Zora Neale Hurston: A Rediscovered Treasure
In my first year of college, a lot of books floated in and out of my awareness. I tried to muddle through all the junk I was supposed to absorb and spew back, then forget about at the end of the semester. One book really stuck with me, so much so that I finished it two days after it was assigned.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston was the story that captured my attention so strongly. I had never heard of this woman or any of her works. We learned that she was a prolific African American author, most active during a period known as the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston was born January 7, around 1890 in Notasulga, Alabama. She apparently was known to have a penchant for embellishing the truth, including about her age, so her exact birth date is somewhat in question. After a young life that involved moving between several relatives’ homes, she eventually wound up in New York. Before her career as a writer, anthropologist, and folklorist, Hurston worked many odd jobs including being a maid for an actress in the Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. Through publishing various works, starting at the Howard University school paper, Hurston rose to fame. Not just as a storyteller, but an authority on African American folklore. She gathered tales throughout the American South, the Caribbean, and Latin America, and published Men and Mules as a culmination of her efforts.
Hurston was not without her critics, however. Prominent African American writer Richard Wright was especially harsh, claiming her “minstrel style” was just a way to pander to white audiences and that she did not represent the true “Black American” experience. I think he was mad because some of Hurston’s male characters were kind of foolish in their ways. Additionally, he was an angry man and was determined to show the “Black Experience” as one of exclusion and separation, such as in his powerful novel, Native Son. Hurston’s tales showed how, regardless of color or background or station in life, we were all human and subject to all the same human frailties and foibles. Wright wanted no part of this conciliatory feeling and chose to vilify Hurston. I am not saying Wright was incorrect; being white in the late 20th century gives me no perspective on the life of a black man at the beginning of it. Wright’s tales are full of life and vitality, just as Hurston’s were. The conflict between these two authors’ styles comes down to a difference between men and women.
Since humans first gathered together, men have been fighters. Against their environment, against each other, against social injustice. Women will usually opt for a more conciliatory approach. How can we work together? How can we get along? How can we make sure no one gets hurt? Neither approach is the only way to go. Many historical examples exist where diplomacy and compromise were the answer. Other instances required taking a stand and taking up arms, striking back to protect or defend what is right.
Both Wright and Hurston were seeking to make things better for African Americans through their stories, they just chose divergent paths. The shame of it is that their artistic differences set them at odds and perhaps took away from each other’s messages.
Sadly, Hurston’s career ended much quieter than it began. She died in 1960 in a welfare home, and many of her writings were destroyed. Her books went out of print for several years and only through academic pursuits into African American literature has her treasure trove of tales been revived. In 2005, a tv movie was made of the novel I enjoyed so much in college, starring Halle Berry. It wasn’t bad, but like so many times happens, it just didn’t hold a candle to the book. Still, it helped fuel interest in the enigmatic Hurston.
I believe Hurston was an important writer that everyone should experience. She wove beautiful prose, and she used dedicated scholarship to capture snapshots of history for us to consider long after she had passed. Most of all, I agree with her messages of how similar we are regardless of the color of our skin. Men do silly and reckless things out of pride. Women can gossip meanly when they feel another woman may be acting better than everyone else. Men like to be in charge, even when they may not know what they are doing. Women like things to be orderly and get out of sorts when they aren’t right.
The point is, we can all identify with characters Hurston has created. And we can all make things better when we realize that even though we may look different, inside we are all humans and can work together for all our well being.