History Podcasts

Zora Neale Hurston - Quotes and Biography

Zora Neale Hurston - Quotes and Biography

On January 7, 1891, Zora Neale Hurston, novelist and folklorist, is born in Notasulga, Alabama. Although at the time of her death in 1960, Hurston had published more books than any other Black woman in America, she was unable to capture a mainstream audience in her lifetime, and she died poor and alone in a welfare hotel. Today, she is seen as one of the most important Black writers in American history.

Eatonville, Fla., was an all-Black town when Hurston was born. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Hurston had little contact with white people until her mother’s death in 1904, when Hurston was 13 years old. Until her teens, Hurston was largely sheltered from racism. A talented, energetic young women with a powerful desire to learn, she didn’t finish high school but prepared herself for college and excelled at Howard University. In 1925, she moved to New York, where she became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. High-spirited, outgoing, and witty, she became famous for her storytelling talents. She studied anthropology with a prominent professor at Barnard and received a fellowship to collect oral histories and folklore in her home state. She also studied voodoo in Haiti.

In 1931, she collaborated with Langston Hughes on the play Mule Bone. Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, featuring a central character based on her father, was published in 1934. Mules and Men, a collection of material from her research in oral folklore, was published in 1935 and became her bestselling work during her lifetime-but even so, it earned her only $943.75. In 1937, she published Their Eyes Were Watching God, the story of a Black woman looking for love and happiness in the South. The book was criticized at the time, especially by Black male writers, who condemned Hurston for not taking a political stand and demonstrating the ill effects of racism. Instead, the novel, now considered her masterwork, celebrated the rich tradition of the rural Black South. Hurston’s work remained uplifting and joyful despite her financial struggles.

She published a memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, in 1942. Hurston worked on and off as a maid near the end of her life, and she died in poverty in 1960. In the 1970s, her work, almost forgotten, was revived by feminist and Black-studies scholars, and an anthology, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, was published in 1979.


Zora Neale Hurston – Quotes and Biography

We always hear about these amazing leaders in this time period or this fantastic era, but we always miss out on the people who made a difference and day by day… their names fade in the sea of water that one pure, has now become brine. A woman who had something to say when times were against her will, a woman who did not let the “impossible” stop her from trying. Her name was Zora Neale Hurston. She was a Folklorist, anthropologist, novelist, short story writer, and a filmmaker. Before her name is forgotten as time passes by, let me tell you who this woman was and what she did that affects us today without knowing.

Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7,1891. She was born in a town in Alabama, however, she was just a toddler when her family decided to move to Eatonville, Florida. Zora grew up in a culturally affirming household in an eight room house on five acres of land. Her relationship with her father was not too well, but her mother was a whole different story. Her mother was always so supportive and encouraging, “jump at de sun” her mother would say to Zora and her seven other siblings. I’m sure that is where Zora gets her optimistic attitude from. As time passed by, Zora had attended three colleges in her lifetime. She never waited before continuing to study.

Zora was a free spirited and brave woman in every way possible. She had a one of a kind intellect and had an admirable sense of humor. She would always say she was 10 years younger than she actually was, but she would always pull off her sneaky lies because she was a beautiful woman. Her eyes were heartwarming, cheerful, and confident. She had high cheekbones, as well as a full and graceful mouth. Her face was always speaking for her as she always displayed her emotions through her facials. She was a character full of life and full of curiosity. Zora used these talents and characteristics to push her way into the “Jazz Age” in the 1920s.

Zora’s career spanned over 30 years when she started her career in 1935. Her first work was a folktale called “Mules and Men”, this folktale was published in 1935 and was regarded as “one of the best works on folklore and culture of the blacks”. Zora was the first to research folklore at the level she did, she was a professional. Most of her work focuses on issues during her time period, most common problem of all was racism. She had no problem saying her opinion and talking about her ways of living life, “I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions”. She was mostly known for her intelligence, irreverence, and unique writing style. She was brave and had achieved fame and success in her lifetime, but she also went through times of shame and being forgotten by others.

Haven gone through that, she still got back up on her two feet and kept going. Zora had contributed to the acceptance of African Americans in America through her writings. She celebrated her black rural culture and heritage in a time where her people were ashamed and would try to deny or forget it who they really were. Near her passing date, she was aware that she had no money to afford a headstone for herself. Feeling left out, she wrote an argument to defend her people from being forgotten and left behind in segregated cemeteries that would be abandoned. She wrote, “Let no negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness. We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored.” She also fought back to a decision by the Brown V. Board to federally mandated integration. She responded, “no tragedy in being too dark to be invited to a white school social affair.” This controversy is actually a topic that is still discussed till this very day.

