A genius of the South. An embarrassment to the race. Singular American author; craven literary con artist. She was a loving champion of Black vernacular; she was a mundane writer of facile prose. A misunderstood cultural icon; a perfect darkie. Survivor. Victim. Trickster, liar. These are the various lenses through which generations of critics, fans, scholars, and detractors have assessed the life of Zora Neale Hurston. All of these perspectives are accurate, and not one of them is true. But these various portals lead to two important questions: Who was Zora Neale Hurston really? And how did such an exceptional person—the most famous Black woman artist of her time—wind up penniless and buried in an unmarked grave?
All life writing is an attempt to fairly and fully assess the meaning of a life. The job of the biographer is to present a comprehensive character, a known person. This is the goal. But the true story unfolds along the way; there is no exact point of arrival. Just as it is impossible to capture the full mystery of the ocean in a snapshot, there is no single lens that can contain the totality of a human life. Biography raises more questions than it answers. Among them is: How do we come to know anyone at all?
For a comprehensive and accurate story of her life, we cannot rely on Hurston herself. For starters, Hurston claimed she was born in 1901, when in fact she was born ten years earlier. Hurston biographer Valerie Boyd describes this particular liberty Hurston took with her life story (and there were others) as a “backward leap” that she made “with little compunction and with only a slight nod to vanity.” But in this small, seemingly cosmetic choice is a suggestion of the larger cultural forces that shaped Hurston’s life, ones that ultimately paralyzed her career. Or maybe this is just the story I choose to tell.
The fact that Zora Neale Hurston was older than her Harlem Renaissance peers perhaps accounts, in part, for why she was bent on preserving what was old while most other writers of this period were consumed with what was new. As an artist and social scientist, Hurston devoted her life to capturing and remembering Black ways and lives of an earlier generation, cultures and communities whose values did not conform to modern ideals about progress. Her characters stayed put and worked the land, picking beans and cotton in the middle of the Great Migration as millions of Black people set out to leave the life of sharecropping as far behind them as geographically and psychologically possible. The Harlem Renaissance—like every cultural and artistic movement in American history—was a young person’s movement. It is not a coincidence that the star of the movement, Langston Hughes, was only twenty-three when he rose to fame (America loves a wunderkind). The entire cultural and political moment in the evolution of Black identity was anchored in fantasies about racial regeneration, as symbolized in the concept of the “new Negro.”
The term “new Negro” started to circulate in the Black press as early as 1919. Two generations out from emancipation, Black people were naturally eager to put the past to bed. One thing was certain: For the new Negro to be born, the old Negro had to die, even if that death was imaginary. Langston Hughes performed such an execution in his 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which is widely considered to be the signal manifesto of the era. In the essay, Hughes identifies himself and his work with a rebellion he describes as characteristic of “younger Negro artists.” In order to make his point, he indirectly refers to Countee Cullen, his friend and fellow poet, as having been brainwashed by old Negro ways, or, as Hughes put it in the short-lived 1926 arts journal Fire!!, by the “dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past.” Cullen’s crime? A statement he made to the Brooklyn Eagle explaining his ambitions to be seen as a “POET and not NEGRO POET.” Hughes described Cullen’s position—unfairly and simplistically, I think—as boiling down to a desire to be white. A Black writer can feel ambivalent, or unsettled, about the relationship between art, race, and politics and still be Black.
In the evolution of Black cultural history, each new generation defines its racial authenticity by rejecting the strategies of the past. This impulse is not exclusive to the issue of race. In fact, it is a very American impulse to ruthlessly discard what is old and run breathlessly toward what is new. The concept of the new woman was born around the same time as the new Negro. Nella Larsen, Hurston’s contemporary and author of Passing, explored the dilemma of the new woman in her fiction. Her novels are peopled with flappers living in a modern world defined by an emergent consumer culture, which came into being after the First World War and permanently altered the way we move in the world and interact with one other as human beings. While Larsen and other Harlem Renaissance writers and artists were captivated by the new, Hurston turned her creative attention to the past, exhaustively exploring and documenting a Black vitality that thrived outside of the modern culture of consumption. It was the world of her childhood, and a world that Black cultural gatekeepers of her generation wanted to forget. But the new Negro depends upon the old Negro for its identity. Similarly, blackness and whiteness are inextricably intertwined.
