“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.”
Letter from Zora Neale Hurston to Countee Cullen
Today, Tuesday January 7th is the 129th birthday of Eatonville’s most famous resident, Zora Neale Hurston. She was born in Notasulga, a small town in Alabama in 1891. Her parents were of modest means. Mr. Hurston was a Baptist preacher, carpenter and a tenant farmer, and his wife was a schoolteacher. It does seem however, that her parents must have been ambitious and adventurous as they moved their family from Alabama to the town of Eatonville, a hamlet hundreds of miles away in another state.
“Grab the broom of anger and drive off the beast of fear.”
The Eatonville Speaker, proudly promoted its town at the time to would-be residents, “Colored people of the United States: solve the great race problem by securing a home in Eatonville, Florida, a Negro city governed by Negroes.”
Kennedy Boulevard, the main street through historic Eatonville.
This is the hometown that Zora Neale Hurston knew, and the experience was not lost on her. Eatonville served as the inspiration for much of her work so much so, that a common theme throughout her writing, was Black pride and self-sufficiency.
‘Jump at the sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.
I admire her grit and determination especially at a time when Black women had no voice. Hurston admitted in her autobiography “Dust Tracks on a Road”, that her father punished her for having too much spirit, while her mother on the other hand, encouraged her children “to jump at the sun”. Lucy Hurston’s words served her daughter well.
When Hurston left home in her mid-teens after the death of her mother, her pluck helped her cobble together an education after her family’s financial support for her schooling ended. Her pursuit of higher learning included shaving 10 years off her “official” age in order to qualify for financial aid; graduating from Morgan College, the high school division of Morgan State University, followed by 6 years at Howard University where she became only of the earliest members of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority. While on campus, she helped form “The Hilltop”, one of the longest running collegiate newspapers in the country, and she earned her Associates degree.
The following year, she earned a scholarship to Barnard College of Columbia University to conduct research in anthropology under the well-regarded anthropologist Franz Boas. 10 years after earning her high school diploma from Morgan College at Morgan State University, Zora Neale Hurston received a B.A. in anthropology from Barnard College.
“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
In the 1920s, Hurston was one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. Well considered the life of the party, Hurston entertained and charmed New York’s elites who often served as her patrons or sponsors for her writing and/or her research. However, when the Great Depression hit, Hurston’s benefactors were no longer as generous as they had been in the past. In the mid to late 1930s, she embarked on a series of trips to the Caribbean and through the South to document the culture of African Americans and others of the African Diaspora. It was during this time that she wrote, of “Mules and Men”; “Jonah’s Gourd Vine”, “Tell My Horse” and perhaps her most famous work, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” By the late 30s, Hurston was employed by the Federal Writers Project and was documenting Florida’s oral history.
Those that don’t got it, can’t show it. Those that got it, can’t hide it.
As celebrated as Hurston had been during the Harlem Renaissance, by the late 1950s, her work was out of print, and she struggled to find odd jobs to support herself. By this time, she had faced a series of health challenges which left her with a stroke. Hurston passed away in Fort Pierce, on January 28, 1960.
I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.
She was laid to rest in an unmarked grave until Alice Walker and Charlotte D. Hunt discovered the gravesite. Walker wrote an article for Ms Magazine in 1975 about her search for Zora Neale Hurston which spurred a renewed interest in Zora Neale Hurston and her work.
Her work published prior to her death has been reissued, and the ZORA Neale Hurston Trust has published two new works by Zora Neale Hurston, Every Tongue Got To Confess and Barracoon. Zora’s hometown of Eatonville is the site of the ZORA! Festival, the longest running outdoor festival celebrating the achievements of the African Diaspora. It is fitting that the Festival produced by the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, embodies several of the ideals that Hurston applied in her life – Black pride and self-sufficiency.
It is one of the blessings of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.