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Libertarian women’s history month: Zora Neale Hurston

17 Mar
Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960) was an American folkloristanthropologist, and author. Of Hurston’s four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, she is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
In addition to new editions of her work being published after a revival of interest in her in 1975, her manuscript Every Tongue Got to Confess (2001), a collection of folktales gathered in the 1920s, was published posthumously after being discovered in the Smithsonian archives.
Hurston was the fifth of eight children of John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston (née Potts). Her father was a Baptist preacher, tenant farmer, and carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher. She was born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, where her father grew up and her grandfather was the preacher of a Baptist church.

When she was three, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida; in 1887 it was one of the first all-black towns to be incorporated in the United States. Hurston said she always felt that Eatonville was “home” to her as she grew up there, and sometimes she claimed it as her birthplace. Her father later was elected as mayor of the town in 1897 and in 1902 became preacher of its largest church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist.

Hurston later glorified Eatonville in her stories as a place where African Americans could live as they desired, independent of white society. In 1901, some northern schoolteachers visited Eatonville and gave Hurston a number of books that opened her mind to literature; she described it as a kind of “birth”. Hurston spent the remainder of her childhood in Eatonville, and describes the experience of growing up there in her 1928 essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”.

In 1904, Hurston’s mother died when she was 13. Her father remarried to Matte Moge ; this was considered a minor scandal, as it was rumored that he had relations with Moge before his first wife’s death. Hurston’s father and stepmother sent her away to a Baptist boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida. They eventually stopped paying her tuition and the school expelled her. She later worked as a maid to the lead singer in a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan theatrical company.

Zora later returned to Jacksonville for a seven-year spell that she glided over in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, and that leaves her modern biographers largely stumped. We do know that she worked as a maid and wound up as a factotum in a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe that stranded her in Baltimore. At 26, In 1917, Hurston began attending Morgan College, the high school division of Morgan State University, a historically black college in BaltimoreMaryland. At this time, apparently to qualify for a free high-school education (as well, perhaps to reflect her literary birth), the 26-year-old Hurston purported to be only 17 and began claiming 1901 as her year of birth. She graduated from the high school of Morgan State University in 1918.
Entering Howard itself seemed a natural next step, and there she began writing and publishing short stories and poetry. In 1918, Hurston began undergraduate studies at Howard University, where she became one of the earliest initiates of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and co-founded The Hilltop, the university’s student newspaper. While there, she took courses in Spanish, English, Greek and public speaking and earned an associate degree in 1920. In 1921, she wrote a short story, John Redding Goes to Sea, which qualified her to become a member of Alaine Locke’s literary club, The Stylus.
Like many talented black writers of the time, she was taken up by white New York promoter Carl Van Vechten.  Hurston left Howard in 1924 and in 1925 was offered a scholarship by Barnard trustee Annie Nathan Meyer to Barnard CollegeColumbia University, where she was the college’s sole black student. Hurston received her B.A. in anthropology in 1928, when she was 37. While she was at Barnard, she conducted ethnographic research with noted anthropologist Franz Boas of Columbia University. She also worked with Ruth Benedict as well as fellow anthropology student Margaret Mead. After graduating from Barnard, Hurston spent two years as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University.
Boas, whose work sought to show the complexity of indigenous cultures, in contrast to the then-common impression of peoples beyond the First World as primitive. Her study with Boas became the defining experience of her life. Under his tutelage, Hurston learned that she had grown up in a culture as genuine as that of Native Americans—and decided that she wanted to explore it. She returned to Florida to collect a corpus of rural black folktales that would form the basis of her career. Though Hurston would also hang out in New York with Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and the literary gang she termed the “niggerati”—and deftly court the white supporters she dubbed “Negrotarians”—she spent most of her time doing fieldwork, in the deep South and in the Bahamas, and found true fulfillment in it.  For several years, she traveled around the South, Hati, and Jamaica to collect local folklore.