Zora as well as supporting her people, she also supported her gender. Zora was a support to women’s rights and their personal choices. In her most successful novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, a character named Janie was married to a man who treated her as nothing but property. However, Janie decided to decided to ignore society’s expectations and chooses to appreciate and love herself instead. Janie got married three times in her lifetime and ends up losing her third husband. Janie was said to be “alone”, but not “lonely”. Zora had made this character as a woman who was finding herself and what she truly wanted. Janie was a confident character that never had enough of herself. Thanks to the support of feminist writers like Alice Walker, Zora’s work had come to light once again.

In conclusion, Zora Neale Hurston is a symbol and inspiration that showed that when trying to fight for your rights, your freedom, and acceptance in society… They’re many ways to speak up and present your arguments into a sensitive and critical world. She tried her best and succeeded in bringing a powerful debate in the civil rights movement. She was an average girl in a time of racial segregation who was not afraid to be herself and defend her people against the show that blinds many till this day. An inspiration and a symbol of hope and acceptance forever, Zora Neale Hurston.


Zora Neale Hurston - Quotes and Biography - HISTORY

This lesson will examine Zora Neale Hurston’s lifelong commitment to African American literature and cultural preservation.

Recognize the connection between cultural anthropology and the legacy of Zora Neale Hurston.

Inquiry Arc/Compelling Question:
How did Zora Neale Hurston use anthropology and literature to preserve African American culture?

Warm Up:
THINK-PAIR-SHARE is a collaborative learning strategy where students work together to solve a problem or answer a question. This strategy requires students to (1) think individually about a topic or answer to a question and (2) share ideas with classmates. Discussing with a partner maximizes participation, focuses attention and engages students.

  • (THINK) Instruct students to research the term cultural anthropology, then summarize and explain the job of a cultural anthropologist *Set the timer for (5) minutes. Remind students to write in complete sentences
  • (PAIR) Have students compare their summary with a partner. Afterwards, with the same partner, students should reflect on the question “Why is studying peoples’ beliefs, practices, social organization important to helping preserve culture?”*Allow roughly 30 seconds for students to select partners. Review the directions and then set a timer for 3 minutes.
  • (SHARE) Give students 30 seconds to decide which partner will share-out with the group. *In the interest of time, only select about 4 students to share.
  • (PREPARE) Transition students into the lesson by reading a short excerpt (whole class) and answering two short prompts (whole class)

Activity #1:

Text-dependent questions require students to return to the text to support their answers. This re-reading fosters deep thinking, the ultimate goal of text-dependent questions. This activity can be completed independently or in groups.

  • Have students follow the process for text dependent questions to complete the short article about the life of Zora Neale Hurston
  • Be sure to teach/re-teach the Text-Dependent Question process
    • Read text dependent question
    • Locate answer in the document (annotate, underline, highlight, circle)
    • Restate the question in the answer
    • Cite evidence or examples from the document
    • Proof Read final answer
    • Briefly reteach & demonstrate the text dependent question process with Question #1 (ONLY)
    • Review & model expectations for text dependent question responses
    • Circulate and assist as needed
    • Keep time (10 minutes)

    Activity #2:

    In a whole group, review the story behind the making of Zora Neale Hurston's book Barracoon.

    • Have students reflect on its impact independently by responding to the reflection questions .
    • Return to the whole group for discussion
    • Each response should be at least two to three sentences
    • Review and read aloud the story, being sure to explain any unfamiliar words
    • Select a student to read the reflection questions aloud before releasing students to independent work
    • Circulate and assist as needed
    • Keep time (3-4 minutes)
    • Using the article Soulful Quotes by Zora Neale Hurston, have students create a visually appealing postcard connected to a quote that you find most significant
    • Students selected quotes should be written on the lines provided, while the illustration should be placed in the blank space
    • Remind students to think of what the quote means and/or represents to inform is drawn

    Informed Action:

    Have students display their postcards around the classroom or school to spread awareness about the life and legacy of Zora Neale Hurston

    CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

    CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media in order to address a question or solve a problem.

    D2.His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.

    C3 Anthropology Companion Document: Concept 2: College, Career, and Civic Ready Student: Develop an understanding of the methods by which anthropologists collect data on cultural patterns and processes, and of ways of interpreting and presenting these data in writing and other media.


    Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

    Zora Neale Hurston, known for her audacious spirit and sharp wit, was a talented and prolific writer and a skilled anthropologist from the Harlem (New York) Renaissance to the Civil Rights Era. Born on January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, she grew up in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. Her idyllic life in this provincial rural town was shattered with the death of her mother when Hurston was 14 and her father’s unexpected remarriage. In a few years Hurston was on her own working as a maid. She settled in Baltimore, Maryland and completed her education at Morgan Academy and Howard University.

