by Kitty Wenham 

Forgotten Women is an exclusive series for Aurelia that aims to shine a light on the women who have been consigned to the margins of literary history. 

This week’s spotlight is on Zora Neale Hurston, 1891-1960. 

Zora Neale Hurston began having visions when she was seven years old. She saw the future. Falling asleep on a neighbour’s porch one hot afternoon, Zora watched twelve scenes flash before her eyes in excruciating detail. She knew instantly they were a preview of what to come, and she maintained for the rest of her life that each one of them eventually materialised. In her 1942 memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, she described them to the reader; a shot-gun built shack that held torture for her, a dark pool of water, a train to catch, two older women waiting for her in a grand house. Three years after she published these inner thoughts, she wrote a letter to an old friend describing another, very different kind of vision she had. 
           “My dear Dr. Du Bois”. The letter had arrived from Daytona Beach, Florida. It was June, 1945. The War would wage on for yet another two months. “As Dean of American Negro Artists, I think that it is about time that you take steps towards an important project which you have neglected up to this time.”

“Why do you not propose a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead? Something like Pere la Chaise in Paris.” So began Zora Neale Hurston’s letter to author, civil rights activist and founding member of the N.A.A.C.P, W.E.B. Du Bois. “Let no Negro celebrities”, she implored, “no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness”. 

When Zora herself died just fifteen years later, she had so little to her name that neighbours took up a collection to afford her a burial. She was laid to rest in a segregated cemetery in Florida, an unmarked grave on a neglected plot, covered in weeds, surrounded by knee-high grass. Du Bois had agreed that her idea for a cemetery had its “attraction” but conceded that the “practical difficulties are too great”. 

The end of Zora’s life was a great contrast to the colourful memories many had of her. 30 years previously, in 1931, Zora Neale Hurston was a well-established personality in the New York artistic scene that would later become known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’; she had arrived in 1925 with $1.50 in her pocket, and one short story to her name. By 1942, she had published three novels, an autobiography, a collection of African American folklore, several plays, and numerous more short tales. At the height of her career, she was known across the United States as a prolific and influential writer.

Zora Neale Hurston circa 1937. Source: PhotoQuest / Getty Images
Amongst her New York friends, she was referred to affectionately as “Queen Zora”, and the poet Langston Hughes described her as the “most amusing” person of their group, who was a “perfect book of entertainment in herself”. In May 1925, she won two awards for fiction, and drama. Her loud entrance to the ceremonial banquet honouring the magazine’s writers is still discussed nearly a century later. Zora had sailed in late, a long, bright scarf billowing dramatically behind her, as she bellowed the name of her winning play – “Color Struck! Coloooor Struuuuck!”, for all to hear. 

Her bright personality earned Zora many friends, and also many enemies. Though her work has been revived mostly by feminist and womanist scholars, the haziness of her political life remains a point of contention and drove a large rift between her and many of her contemporaries. She supported Republican politicians. She claimed that Mary McLeod Bethune had never “even originated an educational idea” nor “improved on any that have been originated”. Perhaps most famously, she opposed the Brown V. Board ruling that aimed to desegregate American public schools. 

But to understand the complexity of Hurston’s own ideologies, it is important to commemorate the unique circumstances of her own upbringing. Both Hurston’s grandparents were former slaves. Her father was a travelling Minister who preached the word of God, and they eventually settled in Eatonville; an all-black self-governing Florida town of which her father would eventually become mayor. Eatonville features in many of Hurston’s stories and was clearly formative in inspiring her ideas of what an ideal life looked like as a black American.

Zora Neale Hurston by Alan Lomax, circa 1935. Source: The NY Times
In her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston rarely illustrates any experiences she may have had of racial discrimination. She worked hard, in many menial jobs, and went on to receive numerous scholarships and sponsorships. She was the first black woman to study at Barnard College, despite not having graduated High School until she was 27; probably a significant motivation in her decision to begin claiming she was ten years younger than she was. She later worked as an anthropologist, which led to a great body of work; from collecting African American folk stories from around the South, to studying Haitian Voodoo. 

This richness of experience and interests clearly informed all of her writing. Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, which garnered critical acclaim, is loosely based on the life of her parents. Sponsored by Charlotte Osgood Mason, who was also a patron to other significant writers of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes, and Aaron Douglas, Zora published her first set of collected folk stories a year later; Mules and Men

The relationship of many writers with white philanthropists such as Mason remains murky; Hughes and Hurston both cut off contact with Mason after feeling stifled and pressured by her demands. Hurston was often accused of ‘performing’ for wealthy white people, and the critic Barbara Johnson once suggested that Mules and Men may be read as Hurston’s own folk performance for an audience of Masons. Hurston’s personal beliefs often exasperated these accusations; she once wrote “someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past.”