In 1927, Hurston married Herbert Sheen, a jazz musician and former classmate at Howard who later became a physician. Their marriage ended in 1931. In 1939, while Hurston was working for the WPA, she married Albert Price, who was 25 years younger than she; this marriage ended after only seven months.  During the 1930s, Hurston was a resident of Westfield, New Jersey, where Langston Hughes was among her neighbors. In 1934 she established a school of dramatic arts “based on pure Negro expression” at Bethune-Cookman University (at the time, Bethune-Cookman College), a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Hurston traveled extensively in the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research. Based on her work in the South, sponsored from 1928 to 1932 by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy philanthropist, Hurston wrote Mules and Men in 1935. She was doing research in lumber camps and commented on the practice of white men in power taking black women as sexual concubines, including having them bear children. This later was referred to as “paramour rights,” based in the men’s power under racial and related to practices during slavery times. The book also includes much folklore. She used this material as well in fictional treatment developed for her novels such as Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934).
In 1936 and 1937, Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti for research, with support from the Guggenheim Foundation. She drew from this for her anthropological work, Tell My Horse (1938).
From October 1947 to February 1948, she lived in Honduras, at the north coastal town of Puerto Cortés. She had some hopes of locating either Mayan ruins or vestiges of an as yet undiscovered civilization. While in Puerto Cortés, she wrote much of Seraph on the Suwanee, set in Florida. Hurston expressed interest in the polyethnic nature of the population in the region (many, such as the Miskito Zambu and Garifuna, were of partial African ancestry and had developed creole cultures).

“The Niggerati,” led by figures such as Richard Wright and W.E.B. Du Bois, felt that black writers should use their talent for political aims. In a piece entitled, “Blueprint for Negro Writers,” Wright said that black writers should depict members of their race as the proletariat and middle class who promoted black nationalism, but knew “its ultimate aims are unrealizable within the framework of capitalist America.” Hurston and other writers of Harlem Renaissance completely rejected this vision as “the sobbing school of Negrohood.” and accordingly wrote stories that celebrated black community and individualism.  She not only put the folklore material down in print; she also made it live as theater, fashioning a concert production of songs, sketches, and dances. Usually titling the revue The Great Day, she presented it more than once in New York and later on tours in several states. All the while she juggled essays, drafts of plays, occasional academic papers, and, starting in 1934, books.

Her first novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine was published in 1934 and praised by the New York Times as “the most vital and original novel about the American Negro that has yet been written by a member of the Negro race.”   In part, it’s aroman à clef about Hurston’s childhood—an attempt to come to terms with her father’s philandering. But at heart, the book is a channeling of Boas’s idea, a demonstration that a remote, poverty-stricken world possessed a vital culture of its own and wasn’t merely a degraded version of mainstream white culture.
Her next and best-known novel, Their Eyes were Watching God, came out in 1938 and took place in her native Eatonville, Florida.  Hurston’s next novel, published in 1937, was Their Eyes Were Watching God, which would justify her fame if she had written nothing else. Eyes tracks the humble but bewitching Janie as she achieves self-awareness through three marriages—the third to younger sex bomb Tea Cake, a “glance from God,” who contracts rabies and becomes so abusive that she has to kill him in self-defense. Roiling, redolent, and real even 72 years later, Eyes has that ineffable sense of having been dictated from on high.
At least, that’s its estimation now. At the time of its publication, Richard Wright could only see shucking and jiving, with the characters swinging “like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.” Dean of the black literati Alain Locke found the novel’s folk aspect superficial, neglectful of “inner psychology.” But this is a novel whose protagonist stretches out under a tree, watches a bee pollinate a flower, and enjoys her first orgasm—“a pain remorseless sweet.” She rises “seeking confirmation of the voice and vision, and everywhere she found and acknowledged answers. A personal answer for all other creations except herself. She felt an answer seeking her, but where? When? How?” Uncle Remus this isn’t, and it’s almost perplexing, today, reading such smart men so casually dismissing a novel bursting with layered symbolism and some of the most vivid black characters that had yet appeared in fiction.

In 1939 she wrote Moses, Man of the Mountain, which combined the biblical story of Exodus with black folklore. In this book, Hurston sees Moses’ great accomplishment not just as liberating the Hebrews, but steeping down from his powerful position. Her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road, defended the Antebellum South and condemned Reconstruction. Her final novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, was published and 1948 and did not have as much critical or commercial success as her previous works.
After World War II, Hurston began to write increasingly about politics. In 1950 she wrote an article for American Legion entitled “I saw the Negro Vote Peddled” complaining how leftist groups and labor unions consistently would try to see blacks as one homogeneous voting block. In 1951 she wrote another article for American Legion called “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism” where she attacked Communists who tried to make blacks as a new proletariat.