    Hurston’s talent was readily apparent to her professors including Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory. With Locke’s and Gregory’s support her short story “John Redding Goes to Sea” was published in Howard’s literary magazine Stylus in 1921. Locke recommended Hurston’s work to Charles S. Johnson, who in 1924 published her second short story, “Drenched in Light” in Opportunity magazine.

    In September 1925 Hurston entered Barnard College, where she studied anthropology with the distinguished scholar Franz Boas. She received her B.A. in 1928. Throughout this period, however, Hurston continued to write. In June 1925 her short story “Spunk” was published in Opportunity. In collaboration with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, Hurston in the late 1920s edited the short-lived magazine Fire! Collaborating with Langston Hughes, in 1930 she wrote her first play titled Mule Bone, a comedy about African American rural folk life. Four years later Hurston published her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, loosely based on the life of her father, a rural minister. In 1935 she authored Mules and Men, a volume of anthropological folklore.

    Hurston’s most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937 followed by Moses, Man of the Mountain in 1939, and Seraph on the Suwanee, the least successful of her works, in 1948. Her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, appeared in 1942.

    Hurston’s final years were marked by poverty, difficulty with writing, and estrangement from her family. Though ill, she remained independent until the end. Zora Neale Hurston died in obscurity and was buried in an unmarked grave in January 1960.


    &ldquoAn artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.&rdquo

    &ldquoI have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.&rdquo

    &ldquoWe Negro writers, just by being Black, have been on the Blacklist all our lives. Censorship for us begins at the color line.&rdquo

    &ldquoHumor is laughing at what you haven't got when you ought to have it.&rdquo

    &ldquoLet the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby.&rdquo

    &ldquoThe first two or three days, on the way home from school, little white kids, kids my age, 6 and 7 years old, who would throw stones at me. There were other little white kids, 6 and 7 years old, who picked up stones and threw them back at their fellow classmates, and defend me, and saw that I got home safely. So, I learned very early in life that our race problem is not really of Black against white, and white against Black. It's a problem of people who are not very knowledgeable, or have small minds, or small spirits.&rdquo

    &ldquoNegroes&mdashsweet and docile, meek, humble and kind: Beware the day&mdashthey change their mind.&rdquo

    &ldquoI swear to the Lord, I can't see why democracy means everybody but me.&rdquo

    &ldquoLike welcome summer rain, humor may suddenly cleanse and cool the earth, the air and you.&rdquo

    &ldquoNegro blood is sure powerful, because just one drop of Black blood makes a colored man. One drop you are a Negro! . Black is powerful.&rdquo

    &ldquoHold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.&rdquo

    &ldquoLife is a system of half-truths and lies, opportunistic, convenient evasion.&rdquo

    &ldquoNo woman can be handsome by the force of features alone, any more that she can be witty by only the help of speech.&rdquo

    &ldquoJessie Fauset at 'The Crisis,' Charles Johnson at 'Opportunity' and Alain Locke in Washington were the three people who midwifed the so-called 'New Negro Literature' into being. Kind and critical — but not too critical for the young — they nursed us along until our books were born.&rdquo


    Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life

    This is an ambitious and deftly executed study of the “negro farthest down,” employing the writings of Zora Neale Hurston to flesh out the lives of southern working-class blacks. Given the conflicts that have always swirled around Hurston and her contributions, Tiffany Ruby Patterson had to overcome at least two specific problems. She had to confront Hurston's complex, controversial personality and political prouncements and to address literature's legitimacy as historical source material. She succeeds admirably. Patterson interrogates Hurston's battles with her heavy-hitting male contemporaries, Sterling A. Brown, Richard Wright, and others, who questioned Hurston's political and racial authenticity. Expanding her search beyond Hurston's best-selling works and examining the editor's deletions from Hurston's biography, as well as personal correspondence, Patterson positions Hurston, Brown, and Wright, not in full political embrace, but in close proximity in their stances on issues of race, class, and.


    Zora Neale Hurston

    Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

    Zora Neale Hurston, (born January 7, 1891, Notasulga, Alabama, U.S.—died January 28, 1960, Fort Pierce, Florida), American folklorist and writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance who celebrated the African American culture of the rural South.

    When was Zora Neale Hurston born?

    Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, but she claimed to have been born in 1901 in order to receive a high school education even though she was already in her mid-20s.

    Where did Zora Neale Hurston grow up?

    Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all-black town in the country.

    What were Zora Neale Hurston’s contributions?

    Zora Neale Hurston was a scholar whose ethnographic research made her a pioneer writer of “folk fiction” about the black South, making her a prominent writer in the Harlem Renaissance. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is her most celebrated novel.