Yet despite her apparent disregard for the American memory of slavery, under Mason’s sponsorship, Hurston wrote, and attempted to publish a novel recounting the experiences of Oluale Kossola, then the only remaining survivor of Clotilda, the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa, to the United States. The story wasn’t published until 2018, when she received wide critical acclaim for her field work, and sensitivity. 58 years after she had passed away.

Her most famous book however, is undoubtedly Their Eyes Were Watching God. A love story that follows Janie Crawford from her teenagerhood, to adulthood, and through three different marriages. The influence of the folk stories she heard, her anthropological work and upbringing is at its strongest. It was derided for having no strong political message, and for its frank portrayal of female sexuality; then still a taboo subject across the United States. Some scholars believe it depicts the first instance of a female orgasm in black American literature. 
                 Despite her literary openness about sex, Zora’s own personal life is harder to track. She was married at least twice, though in her memoir, only mentions one husband – and for no longer than a throwaway sentence. 

Zora Neale Hurston with fellow members of the Harlem Renaissance. Source: Getty Images
Many people have speculated that she was unrequitedly in love with Langston Hughes. This is mostly based on the account of their public falling out, over a play they had been writing together, titled ‘Mule Bone’. Zora had provided much of the source material. Whilst Langston typed it out, she added humour and perfected the dialogue. However, it was eventually left unfinished. A while later, Zora sent the draft to an agent, who was eager to take it on. Langston, who was in Cleveland at the time, where the play was due to be staged, confronted Zora about her decision to leave him out of the credits. She told him that she had sent the play to her agent “because she felt that if the play were ever produced [he] would only take [his] half of the money and spend it on a girl she didn’t like. Besides, the story was her story, the dialogue her dialogue, and the play her play – even if [he] had put it together, and she didn’t want [him] to have any part in it.” Finally, she relented to let Langston help her finish the play so that it could go into production. She drove down to see him, and the rehearsals, but backtracked as soon as she found out the girl she didn’t like had also recently been in town. She called her agent “and said that never, under any circumstances, would she permit any of her work to be linked with [his], nor her name with [his], and that there could be no production of [their] play”.

By all accounts, Hurston was no stranger to arguments. As a teenager, she had frequent arguments with her father, and once almost killed her step-mother in a fistfight. Gossip of her public fall-outs with other prominent artists was a frequent subject of letters between mutual friends. Perhaps her biggest rivalry was with Richard Wright, author of Native Son, who denounced her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God as having “no theme, no message, no thought”, and accused the distinctive dialogue of being a “minstrel technique”. Her prose, he continued, was “cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley” – a comparison that would become more fitting when considering Wheatley’s fate; an emancipated slave whose poetry made waves across the world, lead to meetings with George Washington and the King of England, yet who died in poverty at the age of 31.

Portrait by Carl Van Vechten, circa 1938.
Hurston responded in kind by labelling Wright’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Children, “a book about hatreds”, and criticising Wright’s violence, as well as his treatment of sexuality and female characters, pointing to how the “hero gets the white man most Negro men rail against — the white man who possesses a Negro woman. He gets several of them while choosing to die in a hurricane of bullets and fire because his woman has had a white man. There is lavish killing here, perhaps enough to satisfy all male black readers.”
                  Hurston’s interest in how black women were treated, especially regarding their sexuality, is evident throughout her life. In 1952, no longer writing, she worked as a journalist, and covered the trial of Ruby McCollum, an African American woman who murdered her rapist, a white doctor who had forced her to have his children. 

Despite the wealth of information we have about her work and her life, no clear picture of who Zora Neale Hurston was emerges. Her memoir is so notoriously full of small white lies and other inaccuracies that it is hard for any reader to walk away feeling like they were privy to the heart of a woman who spent much of her career trying to convince other people to open theirs. Her books are passionate, and powerful, much like the author herself, but there seems little we can do to pay tribute to all her contradictions, and complexities.

In 1973, thirteen years after her passing, Alice Walker visited Florida posing as Zora Neale’s niece. She made the trek to Eatonville, where many seemed eager to forget a woman they believed had left them behind. In the community where she had died, Walker found few who remembered Zora, and none who knew of her enduring legacy as one of the most influential authors of the Harlem Renaissance. 

Finally finding a promising lead on the location of Zora’s unmarked grave, Walker stepped out onto the plain. “Zora,” she called. “Are you out here?” A conspicuous rectangle in the centre of the cemetery revealed itself. Walker purchased a headstone; plain, but affordable. It now reads her name and bears the inscription; “A genius of the South. Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist”. Walker writes that she has “come to know Zora through her books”, but the headstone she purchased lists the wrong year of birth; 1901, approximately ten years later than most historians believe it to be. 

Although many have gone looking for Zora, perhaps the only truth is that she never really wanted to be found.

Follow Kitty on Twitter: @KittyWenham