HER LIFE REFLECTED IN MAJOR WORKS:
ZORA NEALE HURSTON
Zora Neale Hurston, an early twentieth century Afro-American feminist author, was raised in a predominately black community that gave her a unique perspective on race relations, apparent in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston drew on her on experiences as a feminist Afro-American female to create a story about the transformation of Janie, from a young unconfident girl to a thriving woman. Janie experiences many things that make her a compelling character who takes readers along as her companion, on her voyage to discover the mysteries and rewards life has to offer (Hurston 23).
Zora Neale Hurston was, the daughter of a Baptist minister and an educated scholar who still believed in the genius contained within the common southern black vernacular. Hurston was born on January 7, 1891 in Eatonville, Florida, the first all-incorporated black town in America. She found a special thing in this town, where she said, ” I grew like a like a gourd and yelled bass like a gator,” (Gale, 46). When Hurston was thirteen she was removed from school and sent to care for her brother’s children. She became a member of a traveling theater at the age of sixteen, and then found herself working as a maid for a white woman. This woman saw a spark that was waiting for fuel, so she arranged for Hurston to attend high school in Baltimore. She also attended Morgan Academy, now called Morgan State University, from which she graduated in June of 1918. She then enrolled in the Howard Prep School followed by later enrollment in Howard University. In 1928 Hurston attended Barnard College where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas. After she graduated, Zora returned to Eatonville to begin work on anthropology. Four years after Hurston received her B.A. from Barnard she enrolled in Columbia University to begin graduate work (Discovering Authors). Hurston’s life seemed to be going well but she was soon to see the other side of reality.
Hurston never stayed at a job for too long, constantly refusing the advances of male employers, which showed part of her strong feminist disposition. But Hurston was still seeking true love throughout her travels and education. At Howard University, Hurston met Herburt Sheen whom she married on May 19, 1927 in St. Augstine, Florida (Rood 28). They divorced shortly after they got married because they could not continue the idealistic dreams they had shared in their youth. Zora Hurston’s second marriage to Albert Price III was also short lived. They were married in 1939 and divorced in 1943 (Rood 35). By the mid-1940s Hurston’s writing career had began to falter. While living in New York, Hurston was arrested and charged with committing an immoral act with a ten-year-old boy. The charges were later dropped when Hurston proved that she was in another country at the time the incident allegedly took place (Discovering Authors). Hurston already was witnessing the rejection of all of her works submitted to her publisher, but the combined effects of the arrest and the ensuing journalistic attack on her image doomed the majority of her literary career. She wrote to a friend: “I care nothing
for writing anything any more My race has seen fit to destroy me without reason, and with the vilest tools conceived by man so far” (Discovering Authors). In approximately 1950 Hurston returned to Florida, where she worked as a cleaning woman in Rivo Alto. She later moved to Belle Glade, Florida, in hopes of reviving her writing career. She failed and worked as many jobs including: newspaper journalist, librarian, and substitute
teacher (Baker 68).
Hurston suffered a stroke in 1959, which demanded her admittance in the Saint Lucie County Florida Welfare Home. She died a broken, penniless, invalid in January 1960. All of Hurston’s trials built the basis for her best work. Therefore, the work that has made her as one of the twentieth century’s most influential authors did not come until after she had graduated from college. She was a defiant free spirit even during her early college career. While working on an anthropological study for her mentor, Franz Boas, she was exposed to voodoo, which she quickly embraced. She also adopted this religion, which contrasted completely with her Baptist up bringing, because it gave her a new artistic sense. Voodoo freed her from the institutional restraints that she experienced as a black woman in a white oligarchy. Her belief in voodoo appeared in almost all of her works, including Their Eyes Were Watching God (Gale 78). Hurston used her artistic talent to incorporate her cultural anthologies into her fiction by combining many of the traditions and cultural tinges she discovered while tracing Black culture into the fictional town of Eatonville. Hurston’s most acclaimed work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, has been read, adored, rejected, reviewed, and badgered by many literary critics and uneducated readers alike. “In a book rich with imagery and black oral tradition, Zora Neale Hurston tells us of a woman’s journey that gives the lie to Freud’s assertion that ‘the difficult development which leads to femininity seems to exhaust all the possibilities of the individual” (Baker 91). The plot centers on Janie, a character some critics say is mimicked after Hurston herself, and her journey toward self-discovery. As a victim of circumstance, Janie becomes a victim of her own position. She is raised to uphold the standards of her grandmother’s generation; she is taught to be passive and subject to whatever life gives her. But as Janie grows older she begins to realize that the world may not like it, but she has got to follow her desires, not suppress them. The story begins in her childhood, with Janie exalting material possessions and money, two things she has never had an abundance of. Janie marries twice, the second marriage being bigamous. She realizes that she must be self-reliant. She experiences all of these things in a totally Black community, where society is motivated by the most basic human instincts. (Baker 103)
Hurston in-bedded her own life experiences into Their Eyes Were Watching God with her clever incorporation of prominent themes in society. While avoiding social prejudice, Zora seamlessly integrates her own racial-discovery into her novel. The reader does not feel that she is projecting social prejudices or personal attacks; but rather imparts a tender, gentle revelation to Janie that she is Black. Janie is raised with white children in the home of the family her Grandmother works for. She grows up playing, laughing, and enjoying the things that the white children do, so much so, that she is included in a family portrait. When she goes to look at the picture, she doesn’t see herself- but rather a dark girl with long hair. “Where is me? Ah don’t see me,” she complains (Hurston 64). She had not realized till that moment, she was not white. To further the story line, Hurston takes Janie on a journey of self-discovery with a slightly feminist twist.
Janie soon becomes her own person, casting her given lot aside, and seeking new one on her own path, discovering her dreams and her identify. In this novel, Hurston expresses many of her opinions on race relations. She is often criticized for her lack of confrontational forces in Their Eyes Were Watching God, however she explained that she has clearly defined her position on race relations in her books. She has done it in a way that no group can actually ground a claim that her work is catered to any one audience. Many Black critics at the time of publication criticized Their Eyes Were Watching God for its lack of racial awareness; while white critics, such as Otis Ferguson, claimed that the book is ” absolutely free of Uncle Toms” (Rood 52). Most contemporary critics feel Hurston’s novel is the culmination of all of Black culture. Hurston was often criticized for her writings. She was quick to reply: 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. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feeling are all hurt about it…. No, I do not weep at the world- I am to busy sharpening my oyster knife. Hurston showed her true opinions on race relations in her autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road when she declared black artists should celebrate the positive aspects of black American Negrohood. And that is exactly what Hurston did through her innovative characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Discovering Authors)
Zora Neale Hurston never received any credit for any of her works because it was until after her unmarked grave was discovered that her poems and novel really came alive. At the time of her writings Hurston had two large obstacles in her way, the fact that she was black, and that she was a woman. Hurston persevered and continued to struggle on, and that was precisely why she promoted equality. Her power as an individual was so overwhelming; she was in fact the Harlem Renaissance s most effective attack on racism. Hurston put it best when she said, at certain times I have no race, I AM ME.