    Where was Zora Neale Hurston educated?

    Zora Neale Hurston attended Howard University from 1921 to 1924 before winning a scholarship to Barnard College to study anthropology under Franz Boas. After graduating from Barnard, she pursued graduate studies in anthropology at Columbia University.

    Although Hurston claimed to be born in 1901 in Eatonville, Florida, she was, in fact, 10 years older and had moved with her family to Eatonville only as a small child. There, in the first incorporated all-black town in the country, she attended school until age 13. After the death of her mother (1904), Hurston’s home life became increasingly difficult, and at 16 she joined a traveling theatrical company, ending up in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. She attended Howard University from 1921 to 1924 and in 1925 won a scholarship to Barnard College, where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas. She graduated from Barnard in 1928 and for two years pursued graduate studies in anthropology at Columbia University. She also conducted field studies in folklore among African Americans in the South. Her trips were funded by folklorist Charlotte Mason, who was a patron to both Hurston and Langston Hughes. For a short time Hurston was an amanuensis to novelist Fannie Hurst.

    In 1930 Hurston collaborated with Hughes on a play (never finished) titled Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts (published posthumously 1991). In 1934 she published her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, which was well received by critics for its portrayal of African American life uncluttered by stock figures or sentimentality. Mules and Men, a study of folkways among the African American population of Florida, followed in 1935. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), a novel, Tell My Horse (1938), a blend of travel writing and anthropology based on her investigations of voodoo in Haiti, and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), a novel, firmly established her as a major author.

    For a number of years Hurston was on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in Durham. She also was on the staff of the Library of Congress. Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), an autobiography, is highly regarded. Her last book, Seraph on the Suwanee, a novel, appeared in 1948. Despite her early promise, by the time of her death Hurston was little remembered by the general reading public, but there was a resurgence of interest in her work in the late 20th century. In addition to Mule Bone, several other collections were also published posthumously these included Spunk: The Selected Stories (1985), The Complete Stories (1995), and Every Tongue Got to Confess (2001), a collection of folktales from the South. In 1995 the Library of America published a two-volume set of her work in its series. In addition, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” was released in 2018. Although completed in 1931, the nonfiction work was originally rejected by publishers because of its use of vernacular. It tells the story of Cudjo Lewis, who was believed to be the last survivor of the final slave ship that brought Africans to the United States.


    (1955) Zora Neale Hurston’s Letter to the Orlando Sentinel

    I promised God and some other responsible characters, including a bench of bishops, that I was not going to part my lips concerning the U.S. Supreme Court decision on ending segregation in the public schools of the South. But since a lot of time has passed and no one seems to touch on what to me appears to be the most important point in the hassle, I break my silence just this once. Consider me as just thinking out loud.

    The 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? The American Indian has never been spoken of as a minority and chiefly because there is no whine in the Indian. Certainly he fought, and valiantly for his lands, and rightfully so, but it is inconceivable of an Indian to seek forcible association with anyone. His well known pride and self-respect would save him from that. I take the Indian position.

    Now a great clamor will arise in certain quarters that I seek to deny the Negro children of the South their rights, and therefore I am one of those “handkerchief-head niggers” who bow low before the white man and sell out my own people out of cowardice. However an analytical glance will show that that is not the case.

    If there are not adequate Negro schools in Florida, and there is some residual, some inherent and unchangeable quality in white schools, impossible to duplicate anywhere else, then I am the first to insist that Negro children of Florida be allowed to share this boon. But if there are adequate Negro schools and prepared instructors and instructions, then there is nothing different except the presence of white people.

    For this reason, I regard the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court as insulting rather than honoring my race. Since the days of the never-to-be-sufficiently deplored Reconstruction, there has been current the belief that there is no great[er] delight to Negroes than physical association with whites. The doctrine of the white mare. Those familiar with the habits of mules are aware that any mule, if not restrained, will automatically follow a white mare. Dishonest mule-traders made money out of this knowledge in the old days.

    Lead a white mare along a country road and slyly open the gate and the mules in the lot would run out and follow this mare. This ruling being conceived and brought forth in a sly political medium with eyes on ’56, and brought forth in the same spirit and for the same purpose, it is clear that they have taken the old notion to heart and acted upon it. It is a cunning opening of the barnyard gate wit[h] the white mare ambling past. We are expected to hasten pell-mell after her.

    It is most astonishing that this should be tried just when the nation is exerting itself to shake off the evils of Communist penetration. It is to be recalled that Moscow, being made aware of this folk belief, made it the main plank in their campaign to win the American Negro from the 1920s on. It was the come-on stuff. Join the party and get yourself a white wife or husband. To supply the expected demand, the party had scraped up this-and-that off of park benches and skid rows and held them in stock for us. The highest types of Negroes were held to be just panting to get hold of one of these objects. Seeing how flat that program fell, it is astonishing that it would be so soon revived. Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows.

