Poetry & Art

Why Everyone Should Know About Zora Neale Hurston’s Life, Not Just Her Work

3 years ago, I was asked who influenced me most as a writer. At that time, I really had no true idea. I thought of the few books I’d read and the even fewer I’d actually liked. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and collections of poems written by Langston Hughes popped in my mind. While racism seemed the main character in most black writers’ work Zora had written a love and self-love story about characters who happened to be black. Langston’s works were written in everyday language about working-class black folks. I could understand and ponder each without going cross-eyed and needing to keep a dictionary handy. This was a big plus for me.

That year, I was offered the opportunity to present the two influences on my own work and goals, both literary and children’s based for a Black History Series at Michigan State University. I honestly hadn’t even delved deeply into who the authors were as people or even read all of their work. But having to do the presentation changed everything for me. Preparing for the presentation required me to do a lot of research to find more depth on their influence. The more I researched, the more I fell in love with Zora particularly. It wasn’t so much her literary works that knocked me off my feet, but her actual life.

Now I should share that I’m no lover of history. It’s probably the storyteller in me, but I need storylines with emotions and character arcs, settings I can visualize, etc. History is fact-based with the people seeming more as monuments of notable accomplishments than humans with actual life struggles, friendships, love affairs, self-doubt and all the other things we experience in our humanness. History has always been rather discouraging to me without a palpable person to relate to, flaws and all.

But then I ‘met’ Zora. Unlike many other people in history, she corresponded with letters throughout her active years from start to finish. There is a back story that provides context to her life milestones, events, personal relationships and accomplishments in her own words. It’s powerful in a similar way that social media is because it gives an intimate view into her real-life with emotion, struggles, beliefs, desires and even typos that prove great writers are rarely great editors or typists, which is a personal struggle of mine. Taking it a step further than social media, I’m confident that Zora would never imagine people, like me, pouring over her letters in search of making her even more authentic than even social media today. Reading huge collections about her life and then one with over 600 letters written by her, changed me for the better on a personal level as well as a creative level. It gave me the courage to fully commit to my life’s purpose not waiting for wealth, validation or others to understand completely what I am trying to accomplish. I’ve lived more audaciously in these last few years since finding Zora than I ever have. I think knowing her life could truly help the masses who seek to leave behind a legacy filled with purpose.

Here are a few facts about Zora Neale Hurston in an effort to pique your interest:

Zora was born in 1891 and had the unique privilege of growing up in the first incorporated black municipality in the US-Eatonville, FL. And her father was the mayor of that town 3 times, writing town laws that still exist today. Eatonville is the most popular setting in her books and many of her characters are based on fellow citizens she knew. Life in Eatonville informed Zora’s controversial political beliefs such as opposing Brown vs. Board (1954).

When her mother, who supported her precocious personality, died when she was 13 life became difficult. Her father remarried, while she was sent away to boarding school. When Zora had a violent encounter with her young stepmother, her father stopped supporting her. She was left to fend for herself, struggling to complete school and find stable housing which she never did in her life. Despite life’s challenges, Zora would go on to attend Howard University after lying about her age to be able to complete high school at Morgan Academy for free. She’d join Zeta Phi Beta at Howard and join the literary community gaining the attention of Alain Locke through the Stylus, a competitive student literary magazine, and attending artist gatherings.

Life would begin to look up in the mid-1920s when she would move to New York and submit short stories to The Crisis Magazine National competitions started by Charles S. Johnson of the National Urban League. Zora would win several awards and become a name to know in the literary community from then on. She’d gain the attention of big names like author Fannie Hurst, Anne Nathan Meyer and other white patrons of the arts such as Charlotte Osgood Mason who would become the benefactor for Zora, Langston, and artist Miguel Covarrubias.

Hurst and Meyer would help Zora get into Barnard College, the all-woman counterpart to Columbia University. Zora would be given a scholarship and assistance to find jobs to assist her with the requirements of living. She’d be the only black student on the entire campus and have the opportunity to road trip with Hurst which was an uncommon interracial experience at the time. Ever the standout, Zora would be brought to the attention of Franz Boas, the father of Anthropology, during her time at Barnard.

In 1928, Zora would graduate from Barnard fully enthralled in the world of Anthropology. But true to her personality, Zora would have to put her spin on it. At a time when Negros and their lives were recorded by anthropologists to support stereotypes, Zora would change that. She’d travel throughout the south, Nassau, Jamaica, Haiti and Honduras documenting the life of ‘primitives’ and their culture collecting songs, children’s games, traditions and more. Zora was a credentialed scientist and apprentice of Boas. She gave herself to her work, fully immersing in the lives and cultures of the people she studied. Her commitment was so serious that she even studied and became a voodoo priestess.