John McWhorter has called Hurston “America’s favorite black conservative” while David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito have argued that she can better be characterized as a “libertarian.” She was a Republican who was generally sympathetic to the foreign policy non-interventionism of the Old Right and a fan of Booker T. Washington‘s self-help politics. She disagreed with the philosophies (including Communism and the New Deal) supported by many of her colleagues in the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes, who was in the 1930s a supporter of the Soviet Union and praised it in several of his poems. Despite much common ground with the Old Right in domestic and foreign policy, Hurston was not a social conservative. Her writings show an affinity for feminist individualism. In this respect, her views were similar to two libertarian novelists who were her contemporaries: Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson. Although her personal quotes show a disbelief of religion, Hurston did not negate spiritual matters as evidenced from her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road.

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.
Though an ardent anti-communist, Hurston spoke out against American imperialism. In a 1945 article for Negro Digest entitled, “Crazy for this Democracy,” she challenged the U.S. foreign policy and wrote,  Did F.D.R., aristocrat from Groton and Harvard, using the British language say ” arse-and-all” of Democracy when I thought he said plain arsenal? Maybe he did, and I have been mistaken all this time. From what is going on, I think that is what he must have said.

She accused the State Department of using “[o]ur weapons, money, and the blood of millions” to “carry the English, French, and Dutch and lead them back on millions of unwilling Asiatics.”

When Robert Taft went up against the Eastern Establishment for the Republican presidential nomination, Hurston enthusiastically supported him. In 1951 she wrote a column for the Saturday Evening Post entitled “A Negro Voter Sizes Up Taft.” She was fed up with the New Dealers who controlled the country for the last 20 years. The prevailing attitude was that, Anyone who endorsed the Constitution was a “capitalistic reactionary,” and to admit patriotism was to be classed as a “dirty chauvinist.” Anyone worth a samovar of tea was a “liberal,” was known as an “intellectual,” and went about talking about “directives” instead of plain orders.  But the exposure of many prominent members of the Truman and Roosevelt administrations as communist spies left them with an opportunity to reclaim the country. There had been an “American resistance army for a number of years, a sort of guerilla band doing what they could do to restore constitutional government” and Taft could be their leader.

Hurston thought that many blacks had been tricked into believing that anyone who was a liberal was a friend to the blacks. She countered that Taft was the true liberal, “in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson”, but most people did not see him as such because, The word “liberal” is now an unstable and devious thing in connotation. For example, card-carrying members of the Communist Party describe themselves as liberals to hide their party affiliation. Pinkos and other degrees of fellow travelers boast of being liberals. Led astray be leftists, who do not, however, admit they are pro-Kremlin, great numbers of uninformed persons believe that the perfect interpretation of term “liberal” is a person who desires greater Government control and Federal handouts.

She acknowledged that Taft was not exceptionally charismatic or “a people’s man, in the popular sense of the term.” But Hurston, recognizing that presidential “giants” were dangerous, saw this trait as a good thing and harkened back “to the men who held high office in this republic during the period brought to close by the advent of Jacksonian democracy” before “the mob took over.”

Hurston was criticized for not addressing racial issues, but she hardly ignored them. She criticized Jim Crow laws, and was well aware of the many racial problems that existed. However, she thought that these issues could be addressed by local communities and within the states, rather than through white northern liberals, the Federal government, and unconstitutional laws. In a review of Lance Jones’s, The Jeanes Teacher in the United States she said, When one finishes the book, it is impossible to believe anything other than that the New South will work out all its problems. It is just a matter of effort and time. There is no patronizing attitude toward a minority group, nor glossing over the unfortunate facts of the Negro being in part responsible for lack of progress by his own indifference to consequences. No attempt to make anything else out of the reconstruction period, but what it was. A second forceful conquest of the South by the carpetbaggers, by the setting up of Negro Governments inadequate to their fate, the inevitable result being immediate chaos and violence and bitterness that is just now beginning to wane.

Naturally, she was infuriated when the Federal government decided to ‘solve’ the South’s problems again. After the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Orlando Sentinel condemning it. She was not only upset that about the constitutional implications of the case, but also that it would not even help black America. She asked, “How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?”

As the civil rights revolution marched on, Hurston’s views began to go out of favor, and her career suffered because of them. She lived in a cottage in Eau Gallie, Florida, twice: once in 1929 and again in 1951. In later life, in addition to continuing her literary career, Hurston served on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in Durham, North Carolina

She spent the last 10 years of her life working as a maid, substitute teacher, and librarian and died poor in 1960.  In one of the last photos of Hurtson, John McWhorter notes, taken in the late fifties, is heartrending. Once renowned as a handsome figure who could dominate any room, she sits outside a Florida bungalow, a bloated old woman living in poverty, chatting with locals. ”  Among other positions, Hurston later worked at the Pan American World Airways Technical Library at Patrick Air Force Base in 1957. She was fired for being “too well-educated” for her job.  She moved to Fort Pierce. Taking jobs where she could find them, she worked as a substitute teacher and as a maid.  (In at least one photo fans have noted a strong resemblance between a young Hurston and actress/musician Queen Latifah.)
During a period of financial and medical difficulties, Hurston was forced to enter St. Lucie County Welfare Home, where she suffered a stroke. She died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960, and was buried at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her remains were in an unmarked grave until 1973. Novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried, and decided to mark it as hers.