    But the South had better beware in another direction. While it is being frantic over the segregation ruling, it had better keep its eyes open for more important things. One instance of Govt by fiat has been rammed down its throat. It is possible that the end of segregation is not here and never meant to be here at present, but the attention of the South directed on what was calculated to keep us busy while more ominous things were brought to pass. The stubborn South and the Midwest kept this nation from being dragged farther to the left than it was during the New Deal.

    But what if it is contemplated to do away with the two-party system and arrive at Govt by administrative decree? No questions allowed and no information given out from the administrative department? We could get more rulings on the same subject and more far-reaching any day. It pays to weigh every saving and action, however trivial as indicating a trend.

    In the ruling on segregation, the unsuspecting nation might have witnessed a trial-balloon. A relatively safe one, since it is sectional and on a matter not likely to arouse other sections of the nation to the sup-port of the South. If it goes off fairly well, a precedent has been established. Govt by fiat can replace the Constitution. You don’t have to credit me with too much intelligence and penetration, just so you watch carefully and think.

    Meanwhile, personally, I am not delighted. I am not persuaded and elevated by the white mare technique. Negro schools in the state are in very good shape and on the improve. We are fortunate in having Dr. D.E. Williams as head and driving force of Negro instruction.’ Dr. Williams is relentless in his drive to improve both physical equipment and teacher-quality. He has accomplished wonder[s] in the 20 years past and it is to be expected that he will double that in the future.

    It is well known that I have no sympathy nor respect for the `tragedy of color’ school of thought among us, whose fountain-head is the pressure group concerned in this court ruling. I can see no tragedy in being too dark to be invited to a white school social affair. The Supreme Court would have pleased me more if they had concerned themselves about enforcing the compulsory education provisions for Negroes in the South as is done for white children. The next 10 years would be better spent in appointing truant officers and looking after conditions in the homes from which the children come. Use to the limit what we already have.

    Thems my sentiments and I am sticking by them. Growth from within. Ethical and cultural desegregation. It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association. That old white mare business can go racking on down the road for all I care.


    Quotes

    These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community. We are thankful for their contributions and encourage you to make your own.

    Written by Micola Magdalena

    “Do weeds tangle up folks too, pa?”

    John, "John Redding Goes to Sea’’

    The quote is uttered by the main character of the story, a child named John, living in the middle of a forest together with his parents. John is one day found by his father crying near the river, after one of the twigs put by John in the water got caught in the weeds near the river. Trying to console him, John’s father told the boy how at times, people can get caught up in the weeds as well. john is still too young to understand his father’s words but the father may have wanted to transmit teach his son how, sometimes, we get caught in the problems of our lives which can, at times, wrap around a person and make the person feel as if they are suffocating.

    "She can scarcely reach the chinaberry tree where she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew. ‘’

    The narrator, "Sweat’’

    The quote from above is the ending sentence of the story "Sweat’’. By this point, Sykes was already bitten by the snake which he planted in his wife’s laundry basket, hoping to kill her. Delia had two choices at the end of the story: warn her husband about the impeding danger or let him get near the snake and let him be bitten by it. Delia chose the second option and, what is more, refused to do anything to help him. Delia decided to distance herself by going to a distant place and allowing her husband to die alone and afraid. In a way, this represents Delia’s revenge on her husband, refusing to do anything to help him, and choosing to stand and watch him die from afar.

    "You too sweet already.”

    Joe, "The Gilded Six-Bits’’

    The quote from above is uttered by Joe when he is having supper with Missie May. At one point, Missie May reaches for a piece of food on the table but Joe takes it before she can reach it. To argue why his actions were right, Joe tells Missie May he did that because she is already too sweat and does not need to eat more sugar. This interaction between the two and Joe’s words are heartwarming, having the purpose of showing just how much he loved his wife and how he was ready to do anything to make her happy.

    Update this section!

    You can help us out by revising, improving and updating this section.

    After you claim a section you&rsquoll have 24 hours to send in a draft. An editor will review the submission and either publish your submission or provide feedback.


    Zora's Place

    To understand her, you need to understand Eatonville—and vice versa.

    Hurston the folklorist in action, recording songs in Florida, shown with Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown.

    On a mid-August day with a heat index of 115 degrees, in a rental car with slow pickup, I drive through the Orlando suburbs searching for Eatonville, a three-square-mile town of 2,400 residents. I keep getting lost. Finally a brown “Eatonville Historic District” sign appears, and fifteen miles later it dawns on me that I have gone too far. I turn back, find the city limits, and enter Eatonville. At the “Welcome to Maitland” sign, I realize I have driven through the entire town. It took three minutes.

