Growing up in a black self‐governing town, Zora realized the myth of race and that black Americans were just as capable citizens as their white counterparts. Battling through poverty and discrimination, Zora became one of the foremost figures of the Harlem Renaissance, but unlike her fellow intellectuals, she loathed any form of socialism or collectivism, preferring the greater gift of individualism instead.
A few weeks ago while researching for my last episode on Rose Wilder Lane I came across a paper discussing the synthesis of individualism, laissez faire, and anti‐racism. Mixed in with some top tier discussion of Rose Wilder Lane was periodic mentions of a Zora Neale Hurston, who championed broadly similar views. I gave her a quick search looking for a new person to cover. Zora immediately caught my attention. From a brief skim into reading she instantly came across to me as someone who is perfect to cover. Her life was multifaceted with her contributing to theatre, poetry, musicals, short stories, essays, anthropological research, and of course, literature. She ought to be a role model for the lovely coalescence of anti‐racism and individualism, two peas in a pod.
Highly protective of her actual birth year Zora at different times, gave a variety of possible birth years. But thankfully, today, due to scholars’ diligence, we can firmly say Zora Neale Hurston was born on the 7th of January, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama. Her father, John Hurston, was a Baptist preacher and sharecropper, while her mother, Lucy Ann Hurston, was a school teacher. Zora did not come from an illustrious or prestigious position; her grandparents were former slaves.
Zora was the fifth of eight children in the Hurston family. When Zora was roughly three years old, the Hurston’s packed up and moved to Eatonville, Florida. Founded in 1887 by a group of black families, Eatonville was an experiment in black self‐government at a time when many black people were politically disenfranchised. Zora grew up in a small, close‐knit community that was economically poor but rich with a citizenry devoted to self‐reliance both in one’s personal affairs and politics. Zora grew up when many whites believed blacks to be of inferior moral and intellectual ability, which it was believed resulted in them not having the full capacity for self‐government. But Zora’s childhood debunked this myth in Eatonville, where she saw laws debated, drafted, and enacted by regular people; her father was even the mayor of the town for multiple terms. Growing up in Eatonville, she avoided the widespread beliefs in black people’s deficiency and the subsequent indoctrination of these beliefs. The then leading figurehead of the African American community, Booker T. Washington, commented on Eatonville saying that “black people are made to feel the responsibilities of citizenship in ways they cannot be made to feel them elsewhere.”
With an idyllic relationship between her mother and father, growing up in a loving household, Eatonville became Zora’s firm home, so much, so she often said she was born in Eatonville. Her life was made unimaginably miserable when her mother died in 1904. Her father, aged 44, quickly remarried a woman half his age after his first wife’s death. Zora’s relationship with her father had always been strained. Unfortunately, he could tolerate one daughter, but when a second daughter was born he grew resentful of Zora, who believed she was by far his least favorite child. Following her mother’s death, Zora was sent to a Baptist boarding school in Jacksonville. Zora showed a great deal of intelligence and was eager to learn, but the environment was stifling. The faculty and administrators cultivated an ethos that the primary function of education was to teach people their proper place in society. An insidious idea that did not mesh at all with Zora’s independent spirit. Zora’s education was cut short when her increasingly belligerent father stopped paying fees and she was summarily dismissed by the school. With no financial support from her father, Zora was even forced to borrow money from her teachers to pay her fare back from school.
Without any prospect for education, Zora searched for work, shifting from house to house, relying on relatives and friends’ kindness. But finding a steady job was a challenging task. From her autobiography, it is immediately apparent that the young Zora would not simply shut up and obey. For example, she was once fired because she informed the house’s matriarch that her husband was making unwelcome advances. She was fired for not being subservient, silent, and subdued. While returning briefly to Eatonville, Zora and her stepmother’s relationship ended in a physical altercation leaving Zora back out on the streets looking for work. While searching for employment, Zora found a copy of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost sacrilegiously thrown in the trash. Reading Milton was one of the formative steps to Zora’s undying love of literature and poetry.
Eventually, Zora wound up serving as a lady’s maid to the singer of a travelling musical theatre troupe. The job paid a decent salary, but the real wealth was Zora’s encounters with the high society of the college‐educated cream of the crop. By the time she finished her stint with the troupe arriving in Baltimore, Zora hungered for an education. By now, Zora was twenty‐six with few options for education, but lying about her date of birth, Zora qualified for free‐schooling with the only price to be paid being that she had to go from being 26 to pretending to be 16 years of age. Working during the day and attending high school at night, Zora began to excel at her studies and even enrolled in her school’s elite wing, showing her potential as a possible scholar. Taking a friend’s advice, Zora moved to Washington to study at Howard University, a historically black institution for higher learning.
