Ridiculed in her life yet revered after death, Zora Neale Hurston has left an indelible legacy on the literary community and commanded an influential place in Black history.
Forgoing conventions of what it meant to be a woman and a black writer, Hurston was free-spirited, both professionally and personally. These qualities–which materialized in ambivalent politics and a commitment to using southern black vernacular when black intellectuals sought to divorce themselves from vestiges of the Jim Crow South–lent her a unique artistic voice. But they also left her vulnerable to criticism that she pandered to white audiences.
In the past few decades, however, thanks to the tenacious support of feminist writers like Alice Walker, Hurston’s work re-entered the black canon and made her primary work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, required reading in classrooms across the country. Now, with the release of Barracoon, Hurston’s work is again in the spotlight.
Here are five ways Hurston’s life and creative work expanded the concept of black literature and black womanhood:
A buzzword over the past few years-- thanks in part to black women calling out the failure of mainstream feminist movements to acknowledge the intersection of race and gender that poses unique challenges for black women-- the term “intersectionality” was coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, but the concept has been captured by black women for decades. Among them was Zora Neale Hurston.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, the protagonist’s grandmother Nanny laments America’s inequitable power structure: “maybe it's some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don't know nothin' but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don't tote it. He hand it to his women.” Nanny concludes with her most famous line: “[d]e nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” This phrase continues to resonate with black women across the globe.
Hurston approached her writing like both an anthropologist and creative figure. The acclaimed writer spent time in Louisiana, Florida, and Haiti collecting material for her first two novels. She published in academic journals, authoring articles on black dance and music.
Departing from norms of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston documented rural black speech and used entirely black southern vernacular in a number of her works. Some of her mentors, like Alain Locke, criticized her work as an amusing distraction for white audiences and lacking the political and intellectual heft of her colleagues. Richard Wright was even less forgiving, calling it a minstrel show.
It’s hard to determine where the line of unfiltered authenticity and performative blackness can be drawn, a dynamic that is still evident when every hood news interview becomes viral, a Tyler Perry movie becomes a hit, and a black southern mumble rap and dance craze captures our collective imagination. However, many would argue that there is room for a variety of images of blackness and we should not be limited to promoting one over the other out of mere respectability politics.
Promoting a view that led to her being roundly ostracized, Zora Neale Hurston pushed back against the Brown v. Board decision that led to federally mandated integration. In response to integration efforts in the 1950s, she argued that she sees “no tragedy in being too dark to be invited to a white school social affair.” This position would still be controversial today, though some may argue that integration played a part in dismantling concentrated black economic and political power and undermining culturally competent education.
Janie, the main character in Their Eyes Were Watching God, ultimately leaves the financial security of her first husband for a man over a decade younger. Hurston’s unconventional lead is twice-divorced and learns to prioritize her desires and dreams instead of subjugating them for societal approval. Hurston’s romantic life was similarly atypical of black women in the early to mid-1900s. Also twice-divorced, Hurston received writing and research opportunities that led her to travel for extended periods, often using her car as her home and a gun for security.
With the juxtaposed tropes of black women that required they be either asexual beings or hypersexual jezebels, Hurston featured a black woman who conformed to neither. Along with gaining spiritual and physical autonomy, Janie manages her own sexual agency in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie’s first husband treats her as his property, but she defies his authority and begins to appreciate her body absent the piercing eyes of the male gaze. Despite losing her third husband and love of her life by the novel’s end, Janie is alone, but not lonely. Hurston writes her as a complex figure who continues to search for her individuality and sexuality, without limiting her to expectations that she must be virtuous. Janie is allowed to merely be human.