    Children playing and singing in Eatonville, 1935, photographed by folklorist Alan Lomax, who was traveling with Zora Neale Hurston in Florida.

    A 1935 photo of Eatonville folks from the Alan Lomax Collection, taken on his trip with Hurston and Elizabeth Barnicle, showing Hurston and three local boys.

    It may be small and hard to find, but Eatonville is important for two reasons: It was the first all-black incorporated town in the United States, and it was the childhood home of Zora Neale Hurston. Much of Hurston’s writing is set here, and many of her characters are thinly disguised versions of actual residents. Eatonville gave Hurston her best material, and a few years ago, the favor was returned. The Hurston connection gave Eatonville an argument to save itself from being paved over. Hurston and Eatonville have always been closely linked: to understand one, you have to understand the other.

    Formed after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Eatonville was named after Josiah Eaton, a white army captain living in Maitland. During Maitland’s first civic election, a black man, Joe Clarke, was elected town marshal. As Hurston tells it in her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, “I do not know whether it was the numerical superiority of the Negroes, or whether some of the Whites, out of deep feeling, threw their votes to the Negro side.” A year later, Clarke decided to create a separate all-black town, and Eaton supported him, as did Lewis Lawrence, a white philanthropist from New York City. Land was donated, then a church and a town hall were built. In Dust TracksHurston tells it this way: “On August 18, 1886, the Negro town . . . received its charter of incorporation from the state capital at Tallahassee, and made history by becoming the first of its kind in America, and perhaps in the world. So, in a raw, bustling frontier, the experiment of self-government for Negroes was tried. White Maitland and Negro Eatonville have lived side by side for fifty-five years without a single instance of enmity.”

    Hurston is emphatic about her start in Eatonville and its identity as a black town. In Dust Tracksshe stated that she “was born in a Negro town. I do not mean by that the black back-side of an average town. Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town—charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.”

    Actually, Hurston was born in Alabama. The family moved to Eatonville when Zora was one year old, after her father, John, heard of the town and its opportunities for African Americans. He bought five acres and built an eight-room house. Hurston’s childhood was full of children playing outside, homegrown food, and fishing. Hers was not a struggling family. The town was dominated by churches, but its hub was Joe Clarke’s store, “the heart and spring of the town.”

    Men sat around the store on boxes and benches and passed this world and the next one through their mouths. The right and the wrong, the who, when and why was passed on, and nobody doubted the conclusions. Women stood around there on Saturday nights and had it proven to the community that their husbands were good providers, put all of his money in his wife’s hands and generally glorified her. Or right there before everybody it was revealed that he was keeping some other woman by the things the other woman was allowed to buy on his account. No doubt a few men found that their wives had a brand-new pair of shoes oftener than he could afford it, and wondered what she did with her time while he was off at work. Sometimes he didn’t have to wonder. There were no discreet nuances of life on Joe Clarke’s porch. There was open kindnesses, anger, hate, love, envy and its kinfolks, but all emotions were naked, and nakedly arrived at. It was a case of ‘make it and take it.’ You got what your strengths would bring you.

    Eatonville did not encourage illusions about human kindness. On the porch, men bragged about beating their wives. This take-it-or-leave-it life was full of roughness, but it was not without pleasure. Only you had to find the good parts for yourself.

    Hurston loved her hometown, but she never idealized it. Growing up there, she felt different, as if she stood apart from the other children and her family. “Often I was in some lonesome wilderness, suffering strange things and agonies while other children in the same yard played without a care. I asked myself why me? Why? Why? A cosmic loneliness was my shadow. Nothing and nobody around me really touched me.”

    Luckily, her mother understood and indulged Zora’s desire to read and study. She died while Zora was still young, and after her death Zora was sent away from Eatonville. The years that followed were a struggle. In Jacksonville, she attended school, where racism was overt and “made me know that I was a little colored girl.” Her father quickly remarried—to a woman who did not like her new stepchildren. Returning to Eatonville, Hurston got into a violent fight with her stepmother, and so left home again.

    As Valerie Boyd writes in her biography, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, “She not only vanished from Eatonville but also from the public record. Exhaustive searches of archives from this period have unearthed no census listing, no city directory entry, no school file, no marriage license and no hospital report. . . . In 1911, it was relatively easy for someone, particularly a black woman, to evade history’s recording gaze.”

    Hurston describes these years as a jumble of service jobs and intense poverty relieved occasionally by periods of happiness, as when she worked as a maid for a white actress in a traveling theater troupe. She wanted to finish high school, and eventually enrolled in Morgan Academy in Baltimore. She lied about her age, excising ten years, claiming she was sixteen, so she could qualify.

