Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston (7 January 1891? - 28 January 1960)

An African American anthropologist as well as a novelist during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Dust Tracks on a Road (1942).

She had been born to a family of sharecroppers in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891, about ten years before any date she ever admitted to. She studied ethnology at Columbia University (B.A., Anthropology, Barnard, 1928), working with Franz Boas, whom she called “Papa Franz,” after which he teased her by saying she was his daughter, “just one of my missteps.”

Hurston's father was a Baptist preacher and tenant farmer who moved the famly to Eatonville, Florida, the first ncorported black community in America. All-black and without white society's racial prejudices, he became the town's mayor.Her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) brought her critical success as a writer. In 1935, Mules and Men, which investigated voodoo practices in black communities in Florida and New Orleans, also brought kudos.

The year 1937 saw the publication of what is considered Hurston's greatest novel, Their Eyes Watching God. In 1938 her travelogue and study of Caribbean voodoo, Tell My Horse, received mixed reviews, as did Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939). Her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was a commercial success in 1942, despite what some described as its overall absurdness, and her final novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, published in 1948, was a critical failure.

Dr. Louis P. Mars, Haiti's first psychiatrist, took vigorous exception to Hurston's Tell My Horse, in which she stated emphatically, "I know that there are Zombis in Haiti. People have been called back. from the dead." He cites how she failed to understand "the Felicia Felix Mentor incident":

  • Evidently she got her information from the simple village folk, whose minds were conditioned to believing the real existence of a superhuman phenomenon. Miss Hurston herself, unfortunately, did not go beyond the mass hysteria to verify her information, nor in any way attempt to make a scientific explanation of the case. Evidences from European and other cultures could be found, where whole communities have been aroused into a mass hysteria as a result of the unexpected appearance of queer persons. Such appearances very often rekindled the dying embers of archaic superstitious beliefs that were deeply rooted in the traditional culture of a people.

Hurston influenced many other African American female authors, including Alice Walker/ During her life she published more books than any other black American woman had to date. In “Religion,” which is a part of Dust Tracks on a Road, she humorously describes meetings of the Missionary Baptist Church, into which she was born, then tells how doubt led her away from organized religion to the point that “I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.”

In "Religion," Dust Tracks on a Road, she wrote:

  • Strong, self-determining men are notorious for their lack of reverence. . . . 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.

A freethinker and utopian, Hurston did not focus on the racism of whites toward blacks but, rather, on positives such as supporting the civil rights movement. Hurston died in poverty and obscurity.

Eatonville, Florida, a small town mostly of blacks just outside Orlando, has not forgotten Hurston, who in the 1930s described it as "the city of five lakes, three croquet courts, 300 brown skins, 300 good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse." She was the author who said that rural blacks in Florida often resisted sharing their true thoughts with the white man, who "knowing so little about us, he doesn't know what he is missing." Now a town of 2,400 where poverty rates are twice the national average, Damien Cave has written in 2008, it remembers Hurston who "introduced the world to her hometown through heartfelt, dialect-heavy books like Mules and Men (1935) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)."

{AAH; Damien Cave, The New York Times (29 September 2008); FFRF}