In 1918, Zora hit the ground running at Howard, becoming one of the earliest initiates to a sorority founded by black women while also co‐founding the university student newspaper. She studied subjects such as Spanish, Greek, English, and public speaking. During her first year of study, her father died when his car was hit by a train. Too busy and too estranged from her father, Zora did not attend his funeral.
As she progressed through her education, Zora met a smorgasbord of budding intellectuals such as Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes scholar and leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance movement, an explosion of African American cultural expression. In 1921 she wrote a short story that qualified her for entry into Lain Locke’s literary club known as The Stylus rubbing shoulders with poets, playwrights, novelists, and an assortment of critics, now all pivotal to the Harlem Renaissance. Throughout college and after, Zora was a sort of vagabond independent reporter supported by patrons and any money she could glean from writing.
In 1925 while sharpening her literary wit, she won two cash prizes in a literary contest. While at the awards dinner, she had a pivotal meeting with Annie Nathan Meyer, an author and founder of Barnard College in New York founded in response to Columbia’s administration’s refusal to enroll women. Annie offered Zora the opportunity to study at Barnard in the coming fall and aided her in finding a suitable scholarship to support herself. By the time she started at Barnard, Zora was the only Black American enrolled. While at Bernard, Zora became a protege of the anthropologist Franz Boas, one of the revered Founders of American Anthropology. Along with Boas, Zora traveled to the Deep South collecting African American folk tales. Deciding to pursue a graduate degree after completing her fieldwork, Zora continued her anthropological research in South America.
By 1928 when Zora began her graduate degree, she also published one of her earliest notable works entitled How It Feels To Be Colored Me. Zora explains the cultural shock of moving from her proud home of Eatonville to Jacksonville. When moving to Jacksonville from a majority‐black town, Zora described herself as feeling like just another colored girl, writing that “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” But throughout this short essay, Zora overcomes her feelings of inferiority by accepting her authentic self, embracing individualism. At the time, even sympathetic whites often viewed black people as a downtrodden and miserable race that were perpetual victims. Zora explained that “I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all.” Zora was attempting to evoke a sense that black people were not just products of a system that brutalized them, but their own unique culture and values. Recounting that she was often reminded she was the descendant of slaves, Zora retorts that slavery is over now and that the future holds endless possibilities for all kinds of people if only we enfranchise them and leave them to get on with living.
Zora finishes the essay by saying that, at times, she feels like a brown bag of random items propped against a wall. Next to her are a bunch of other bags, red, white, and yellow representing other races. If we poured out the contents of these bags and there are various priceless and worthless objects. But if we poured out every bag, we could dump all of their contents in a heap, refill the bags, and there wouldn’t be much change. The argument is that race is like the bags of random objects. The bag gives no clue as to the contents; it is merely a vessel for individual items, just like people of different races can only be judged individually, not collectively. Zora found more often than not that she felt “colored” when surrounded by a sharp white background. She believed race doesn’t matter until someone else emphasized it’s importance, and at that, usually someone in a position of arbitrary power.
As her studies progressed, Zora became disgusted by the brutal subjugation European colonists had wrought upon people worldwide. She came to see that, throughout history, the idea of race had often been arbitrarily used to justify the subjugation of others. Her time collecting folklore in the South affirmed Zora’s belief that black people were not perpetual victims of circumstance, like many sympathetic white yet condescending intellectuals of the time would have had her believe. But Zora saw a vibrant culture of self‐reliance, familial connections, and most impressively, a love of language. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she refused to view Southern black culture as an aborted version of white culture. Instead, she sought to affirm black culture as its own distinct entity. Zora was among the vanguard of anthropologists who argued that black Americans had developed their own unique traditions, especially in manipulating languages with rich epigrams and imagery. Zora believed black culture, speech, and art promoted the virtues of resilience and a good‐humored stoicism helping black people live through the pain and misery of slavery and discrimination. According to Zora, the ultimate virtue of black culture was a sense of internal freedom, a belief in “the power of love and laughter to win by their own subtle power.”
A key message of Zora’s fictional works is that those who resign themselves to victimhood will inflict upon themselves a wound more grievous than their oppressor could ever inflict by giving into bitterness and envy. Zora did not want to languish in the sins of the past and instead encouraged blacks to follow the pursuit of happiness. We can see this theme emerge as early as 1925 in her play Colo Struck in which the main character Emma attends a party with her boyfriend but at the last minute, she refuses to take part when she becomes adamant that her boyfriend is more attracted to the lighter‐skinned girls present. Her boyfriend tries to console her but eventually gives up and finds another girl as a dance partner.