    She excelled at Morgan, moved on to Howard Prep and then to Howard University, where she received an associate’s degree in 1920. She began to write, and published some short stories in literary magazines. In 1925, she was admitted into Barnard College to study with Franz Boas, the leading anthropologist of the day. She began the first of many major field trips for Boas and others. Her first project was measuring head sizes in Harlem, which Boas asked her to do to help him discredit phrenology. Hurston was suddenly living a very unusual life, and a remarkably successful one for a black woman.

    To many, Hurston is known primarily for her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance. During this time she befriended Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Wallace Thurman, and others, cooking them fried shrimp in her apartment, often a site for impromptu parties. But she quickly moved on. She was not a joiner of movements or trends. Like her hometown, Hurston was iconoclastic.

    She spent many years doing anthropological field work, living on her own among strangers. She moved back to Florida, to Polk County, to do research in 1927, and from there traveled to New Orleans and the Bahamas. Later she would live in Jamaica and Haiti, spending time with voodoo doctors and learning about zombies, taking on unconventional and often dangerous field work that few would consider undertaking even today.

    She had restless energy, no doubt, and the marriage of “cosmic loneliness” and love of the Southern black community is evident in many of her works and life decisions. She wrote plays, nonfiction, short stories, and an academic study of black folk life. She moved constantly.

    After her mother died, she had little contact with her family, and, although she married a few times, her relationships were all short-lived. As a writer, however, she was tenacious. As Boyd points out, by 1933, Hurston was the only black woman in the country still striving to make a living off writing.

    Despite her peripatetic ways and expansive interests, she returned often to her childhood and Eatonville, at least in her writing. In the 1930s—after the Harlem Renaissance—she published her first book. One of her many side projects, Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a novel about a fictional all-black town that looks a lot like Eatonville and the man who was once its mayor, who closely resembles her father.

    The novel was well-received, but its timing was unfortunate. The Great Depression was on, and the Harlem scene had already dissipated. The black intelligentsia was moving politically leftward, while Hurston, as was her wont, went her own way. She leaned right, and wrote against race nationalism as well as the strident politics of Richard Wright.

    Away from Harlem, she became more and more productive. Mules and Men, her groundbreaking work of cultural anthropology, was finally published in 1935. The next year, she received a Guggenheim Award to travel to Jamaica and Haiti to do more field work. Once again, a side project would bring her acclaim: During a seven-week period, while she was studying voodoo and zombies in Haiti, she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, her best-received work up to that point, and, today, a classic of American literature frequently taught in high schools and colleges. Like Jonah’s Gourd Vine and many of her short stories, it hews closely to her experiences in Eatonville.

    She was famous but still poor. In 1938, she worked for the WPA, receiving a government check for field work she did in Florida. For a while she lived on a boat, and, in 1941, worked briefly for Paramount Pictures, earning $100 a month, the highest salary she would ever earn. In 1942, she published Dust Tracks on a Road. It won the Anisfield-Wolf award for best book on racial relations and came with a $1,000 award, the largest single-sum payment she would ever receive.

    In 1948, she moved back to New York briefly, where she was falsely accused of molesting a boy. The case made headlines, and hurt her reputation, even though the boy recanted and charges were dropped. Her next book, Seraph on the Sewanee did not sell well.

    Hurston lived the rest of her life back in Florida. She briefly worked as a domestic to pay her bills. She published political articles in which she explained her conservative views and campaigned for Republican candidates. In 1955, she wrote against the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, because she opposed forced integration: The ruling was “insulting rather than honoring my race.” In Fort Pierce, Florida, she found a new community, and she worked as a substitute teacher and went on welfare. In 1959, she suffered a stroke and died at St. Lucie County Welfare Home in 1960.

    Most of her work fell out of print. In 1973, Alice Walker went to find her grave and wrote about it, and a biography in 1980 brought Hurston further attention. In Fort Pierce, where the community raised funds for her casket and funeral, the town created a Dust Tracks heritage trail to draw in tourists.

    But Eatonville, not Fort Pierce, is the source of much of Hurston’s fiction and the explanation, perhaps, for her independent streak, her love of folklore, and her unlikely political views. As Boyd argues, being raised in an all-black town was so formative and positive that Hurston distrusted “forcible association” between races. Boyd quotes another person who says Eatonville was “like a four-walled room.” Inside the room black people lived unseen and unexamined by white people. It was the primary setting for her life and her fiction, a “city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jail-house.”

