Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun!Posted: January 25, 2014
“Jump at the sun.” That’s what Zora Neale Hurston’s mother encouraged her to do – and Zora did.
Born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, to a preacher-tenant farmer-carpenter father and a schoolteacher mother, Hurston was raised in the little all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. And from there she jumped very far indeed, becoming one of the main female forces of The Harlem Renaissance (known at the time as The New Negro Movement).
But first it was Howard University in Washington, D.C., where Hurston enrolled in 1918 and earned an associate’s degree. Moving to Manhattan on a scholarship, she was the only black student at Barnard College, Columbia University. Margaret Mead was a classmate, and Franz Boas one of her professors; Hurston earned a B.A. in Anthropology in 1928 at the age of 37. Yet her literary involvements had already begun; a short story, Spunk, appeared in Alain Locke’s 1925 anthology The New Negro, and she was among the contributors to the famous one-issue Fire! of 1926.
A complex character, not a “team player” for upliftment of The Race – as W.E.B. DuBois might have insisted a writer be – Hurston went her own way and explored Black culture via anthropological folkloric studies of the U.S., Jamaica and Haiti (Mules and Men, Tell my Horse) and through her own unvarnished novels of Black-American life, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, her 1937 dialect-rich tale of the trials and tribulations of Janie Crawford (Eatonville and Hurston’s own third marriage were inspirations). Hurston’s earlier works had been criticized by Sterling Brown as inadequate because they were not in the “protest tradition” and not bitter enough; Alain Locke reviewed Their Eyes and called Hurston’s characters “pseudo-primitives”; and the most damning statement of all came from Richard Wright, who wrote that Their Eyes carries “no theme, no message, no thought.” Yet the book was a best-seller for its time, then went immediately out of print come War-time.
In 1940 Hurston was traveling the lecture circuit, with several books, essays and field studies to her credit, but by the time she died, in 1960, living hand to mouth near Fort Pierce, Florida, she was pretty much gone and forgotten. It wasn’t until Robert Hemenway’s 1977 biography appeared – and, movingly, a young Alice Walker in 1973 seeking out Hurston’s unmarked grave and “naming” it – that Zora Neale Hurston began to be re-assessed and appreciated more fully.
“Pretty much gone and forgotten?”
Well…Hurston became persona non grata after a 1948 scandal in which she was accused of meeting regularly with a boy in a basement for sex. The charges were based on malicious rumour – there were people who were suspicious of her free spirit – perhaps its proto-feminism? She was visiting Honduras doing a field study during the dates mentioned and so was declared innocent – but the bad rep, the taint, from allegations of child molestation – even though she was cleared – clung, broadcast as they were by the newspapers of the day. This “event” in Hurston’s life broke her essential joie de vivre; she never showed the same spark after this betrayal of her integrity.
Another important personal “event” – though this one she controlled and was not the victim of – was that after The Supreme Court’s historic 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (that separate public schools for Blacks are “inherently unequal” – not “separate but equal”), Hurston came out plainly and publicly on the wrong side of history when she stated: “This whole matter revolves around the self-respect of my people. How much satisfaction can I get from a court order? For somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them. If there are adequate Negro schools and prepared instructors and instructions, then there’s nothing different except the presence of White people. For this reason, I regard the ruling of the United States Supreme Court as insulting rather than honouring my Race.” How to lose friends and influence people…Yet Hurston was both wrong and right in what she said – there are many truthful angles to be viewed and she had the guts to speak her mind – then pay the price.
Alice Walker and Robert Hemenway began the journey back from oblivion for Zora Neale Hurston – a figure in Black-American letters and scholarship who could not be intellectually “boxed in” – she was too busy jumping at the sun.
And January 25th 2014 is the opening day of the 25th anniversary of the week-long Zora! Fest held in Eatonville, Florida. Her hometown community has re-claimed their famous – infamous? – wild individualist of a daughter as one of their own again in naming their yearly arts, music and culture festival after her.
Excerpt from chapter 1 of Their Eyes Were Watching God:
“Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.
“What she doin’ comin’ back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on? Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in? Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her? What dat ole forty year ole woman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal? Where she left dat young lad of a boy she went off here wid? Thought she was goin’ to marry! Where he left her? What he done wid all her money? Betcha he off wid some gal so young she ain’t even got no hairs – why she don’t stay in her class?!”
When she got to where they were she turned her face on the bander log and spoke. They scrambled a noisy “Good evenin’ ” and left their mouths setting open and their ears full of hope. Her speech was pleasant enough, but she kept walking straight on to her gate. The porch couldn’t talk for looking.
The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grapefruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.
But nobody moved, nobody spoke, nobody even thought to swallow spit until after her gate slammed behind her.”
Two of Hurston’s most famous quotations:
“I am not tragically coloured. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to that sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that Nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
Zora Neale Hurston
“Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
Zora Neale Hurston
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