The second act is twenty years later, with Emma living in a small cabin with her sickly daughter Lou. Her old boyfriend visits her and reveals he is a widower and wishes for her hand in marriage after all these years. We find out that Lou is the offspring of Emma and an unknown white man. But the old boyfriend is unfazed by this and says he will accept Lou as his own regardless. But Emma, through years of bitterness, has erected barriers and wrapped her life around a sense of victimhood. Emma asks how anyone could possibly love or care for her. After being repeatedly pushed away, the old boyfriend leaves grumbling to himself, “She so despises her own skin that she can’t believe anyone else would love it.” Her oppressors have won by conquering her on every level, mind, body, and spirit. She is so defeated she even comes to believe the lies peddled for truth and comes to believe she is ugly and wretched even when someone is expressing their affection. Zora advised black people to avoid expressing their identity through victimhood and recommended they become energized to make the most of life despite the obstacles.
While studying, Zora lived in Harlem and played a role in the Harlem Renaissance, though Zora was something of a lone wolf. Of all the big names in the Harlem Renaissance, Zora was one of the few that grew up in the South and had first‐hand experience with Jim Crow laws. Many such as Langston Hughes, DuBois, and Richard Wright were communists. Zora thought that these communist intellectuals did not want to celebrate black culture but to exploit it to their advantage for their political goals. Writing to Charlotte Mason, Zora explained, “The things our ‘leaders’ are fighting for are privileges for the intellectuals not benefits for the humble.” Unlike her fellow writers in Harlem, Zora did not subscribe to Communist ideals and had little sympathy for the Soviet Union, which she viewed as a colonialist power. Throughout her career as an author, Zora was chastised by fellow intellectuals for writing about universal themes instead of writing overtly political works that supported communist and anti‐racist sentiment.
By 1930 Zora had published plays, short stories, essays, and academic articles, but not yet a novel. This was to change by 1934 with her first novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine, a semi‐autobiographical novel that was very obviously inspired by her experiences in Eatonville. What makes the novel especially noteworthy is its use of folktales, sermons, and jokes taken directly from Zora’s experiences studying the South. While the novel hardly seems groundbreaking, Timothy Sandefeur explains, “at a time when black culture usually either was ignored or belittled, such respectful and charming depictions were truly innovative, and Hurston’s skills at dramatizing them were impressive.” Jonah’s Gourd Vine was reviewed positively in large publications and deemed an impressively original piece of work.
Sales for Jonah’s Gourd Vine were solid, but Zora did not make enough money to make ends meet and could not write full time, so she took up a teaching job at Bethune College in Daytona beach. After a year, she returned to New York, entertaining the idea of graduate study at Columbia but ultimately abandoning her pursuit of higher education although still publishing her finds from researching folklore in the form of Mules and Men in 1935.
By 1936 Zora earned prestigious Guggenheim grants that allowed her to travel throughout Haiti and Jamaica to research voodoo practices. While living in the Caribbean she began writing her magnum opus known as Their Eyes Were Watching God. Completed in a brisk six weeks, Their Eyes tells the story of Janine Crawford. Like Zora, Janine grew up in poverty but, despite this, remains optimistic about her future. Her grandmother is a former slave like Zora’s, seeing a pattern yet? She intends to wed Janine to a hardworking but ultimately boring farmer years her senior who wants more of a servant than a loving companion.
Janine meets an ambitious young man named Jody Starks and quickly runs away with him to none other than Eatonville, Florida. But Jody’s luster begins to fade, his image matters more than his actual accomplishments, and he commands Janine to cover her hair and refrain from joining in telling stories because it would harm his precious image. After constant berating, Janine stands up for herself and is beaten by the furious Jody, who demands her submission. Due to illness Jody eventually dies. But with his death comes Janine’s rebirth; she shows off her hair and takes over the store Jody owned and manages it with a great degree of tact. Though she experiences no lack of suitors, she resolves to stay single. That is until along comes a handsome, hardworking, and confident man known as Tea Cake due to his sweet demeanor. Though half Janine’s age, the pair become inseparable. Their relationship is similar to Zora’s romantic liaison with the far younger Percival Punter. Tea Cake contrasts with another character named Miss Turner, who disdains black people who go about their lives happily when they ought to adhere to her idea of what virtue is, an idea that inadvertently accepts black people’s inferiority to whites. Tea Cake represents the confident, good‐natured, authentic individualism that Zora admired all her life.