After Hurston died her papers were ordered to be burned. A law officer and friend, Patrick DuVal, passing by the house where she had lived, stopped and put out the fire, thus saving an invaluable collection of literary documents for posterity. The nucleus of this collection was given to the University of Florida libraries in 1961 by Mrs. Marjorie Silver, friend and neighbor of Hurston. Other materials were donated in 1970 and 1971 by Frances Grover, daughter of E. O. Grover, a Rollins College professor and long-time friend of Hurston’s. In 1979 Stetson Kennedy of Jacksonville, who knew Hurston through his work with the Federal Writers Project, added additional papers.

Writing at, Marcus Epstein observes that Leftovers don’t know how to deal with Hurston:  “Leftist admirers of Hurston have a hard time figuring out what to make of her beliefs. Most just put it down the memory hole and pretend they never existed. Alice Walker wrote, “I think we are better off if we think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period – rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be. This frees us to appreciate the complexity and richness of her work in the same way we can appreciate Billie Holiday’s glorious phrasing or Bessie Smith’s perfect and raunchy lyrics, without the necessity of ridiculing the former’s addiction to heroin or the later’s(sic) excessive love of gin.” The implication of this statement is clear: blacks that hold victimologist and collectivist dogma and no literary talent (such as Walker) should make use of their sub-par artistic work to preach their propaganda, but we should ignore the beliefs of someone who many (including Walker) regard as the greatest black woman author this country has seen because she was a individualist. It is also laughable that Walker, an avowed communist and apologist for murderers and dictators, would compare Hurston’s political beliefs to drug addiction.”

John McWhorter also thinks most readers today don’t know what to make of her:  “Hurston’s modern fan base doesn’t know quite what to do with all this. “I think we are better off if we think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period—rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be,” Walker writes. “This frees us to appreciate the complexity and richness of her work in the same way we can appreciate Billie Holiday’s glorious phrasing or Bessie Smith’s perfect and raunchy lyrics, without the necessity of ridiculing the former’s addiction to heroin or the later’s [sic] excessive love of gin.” Sure—but if Hurston had been more inclined to sing about what happens to a raisin in the sun, one suspects that Walker would have had no trouble celebrating her as an “artist/politician.”   

Many have tried to compartmentalize Hurston’s politics, McWhorter continues, “calling it an aberration of her declining last decade. Carla Kaplan proposes that she veered rightward out of paranoid despair after three preadolescent boys falsely accused her of sodomizing them—a charge that the black press reveled in, though it was dismissed. But Hurston had been writing things that would have gotten her chased out of an NAACP meeting since the 1920s. Her ideology became clearer in the 1950s, true, but only because she started writing more political essays when she could no longer get her novels published.”

Libertarian historian David Beito notes that Hurston and Isabel Patterson both opposed using nuclear weapons in WWII:  Novelists Zora Neale Hurston and Isabel Paterson had much in common including opposition to the New Deal and a shared belief individualism. Both also opposed the dropping of the atomic bomb. In 1946, Hurston, who later supported the presidential campaign of Robert A. Taft, wrote that she was “amazed at the complacency of Negro press and public” towards Truman’s foreign policy actions. According to Hurston, Truman “is a monster. I can think of him as nothing else but the BUTCHER of ASIA. Of his grin of triumph on giving the order to drop the Atom bombs on Japan. Of his maintaining troops in China who are shooting the starving Chinese for stealing a handful of food…. Is it that we are so devoted to a ‘good Massa’ that we feel that we ought not to even protest such crimes? Have we no men among us? If we cannot stop it, we can at least let it be known that we are not deceived. We can make any party who condones it, let alone orders it, tremble for election time. Carla Kaplan, ed., Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 546.

In 1956 Hurston received the Bethune-Cookman College Award for Education and Human Relations in recognition of her achievements. The English Department at Bethune-Cookman College remains dedicated to preserving her cultural legacy