“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me” (“Zora Neale Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance: Searching for Identity” 6). These humorous words were spoken by Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most influential African-American female writers. Zora Neale Hurston incorporated the strong values she learned from her adventurous life into her professional life, which later inspired many generations of African American female writers.
It was her early adventures and personal experiences that supplied Zora with her creative subject matter. Zora Neale Hurston was born on the 15th of January in 1891 (“Zora Neale Hurston” 1). Shortly after she was born, her family moved to the Eatonville, Florida, the town where Zora would spend her childhood. Zora’s family moved to Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was an all black town so Zora did not know or face any discrimination until later in her life (“Zora Neale Hurston” 1). She was able to grow up without knowing the horrors of racial discrimination. Zora was in a privileged position during most of her childhood because of her father’s role in the town. John Cornelius Hurston was minister of one of Eatonville’s two churches and served as mayor (“Zora Neale Hurston” 1). Her father’s position allowed the Hurston family to enjoy life and enabled Zora to have the time of her life.
Zora’s name alone draws interest. The name “Zora” is a Slavic name. It means “dawn” or “sunrise” (Fradin 5). As a child, Zora’s personality reflected a sunrise. During her childhood, Zora developed a strong self-confidence (Fradin ix). Her confidence was evident in everything she did. As a child, Zora had a friendship with the moon and it was always happy to see her. “The moon was so happy when I came out to play, that it ran shining and shouting after me like a pretty puppy dog” (Fradin 8). Her future was bright from the beginning. Zora loved storytelling, playing in nature, reading books, and anything that involved learning (“Zora Neale Hurston” 1). Her love of knowledge would help her later when she was writing stories. Zora explored Eatonville and was curious about the outside world. “It grew upon me that I ought to walk out to the horizon and see what the end of the world was like” (Fradin 9). With such a strong spirit, Zora was always on an adventure. She often wandered away from home and got rides from white people driving by (Fradin 10). The luxury she had of not knowing discrimination helped her experience life to the fullest. Zora’s mom, Lucy, was very supportive of her children. She told them, “Jump at the sun. You might not land on the sun, but at least you will get off the ground” (Fradin 11). Lucy believed in her children and helped Zora to become the charming, confident child she was.
Sadly, Zora’s role model had to leave too soon. On the 18th of September, 1904, when Zora 13 years old, Lucy Hurston died (“Zora Neale Hurston” 1). This tragic event uprooted Zora’s life. Two weeks after her mother’s death, Zora had to leave home (“Zora Neale Hurston” 1). She went to a boarding school in Jacksonville. Boarding school and Jacksonville came as a shock to her adventurous spirit. It was here that Zora first experienced racial discrimination (Fradin 18). Zora did not obtain a highschool education. She became a maid for a singer in the Gilbert and Sullivan troupe (“Zora Neale Hurston” 2). This was one of her first big life decisions. After suffering from appendicitis, Zora’s life went a different direction (“Zora Neale Hurston” 2). Little did she know that her life would have many surprising turns.
Zora did not know discrimination for many years, but one situation she experienced changed her forever. Zora witnessed a young African American man being denied a haircut and shave in a barber shop. The fact that she did not do the right thing and speak up for him haunted Zora for the rest of her life (Fradin 39). Zora would express her beliefs on race and gender in her stories.
Zora married Herbert Sheen and, “For the first time since mother’s death, there was someone who felt really close and warm…” (Fradin 40). None of her loves lasted forever, but they did provide comfort and writing inspiration.
One interesting thing about Zora was the way she used her birthdate to her advantage. No one knew quite when it was, so Zora would change it to seem older or younger than she actually was (“Zora Neale Hurston” 1). Zora’s fun with aging and sometimes being ageless eventually came to an end. Zora Neale Hurston suffered from a series of strokes and died on the 28th of January 1960 (“Zora Neale Hurston” 5). She did not fear death. “Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost” (Fradin 151). Her belief that she was ever changing but never lost shows a lot about her inspirational character.
Zora’s professional life was unique and took her many places. She is best know as being a novelist, anthropologist, and folklorist (“Zora, HR” 1). She was successful despite her relatively short career. Her career started rather late in life, when she was thirty years old. Her first published work was in Howard University’s literary magazine. The magazine published her poem “O Night” and short story “John Redding Goes to Sea” (Fradin 42). The beginning of her career brought many triumphs. In 1924, three years after her works were first published in Howard University’s magazine, her short story, “Drenched in Light,” was published in the “Opportunity” magazine. The story received second prize in the magazine’s annual literary contest (“Zora Neale Hurston” 2). Her getting a second place prize so soon in her career is rather remarkable.
When she was thirty-four years old, Zora moved to New York City. “So, the first week of January, 1925, found me in New York with $1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope” (Fradin 46). However, she moved to New York at the right time. The Harlem Renaissance hit America during the 1920s and with it came vast amounts of powerful literature (Fradin 47). She was able to experience the Renaissance first hand and soak in the power. Zora was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance in 1925 (Gates and West 2). Harlem was the right place for her to be.