Though their romance is abruptly ended during a hurricane, Tea Cake is bitten by a dog who infects him with rabies. Tea Cake’s mind deteriorates to the point where he tries to kill Janine, who shoots him in self‐defense. The story ends with Janine alone contemplating how wonderful it was to meet and love Tea Cake.
Their Eyes was received well and was praised by one reviewer as a work belonging to the same category of enduring American literature as literary greats like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway. But Zora’s black intellectual peers were less impressed. Critics like Lain Locke praised her prose but argued she did not “come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction”, in other words, she didn’t express political or racial themes explicitly enough for his liking. Zora argued that her fellow Harlem writers were pigeonholing black authors by making them focus almost exclusively on racial grievances. She mockingly said imagine there is a black poet who wants to write about a gorgeous morning but decides not to because he will be called a coward if he does not talk about the atrocities of lynching. At the time, reviewers were either enthusiastic or highly critical of Their Eyes.
Regardless of what the critics once said, Their Eyes is now a renowned piece of literature that is easily Zora’s best‐known work. Janine, like Zora, struggled for equality with her partners. Zora had two marriages that ended in divorce and an engagement that was aborted. Throughout the novel, Janine attempts to assert herself and affirm to her husbands that she is not just a trophy to gawk at or a servant to command, but an equal partner deserving of both love and respect, neither of which can exist independently of the other. Throughout her life, Janine learns to stand up for herself and ignore the gossiping and chattering of others. In short, she became an authentic individual.
By 1941 Zora relocated to Los Angeles and began writing her autobiographical Dust Tracks on the Road. Zora embellished some stories and definitely had an eye on her public image and persona. Dust Tracks reviewed well and was praised by many for its style. But praise was not universal. Dust Tracks was panned by some authors for not dealing with issues of race and criticism of the US government. Published during World War II, publishers were wary of wartime censorship. They decided to remove anything too scandalous, including one chapter in which Zora unleashes a raging critique of US imperialism. While removed at the time, many editions today include the removed passages.
Zora had little sympathy for the struggling European nations of France, England, and Holland desperately fighting the Axis. Instead, she catalogs the long list of violent abuses they have carried out in their colonies. But America is just as bad as its European counterparts for Zora. The then‐recent intimidation and strong‐arming through military force in Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America can hardly be ignored. She then begins her tirade against US intervention in Asia, writing that the British are occupying India, but “we too, have our Marines in China. We, too, consider machine gun bullets good laxatives for heathens who get constipated with toxic ideas about a country of their own.” The major players of the allied forces all had brutally exploited their conquered colonies for centuries. Stressing the double standard in no unclear terms, Zora quips that “Hitler’s crime is that he is actually doing a thing like that to his own kind” that, being the misery that other white Europeans had doled out to their colonial subjects and and on which they were now on the receiving end. By contrasting the allies’ moral outrage against the Axis alongside the heinous crimes of colonialism Zora stressed the need for colonial powers to constantly operate on double standards.
Zora argues that colonialism is in part kept alive by the cult of the great man. Describing this phenomenon, she writes, “If a ruler can find a place way off where the people do not look like him, kill enough of them to convince the rest that they ought to support him with their lives and labor, that ruler is hailed as a great conqueror, and people build monuments to him.” Zora came to despise the expanding unchecked executive power of the president. She viewed FDR’s New Deal as a way of appeasing people and making a paternal state. Later in 1945, Zora called for Jim Crow laws’ repeal but argued this should be done through the legislative branch, not the executive. Even if for good intentions, the use of such power opens the door to the law becoming null, she explained that “if you turn an executive loose to go outside the law in your favor on Monday,” she wrote, “you have also given him the power to go outside the law on Thursday against you.” She concluded that “No country is safe from tyranny unless the chief executive is kept within the bounds of law made and provided,” if Zora saw the widespread use of executive orders today, her stomach would turn.
Within Dust Tracks, we also see Zora’s at times, controversial views on race, which were wildly different from her other Harlem peers. Zora refused to think in terms of racial categories. Races cannot achieve things. They are abstract concepts only individuals can achieve, and in this vein, she writes “The white race did not go into a laboratory and invent incandescent light. That was Edison. If you are under the impression that every white man is an Edison, just look around a bit.” Zora explained her iconoclastic commitment to individualism saying that “The solace of easy generalization was taken from me, but I received the richer gift of individualism.”
