Zora Neale Hurston

“I have known the joy and pain of friendship. I have served and been served. I have made some good enemies for which I am not a bit sorry. I have loved unselfishly, and I have fondled hatred with the red-hot tongs of Hell. That’s living.”

I lived for a time in Central Florida, and I took my bachelor’s degree at Rollins College, in Winter Park.  This town was just a few miles south of the town of Eatonville, which claims to be the oldest city incorporated by African Americans in the United States.  Eatonville has other claims to fame, including being the home town of author Zora Neale Hurston.

Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston was born in Alabama, but her family moved to Florida in 1894.  Though they lived in an all-black community, and her father served for a time as mayor, life was not an easy road for Zora; her mother died when she was just entering her teens, and her father and almost instantly new stepmother sent her off to a boarding school, which later expelled her when the tuition fees were not met.  Zora worked as a maid for a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan company for a time, eventually landed in Baltimore, docked 10 years off her age to qualify for public funding to finish school, and graduated from Barnard College in 1928.  She went on to become one of the lights of the Harlem Renaissance, and a friend of poet Langston Hughes.  According to the Web site built for her memory and a foundation in her name:

Hurston knew how to make an entrance. On May 1, 1925, at a literary awards dinner sponsored by Opportunity magazine, the earthy Harlem newcomer turned heads and raised eyebrows as she claimed four awards: a second-place fiction prize for her short story “Spunk,” a second-place award in drama for her play Color Struck, and two honorable mentions.

The names of the writers who beat out Hurston for first place that night would soon be forgotten. But the name of the second-place winner buzzed on tongues all night, and for days and years to come. Lest anyone forget her, Hurston made a wholly memorable entrance at a party following the awards dinner. She strode into the room–jammed with writers and arts patrons, black and white–and flung a long, richly colored scarf around her neck with dramatic flourish as she bellowed a reminder of the title of her winning play: “Colooooooor Struuckkkk!” Her exultant entrance literally stopped the party for a moment, just as she had intended. In this way, Hurston made it known that a bright and powerful presence had arrived. By all accounts, Zora Neale Hurston could walk into a roomful of strangers and, a few minutes and a few stories later, leave them so completely charmed that they often found themselves offering to help her in any way they could.

By 1935, she had published several short stories.  Her best-known work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937.  Even then, Hurston found it hard to gain full acceptance of her work, even among her peers in the Harlem arts movement; she received much criticism for her use of phoneticized dialect for her black characters.  Her 1942 autobiography finally brought her the notice she was due.  But her star faded, even as she went on to serious anthropological studies and writing.  She died penniless in Fort Pierce, Fla. in 1960, and was buried in an unmarked grave — a situation remedied by novelist Alice Walker at the start of her own career.

Zora was born on this day in 1891 — her actual birth year — and I hope this small tribute, photographed at Virtual Harlem, is adequate to her memory and greatness.

“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

Rollins College — Project Mosaic:  Zora Neale Hurston

Zora! Festival — official site

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