I was astounded that Zora did all of these things during the Harlem Renaissance at the height of Jim Crow and pervasive gender role inequality. Traveling and researching was Zora’s attempt to preserve the traditions of those in the African Diaspora and even the Indians of Honduras. When the hieroglyphics, technology, and astronomy of the ancient civilizations in Honduras hadn’t been tapped into yet, Zora traveled to Honduras to begin documenting it all with foresight that wouldn’t become fully unmasked until the 1970s-three decades after she took her expedition.

One could find the wonder in the way Zora studied and researched her subjects, contending with the most regarded anthropologist and serving as a pioneer for the appreciation of black culture. I was struck by reading her many letters to her patron who censored and limited Zora’s ability to reach her fullest potential, her friends, family, organizations that might fund her and figureheads who opposed her unjustly. In addition, reading her plans for her work, her aspirations (many of which went unaccomplished) and her love affairs, which she was notoriously private about, and even her reactions to criticisms of her and her work inspired me to no end.

Zora was an absolute genius fluidly moving through life as a scientist, playwright, director, folklorist, novelist, and one of the first filmmakers. Her unique perspective weaved a web in which she used her research for her art and her art to fuel further interest in her research.

But one might wrongfully assume that with all these accomplishments, that Zora was wealthy. She was not. In fact, Zora died on welfare as a ward of the State of Florida with an unmarked grave and all of her works (4 novels and 2 collections of folklore) out of print. When one reads her own words and her continual striving to do more work until her dying day, an understanding is born. Zora never made over $944 dollars in royalties for her books and struggled continually to make a living for herself, especially with her most publications taking place during the Great Depression. On top of that, she was notoriously private, often taking pride in even her own family not knowing when she was ill.

Polarizing, controversial, misunderstood, victimized and plagued by race and gender, even when she resisted this truth, Zora’s story has all the makings of many great works of fiction. Only it doesn’t have to be fiction at all because her life can be read in her own words to add vivid color to the facts about her presented on a historical and scholarly level. Zora gives us an intimate and true opportunity to know her and make up our minds for ourselves through all of her contradictions, complexity, and humanness. And even if we still don’t understand, we can relate to and appreciate a life that was lived with a determination to leave behind a legacy no matter the circumstances.

As for me, after discovering the souring of the best friend relationship between Langston and Zora, which I had not known about previously, I found myself entranced with Zora and the forces that shaped her life. I’ve read over 2500 pages on Zora, correspondence she wrote and her work-more than on any other subject. I present at the same Black History Series at Michigan State University annually and am expanding to other organizations and universities. When I present Zora, it is my goal that attendees leave with a new curiosity and appreciation for her life. And hopefully, a few even begin their journey into loving Zora: the gun-toting, cigarette smoking, enthralling storyteller who contributed to science and culture, in many ways known and unknown, who was a woman fighting to be an individual beyond race and gender, who chose her life’s purpose over marriage and who was certainly before her time.

Zora’s legacy is always being reshaped and compounded as new work and treasures are being found regularly. I’d like to thank the Zoraphile’s such as Valerie Boyd and Carla Kaplan who labored tirelessly to bring Zora to us in her own words. I’d like to thank the incomparable Alice Walker who brought Zora back to life after reading Robert Hemenway’s biography on her and feeling compelled to find her unmarked grave leading to a resurgence of the Queen of the Harlem Renaissance. To Robert Hemenway who made Zora human first in his autobiography. To Kathleen McGhee- Anderson who brought us Jump at the Sun, documentary bringing Zora’s story to life on film. Henry Louis Gates Jr. who has been a great gift by among other things being the first to collect Zora’s stories for contemporary readers and efforts to make black periodicals accessible to scholars in the Black Literature Index, which held 6 unpublished short stories that caused us all to re-examine Zora’s legacy as a southern writer. And lastly, to my sister who was an avid reader with a bookshelf that held Zora’s works. I stole Their Eyes Were Watching God off of your shelf and the seed that would become my love of Zora began.

by Rae Chesny

Rae Chesny is an award-winning social education expert, author, Johns Hopkins University Literary Consultant, and Zora Neale Hurston Scholar. Each year, she splits her time between researching, writing, and presenting on the literary great Zora Neale Hurston and writing her own titles. In January 2022, Rae served as the featured speaker for the 3-day Zora Neale Hurston: The Storyteller and Her Town hosted by the Eatonville Library and funded by the Florida Humanities Council during the annual Zora! Fest. Rae is a 2021 Baldwin House Urban Writer in Residence. She has been featured on American Black Journal, in Michigan Chronicle, and in Black Enterprise. In Summer 2022, she released a children’s book entitled Zora’s Garden and a memoir Dear Zora. For more on Rae, visit raechesny.com.


More From Poetry & Art

It’s called “Ghosted”

by Kristina Hopper

how are you doing how have you been

by Rachel Reed

Have You Noticed?

by Rachel Barduhn

Daughter of an Almond Mom

by Elizabeth Knightly

Stepped Over Buttons

by Rebecca Rumney

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *