied on the institutional support of universities for their survival. In short, Hurston seems to have been the only notable black woman of her time attempting against all odds to make a living at her craft.
It is heartbreaking to imagine what Hurston might have produced, or become, with even a fraction of the financial comforts afforded to a white (and in Hurston’s opinion, less talented) writer like Fannie Hurst. Returning to Florida and settling into a solitary life on a plot of land that she hoped to buy (but could not), we’re told that Hurston “planted a small garden that she happily tended every day before sunrise…black-eyed peas, pole beans, lima beans, watermelons, okra, and tomatoes.” We yearn to see more of this Zora: the private personas, as Kaplan puts it, of “recluse, sailor, pet lover, gardener and cook.”
But not everyone loved Zora, as the current boom might suggest. Her political and personal contradictions–about segregation, patriotism and Communism–became more and more pronounced as she aged, and Hurston seems to have alienated even her most ardent supporters by the end of her life. A raucous scandal involving a “morals charge” against her, in which she was accused of sexually abusing two young boys, didn’t help her reputation either (the charges were dropped).
At the crux of her paradoxical racial views was this: Eatonville had taught her about both race pride and universal humanity. Deeply committed to the idea of an essential Negro self–one with “greater spiritual endowment, greater sensitivity, greater power for artistic expression and appreciation” than his Nordic neighbors–Hurston was dedicated to the rich folklore, dialect and ways of ordinary black people. She spent her life enamored with the porch talk she’d grown up with: storytelling about “God, the Devil, the animals, and the elements.” And her belief in the inherent superiority of black culture corresponded with a profound respect for spirit guidance, visions, signs and voodoo, which she defined simply as “the old, old mysticism of the world in African terms.”
On the other hand (and herein lies the rub), Hurston also believed that “all clumps of people turn out to be individuals on close inspection,” and that “black skunks are just as natural as white ones.” And she had absolutely no tolerance for the suffering protest narratives such as those offered up by novelist (and nemesis) Richard Wright. But “can the black poet sing a song to the morning?” she demanded in a 1938 essay. No, she laments, answering her own question. “The one subject for a Negro is the Race and its sufferings and so the song of the morning must be chocked back. I will write of a lynching instead.”
And there are other troubling inconsistencies. Those of us of racially mixed parentage, for example, might wonder whether we would have qualified for Hurston’s affection as “authentic” black folk. That she placed a premium on “pure” Negroness was apparent in her attacks on colorist prejudice among the light-skinned black elite (W.E.B. Du Bois was not well-loved by Hurston for his championing of the talented tenth); her disparaging remarks about “a crowd of white Negroes” on their way to Russia to make a movie about black America who had never been “south of the Mason-Dixon line”; and her “color-conscious casting” of an “authentic” Negro concert with “no mulattoes at all.” (Godmother Mason was also pleased by this banning of the “diluted ones.”)
She was a black nationalist, say some. Indeed, her complicated opposition to Brown v. Board of Education flew in the face of everything the “race leaders” of her time fought and died for. Though she was not a segregationist, Hurston found the assumption of Negro inferiority deeply insulting, according to both Boyd and Kaplan. “It is a contradiction,” as Hurston put it, “to scream race pride and equality while…spurning Negro teachers and self-association.”
To complicate matters more, many of her most radical views were never published. Quite possibly the best novel that Hurston ever wrote, according to Kaplan, was The Golden Bench of God, a now-disappeared manuscript about Madame C.J. Walker, commonly touted as the first black woman millionaire (but actually the second). Walker’s was “a completely female-run industry,” says Kaplan. “Very politicized in terms of its ties to the black community.” It included a college where thousands of people got degrees, as well as “a day-care and employment center and a literacy program.” Unable to interest a publisher in the book, Hurston wrote to her literary agent, Jean Parker Waterbury: “Imagine that no white audience is present to hear what is said.” This is the novel, says Kaplan, “that was written completely for the black community.”
As for Communism and the radical left, Hurston had little use for what she saw as patronizing attitudes toward the “pitiful” Negro, and surprisingly, according to Kaplan, she was even willing to name names and to “denounce African-American leftists…who had once been her friends and allies.” “I expect this might upset some people,” adds Kaplan. “[We] like our icons to be seamless.”
Indeed, Kaplan seems a great deal more willing than Boyd to speculate about the more controversial aspects of Hurston’s life. For example, Hurston’s troubling declaration that “slavery is the price I paid for civilization” doesn’t even get a mention in the biography, which errs at times on the side of excessive tenderness. “It’s the kind of statement that contemporary readers have had strong reactions to,” explained Boyd when I asked her about the omission during an interview. “But it wasn’t such an important quote in the context of her life.”
And while Kaplan would like to have found even more material for her collection (“there’s a Richard Nixon [letter] that I couldn’t get,” she laments, “letters to Bertram Lippincott…to family friends…to Edna St. Vincent Millay”), both hers and Boyd’s works are lusciously rich additions to an ever-expanding Hurston canon.
“When I get old and my joints and bones tell me about it,” Hurston once noted, “I can write for myself, if for nobody else, and read slowly and carefully the mysticism of the East, and re-read Spinoza with love and care. All the while my days can be a succession of coffee cups.” Together with a 1956 photo (in which her age has finally begun to show) in which the right side of her face is clearly distorted, these ruminations are almost too much to bear.
I, for one, imagine a sister-writer like myself, tending her azaleas and morning glories and gardenias in the predawn quiet time of her life, and wish to God that I could offer Hurston even one more year to create her art, free from worry. She’s not well in the end, Kaplan told me during an interview. “Her hand is shaking” in those last letters, “either out of emotion or ill health,” as she offers one last query to a publisher. “It’s tragic,” she adds.
For her choices, there is no question that Hurston suffered. She might have stayed married to her first husband, Herbert Sheen, and lived a comfortable life as a doctor’s wife. Or tailored her personality and ambitions to fit into the mandates of any one of the Negro colleges where she worked briefly. Instead, she refused to compromise, even a little bit, when it came to her dreams. “She wanted not only books to read,” notes Boyd, speaking of a younger, bright-eyed Hurston longing to go to school. “But the kind of life that could fill a book. She wanted to stride beyond the perimeters of small-town Florida and beyond the parameters of a small-town black life. She wanted education and excitement and adventure. She wanted a big life.”
“Oh, if you knew my dreams!” Hurston once wrote to Meyer while still at Barnard. “My vaulting ambition! How I constantly live in fancy in seven league boots, taking mighty strides across the world, but conscious all the time of being a mouse on a treadmill. Madness ensues. I am beside myself with chagrin half of the time; the way to the blue hills is not on tortoise back, it seems to me, but on wings. I havent the wings, and must ride the tortoise…”
Yes, but now it seems even the tortoise has grown wings, for Zora.