… and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” –Zora Neale Hurston.
I don’t recall exactly how I came across the work of Zora Neale Hurston, in the days before Internet searches, but it was likely via Alice Walker, who wrote about her in an essay in 1975, and went on to erect a headstone at her previously unmarked gravesite in Fort Pierce, Florida. In my third and final year studying English at university, tired of the same old same old, I decided to write an optional thesis on Hurston’s fiction, but never pulled it off for numerous tawdry reasons, including not having enough words to do her justice. Nevertheless, her work and life stayed with me.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, and raised in Eatonville, Florida, in what she describes as a life-affirming community of empowered Black Americans. She was encouraged by her mother, and thrown off course by her mother’s early death, which resulted in Hurston moving away from Eatonville at the age of 13. She only returned to high school in her 20s, after lying about her age in order to qualify. One of the bright lights of the Harlem Renaissance, she published novels, stories, collections of folklore and oral history, and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, traveled throughout the Caribbean, including time in Haiti and Jamaica, taught, produced theatre, studied anthropology at Columbia, and even received a Guggenheim. Despite her achievements, she died in poverty and her funeral was funded by friends and neighbours.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was written in an astonishing seven weeks. It is a great novel, written in rich prose, powerful, comedic and character-driven, which follows protagonist Janie Mae Crawford’s search for fulfilment from adolescence to mature womanhood, charting the evolution of her understanding of love and freedom through a succession of relationships with men. Praised by many, Hurston’s novel was panned by Richard Wright, and other Black intellectuals, not least because its focus was intraracial, not interracial; rural, not urban. Male Marxists, such as Wright, did not approve. They wanted more unrest, and disliked her representation of Black Southern dialect. Hurston was enraged by this response. She moved judiciously through the social and political world of whites, but didn’t subscribe to its categories and requirements. In celebrating what was, she stood accused of resisting change.
Hurston became more right-wing as she aged. I imagine I would have disagreed with some of her views, however I can’t help but admire her versatility and endurance. Her biography of Cudjoe Lewis, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade, was only finally published in 2018, under the title Barracoon. Returning to her work now, I appreciate her risk-taking and orneriness, and her drive to record and celebrate what she saw and who she was, without apology.