    These days, Eatonville is a struggling small town. Every year it holds a very successful and well-attended ZORA! festival. But the school has closed, and the poverty rate is twice that of the rest of the country. That the town still exists seems remarkable. In the 1980s, the state planned to run a highway through it. Eatonville residents banded together and, emphasizing the town’s historic roots and its connection to Hurston’s life and writing, successfully lobbied to have the road rerouted. They won. Without Hurston to champion, the town would probably be gone today.

    In 2008, the town had a new streetscape installed. A half-mile stretch of Kennedy Boulevard is now brick, flanked by new landscaping, and the utility lines are buried. The new main drag is certainly handsome, but also dissonant. Usually such urban improvements are accompanied by other redevelopments: new buildings, condos, and shopping malls. While there are a few of those on Kennedy Boulevard, notably the library, many of the buildings are in need of repair. An aging sign for the local motel, suggesting an unlikely, Vegas-style glory, is half-hidden behind overgrowth the place itself has neither a website nor a welcoming feel. A 1970s mural depicting famous African Americans is fading. A decrepit house, the oldest in town, bears a sign with a large “ZORA!” written on it. Hurston never lived there, but for lack of another identity it claims her.

    The buildings may be depressing, but Eatonville has a lot of pedestrian life. On that sweltering Saturday, when I drove through, I saw many people out and about. A church was holding a picnic, complete with bouncy house and carnival games. Boys were riding bikes, doubled-up, on the side streets. And even though I looked conspicuous when I parked my rental car and took out my camera, no one looked at me askance. I had lunch in Lowe’s Good Eaton—smothered pork chops, greens, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. I asked a few diners if I could take their picture, and they nodded sure. They were not surprised by my request, nor did they ask why. Eatonville may not be prettified, and it may be a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but it is self-confident and aware of its heritage. Not unlike its most famous citizen.

    I am far from the only person who comes to Eatonville to learn more about its famous author. Four summers in a row, the town has hosted schoolteachers in an NEH Landmarks of American History Workshop, “Zora Neale Hurston and Her Eatonville Roots.” Lead scholar Heather Russell, associate professor of English at Florida International University, says the teachers always return to the same dialectic, wondering, “Is Eatonville the most important thing about Zora Neale Hurston, or is Zora Neale Hurston the most important thing about Eatonville?”

    During my brief visit, I could only glimpse some of the complications the NEH seminar encourages. But like many visitors, I wondered whether the town could be doing more with its rich literary legacy. Then again, the problem with a lot of literary tourism is that the message has already been spelled out. Simplifications are printed on celebratory plaques, and the nicest buildings are foregrounded and photoshopped. The shiny souvenir gets mistaken for the real thing, and the words on the page are forgotten.

    But in Eatonville, the homely face of a struggling neighborhood has not been dolled up. Hurston’s hometown may not be keeping pace with Fort Pierce in terms of cultural heritage or Orlando in terms of tourism, but it is not hiding behind a false façade. As a result, it is very easy to see how Hurston came from such a place, and why it was such a compelling and rich source for her fiction.

    I drove back across the highway, one of many, and returned to my air-conditioned hotel room—a room like a hundred others in a chain like a hundred others. I read Dust Tracksin the mauve lounge while a baseball game played on the flat screen behind the bar. Eatonville’s unreadable plaques, fading murals, and boys on bicycles were, by contrast, far more memorable and vivid, as are, still today, Hurston’s words on the page.

    Anne Trubek is an associate professor of English at Oberlin College. She is author of A Skeptic’s Guide To Writers’ Houses, to be published by University of Pennsylvania Press in October 2010.

    Funding information

    Zora Neale Hurston’s life and writings have been a subject of numerous NEH-supported projects over the years. The Florida Humanities Council has received grants to host four Landmarks of American History Workshops for School Teachers to examine Hurston and her Eatonville roots. Her work and life were recently featured in Soul of a People, a television documentary on the Federal Writers’ Project, from which came an exhibit that traveled to thirty libraries around the country.


    Film, Video Literature to Life: Zora!

    While the Library of Congress created most of the videos in this collection, they include copyrighted materials that the Library has permission from rightsholders to present. Rights assessment is your responsibility. The written permission of the copyright owners in materials not in the public domain is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use of protected items beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemptions. There may also be content that is protected under the copyright or neighboring-rights laws of other nations. Permissions may additionally be required from holders of other rights (such as publicity and/or privacy rights). Whenever possible, we provide information that we have about copyright owners and related matters in the catalog records, finding aids and other texts that accompany collections. However, the information we have may not be accurate or complete.

    For guidance about compiling full citations consult Citing Primary Sources.

    Credit Line: Library of Congress


    Watch the video: Zora Neale Hurston. Queen of the Harlem Renaissance Biography (December 2021).