After writing Dust Tracks, Zora moved to Daytona Beach, living on a houseboat fantasizing about sailing to Honduras and uncovering ancient Mayan ruins. Still, the economic reality kept her from this dream. Zora was a successful author with an impeccable amount of clout but writing never fully supported her lifestyle. By 1947 she had saved up enough money and lived in Honduras, writing her next book, Seraph on the Suwanee. After returning from Honduras, Seraph was set to publish, and a publicity campaign was organized when Zora was arrested for supposed child molestation. A former landlord accused Zora of molesting his son. The charges were dismissed in court, and the son later admitted to lying, but sadly, the damage had been done through extensive media coverage. Zora was humiliated, and her book flopped. In this dark time, Zora even contemplated suicide, writing to a friend, “All that I have believed in had failed me. I have resolved to die.”
But Zora recovered. In 1950 Zora was forced to work a string of jobs short‐lived jobs while writing in her spare time. Zora was outraged when she heard reports of working‐class black people selling their votes in the Florida senate primary. She travelled to Miami to attend the election and interview voters eventually writing her observations in a piece called I Saw Negro Votes Peddled. Zora used this piece to articulate the value of suffrage which was for her “the most sacred thing that man has conceived and strived for.” Zora chastised voters who were “single shotting” only voting for a candidate and ignoring other issues on the ballot. Without voting for specific policies, representatives will begin to feel they no longer represent the populace and will be a weak defence against the encroachments of executive power. For Zora every citizen has a duty to vote not only solely for their interests but also the well‐being of their fellow Americans; every citizen has “responsibility to serve the common good by supporting men of high caliber for important offices.” But this ideal statesman is not a god or hero, in a letter to her literary agent Zora wrote that “I have no political heroes, I can take them all or leave them.”
Quickly after, she published another political essay called “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism” in 1951. Communism was all the rage in the intellectual circles Zora moved in, but she was skeptical. Firstly she viewed the Soviet Union as just another colonial power that craved domination. Similarly to the socialist and founding member of the NAACP WEB. Du Bois, Zora questioned the sincerity of Russians, believing that they were using black people merely as a political tool for their own gain. She was also repulsed by the idea of black people diligently serving the state in the hope for the livelihood, which, to her, sounded like a fancy form of slavery. Instead, Zora advocated for a system where individual effort was rewarded. She explained that black Americans will not abandon the idea of the American dream for better or worse. She posed the question why would a black man kill his boss if he could be the boss next year, “It has been done time after time and again. Every man is a king when he gets his break.” Collectivism irked the strongly independent Zora.
After meandering from place to place in search of employment, Zora’s health caught up with her, and after suffering from a stroke, she lived in Saint Lucie County Welfare Home, where she remained for the waning years of her life. She died in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave. When Zora died, her papers were ordered to be burnt, but a passing law officer knew that it was Zora’s house and quickly put out the fire saving her personal letters and unpublished manuscripts, a gift to the world.
Though she had been an icon of the Harlem Renaissance movement at her zenith, moving in sophisticated circles, her reputation quickly evaporated, and her name was relegated to obscurity for the most part. Her use of African‐American dialect became markedly less popular, with some viewing it as racist and demeaning, though Zora was recounting from experience how people in certain places spoke.
Interest in Zora was revived by scholars like Alice Walker, who found the unmarked grave of Zora. Walker’s writings in the 70s did a great deal to revive interest in Zora’s works, with more and more scholars returning to her writings and reexamining their relevance and importance. Since 1991 her beloved home of Eatonville honors her with a multidisciplinary festival named after her focused on the arts and humanities. I can think of no better tribute for such a person.
Zora was an independent thinker who refused racism because she refused to be defined by race, she was an individual and individuals aspire, achieve and excel. Races simply are. Like so many independent women of her time and colour, life was hard and financial independence was elusive. But she was always optimistic and always prized citizenship and the obligations that it confers on us. In spite of her peers she could see the Soviet Union for the colonising enslaver of people that it was. She used fiction to allude to the big issues in life but subtly and through the lense of the individual and not that or race, creed, gender or any other herding protocol. But what set her apart was her ability to identify and cherish the richness of black culture. She saw how black people had developed sophisticated patterns of speech, dialects, music, legend and stories and how these were highly evolved and worthy of advocacy and praise. Her work is borne out by the massive influence today of black culture on US society. Like many champions of liberty, Zora knew adversity and challenge but she was also driven to succeed by her unshakeable belief in the inidividual and how the individual will always triumph over the lazy stereotype.