Zora was able to use the knowledge she gained through her adventures in life to write her stories. She used the knowledge she had of her community and people to enhance her works (“Zora Neale Hurston” 3). She also used many themes, some important themes being land and labor (“Zora Neale Hurston” 4). One can, in a sense, get to know Zora through her writing. Her writing style reflected her love of travel and nature and she used realistic dialogue (Fradin 43). Her distinct use of dialogue set her apart from other authors.
Zora was not just an author. She studied anthropology and used its themes in some of her writings. She studied under Franz Boas, who was the father of modern anthropology. He instructed her to do fieldwork in her hometown in hopes that it would preserve her heritage (“Zora Neale Hurston” 3). Zora’s heritage played an important influence on her literary work. As part of her anthropology studies, Zora went to New Orleans to study hoodoo. It interested her that women were allowed to play prominent roles in rituals (“Zora Neale Hurston” 3). She was able to save her heritage and find an important theme for her writings: women’s rights.
Zora had many of her writings published. Her work includes the novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine, published May 1934, and Mules and Men, a book full of folktales (“Zora Neale Hurston” 4). One award allowed for Zora to find fresh inspiration. Hurston was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed her to visit Haiti and Jamaica. In Haiti, Zora wrote what is perhaps her most famous work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She wrote it in seven weeks and it was published on the 18th of September, 1937. Also in Haiti, she wrote Tell My Horse, which was published in 1938 (“Zora Neale Hurston” 4). Zora also wrote “From Sun to Sun” and the play “All De live Long Day,” which helped her to realize her dream of working in folk theater (“Zora Neale Hurston” 3).
Through her literary works and characters, Zora Neale Hurston has inspired many people and changed America. Her works serve as a center for African-American, American, and women’s literature. She was the first novelist in America to write about an African American woman’s success in finding her voice and overcoming male oppression (Gates and West 130, 132). At times, it seemed like the world was against Zora’s gender and skin color. Being an African American woman during Zora’s time meant suffering from two-fold discrimination. In her literary works, Zora incorporated her feeling and ideals about racial division (“Zora, HR” 1). She was able to portray African Americans in a new way. Through her works, Zora was able to use African American voice as a complex language of narration (Gates and West 132). Hurston impacted many people, not just African Americans. She created a common identity for people through her creativity, her words, and her talents (“Zora, HR” 1). New writers drew imagination from Zora. Zora founded a magazine called “Fire!.” It was very inspirational and encouraged writers to embark on journeys to find their identities (“Zora, HR” 6). Through her magazine, Zora helped many writers find their way.
Even when she was discouraged, Zora kept pushing forward. Zora was also very inspirational in the way she refused to give up during hard times (Fradin 154). Zora’s influence wavered over time. The spark was revived by a book by Robert Hemenway and an article by Alice Walker (Fradin 154). The state of her publishings was not ideal when she died. When Zora died, none of her books were in print (Fradin 152). Even though her books were not in print at the time, Zora would eventually inspire new people with her unique style of writing. Alice Walker spoke highly of Zora’s intelligence: “A people do not forget their geniuses…” (“Zora Neale Hurston” 5). To have someone speak so highly of another is a great honor which, in this case, demonstrates how much of an impact Zora had on the people around her.
After her death, Zora’s influence began to gain speed. New authors who found Zora’s novels and short stories were astonished by the dialogue she had used (Fradin 152). Her works were found by the perfect people. Zora’s books were rediscovered in the early 1970s by African American women, authors, and teachers (Fradin 152). These people were able to share and teach her works in a way that insured their everlasting prevalence. Each year, Eatonville, Zora’s hometown, hosts a “Zora Neale Hurston Festival of Arts and Humanities” and Fort Pierce holds the “Zora Fest” (Fradin 155). Although her books were not being published at the time of her death, they gained popularity and made Zora an icon. Today, Hurston is the most widely taught African American women author (Gates and West 132). A main reason she is so widely taught is due to the way she used African American voices in her writing. The way she captured and imitated the voices is of great importance (Gates and West 132). No more are the days of her books not being published. Over five million copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God have been sold and it is part of many high school curricula (Fradin 155). In 2005, a movie based on Their Eyes Were Watching God was released and in 2008, PBS released a documentary about Zora (Fradin 155). Zora’s stories have made an impact on America that will never go away.
Zora Neale Hurston was an interesting and inspiring woman. She herself questioned how anyone could discriminate against her and deny themselves of her company. Zora was shaped by the adventures of her unpredictable childhood and early years of adulthood. She incorporated her values and ideals into the themes of her works, which would later inspire new generations of writers. Her role as an influential African American female writer changed America and its prejudice towards African Americans and females. Zora Neale Hurston incorporated the strong values she learned from her adventurous life into her professional life, which later inspired many generations of African American female writers.