For most critics, the problem with Zora Neale Hurston, aside from her commitment to an outdated vision of Blackness, lies in her relationship with whiteness. She could be cordial, playful, and obsequious in her relationships with whites. The childhood she describes in her 1942 memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, is one characterized by openness and possibility, even when it comes to white people. Especially when it comes to white people. Young Zora’s home life is spoiled by her father’s power and rage, which he reserved exclusively for her, his cheeky, undauntable daughter. “It did not do for Negroes to have too much spirit,” Hurston explains of her father’s attempts to squash her. “He was always threatening to break mine or kill me in the attempt.”
After her mother, it is the white people in her life that Hurston credits with stoking her imagination, instilling pride of self, offering life lessons, and giving her a safe place to land. “In the entire recounting of experiences with white people, she let no shadow of unpleasantness darken her serenity,” Darwin Turner writes about Hurston in his 1971 book, In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity. Because she did not describe her relationship to whiteness as wholly oppositional, Hurston’s very authenticity as a Black artist and a Black woman was held in suspicion for generations, thanks to prominent Black male writers who dismissed and condemned her. The title of Turner’s chapter on Hurston is “The Wandering Minstrel.”
This chapter on Hurston is a nearly fifty-page dissection of Hurston’s creative work, her politics, and especially her relationships with white people through an absolute and unforgiving lens. “In Dust Tracks she implied that the road of her life was a series of stepping stones generously provided by white patrons,” Turner writes. Hurston’s portrayals of her relationships with whites made Maya Angelou uncomfortable too. “Why did Hurston write Dust Tracks on a Road?” Angelou asks in her 2006 introduction to the book. “Whose song was she singing?”
A substantial number of Hurston’s letters are praise songs to her one-time benefactor, Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white Park Avenue matron. “Flowers to you—the true conceptual Mother—not a biological accident.… If the high gods in space shall find anything worthy in me, then it is of you,” begins one letter from Hurston to Mason. Mason, the widow of a well-established New York physician, had generations of inherited wealth at her disposal. Something was missing in her life, however—an essential connection to nature, something closer to the id than the ego, concepts that had only recently been popularized by Sigmund Freud. Black people were like Native Americans, Mason thought, all of them children of “unspoiled” races who, she wrote in 1907, “live so near to God that truth flows to them from a still untainted channel.” Mason helped ethnomusicologist Natalie Curtis publish The Indians’ Book that same year. She then turned her resources and attention to the preservation of a disappearing Black culture. Her partner in this quest was Alain Locke, a philosophy professor who had been Hurston’s mentor at Howard University, where she spent her undergraduate years. Locke had created a literary magazine at Howard, the Stylus, which published one of Hurston’s short stories, and had introduced Hurston and Mason. He also introduced Mason to Langston Hughes, who, like Hurston, would join a circle of protégés that included sculptor Richmond Barthé and caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias. They were all instructed to address Mason as “Godmother.”
“I went to see Mrs. Mason and I think that we got on famously. God, I hope so!” Hurston wrote to Hughes in September 1927. Hurston was relieved and excited to have Mason’s financial support, but she was also intrigued by Godmother herself. Mason was not your average Park Avenue blue blood; she had lived among Plains Indians in the early 1900s while supporting Curtis’s work. Hurston and Mason had a spiritual connection. Mason could read her mind, Hurston claimed, and dressed her down when she didn’t like what her godchild was thinking. “You are dissipating your powers in things that have no real meaning,” Mason had once told her. A surviving photograph shows a softly outlined Mason in pearls and granny glasses. Apparently, this harmless-looking dowager had a tongue like a “knout, cutting off your outer pretenses, and bleeding your vanity like a rusty nail. She was merciless to a lie, spoken, acted or insinuated,” Hurston wrote in her memoir. While Mason espoused the supremacy of Black vitality, she didn’t see the irony in the fact that she, a white woman, had appointed herself as a guardian of that vitality against white corruption. During their first encounter, Hurston told Mason that she and Hughes had talked about composing a folk opera together. “She likes the idea of the opera,” Hurston told him, “but says that we must do it with so much power that it will halt all these spurious efforts on the part of white writers.” Hurston, Hughes, and Mason were aware of the wild success that Eugene O’Neill, DuBose Heyward, and other white artists had achieved in their own theatrical portrayals of Black life.
The contract Mason drew up for Hurston was severe and unforgiving. In her biography of Hurston, Valerie Boyd explains that the contract provided Hurston with two hundred dollars a month over two years to “collect all information possible, both written and oral, concerning the music, poetry, folklore, literature, hoodoo, conjure, manifestations of art and kindred subjects relating to and existing among the North American negroes.” Hurston would be provided with a car and a motion-picture camera to facilitate her research. Ultimately, Hurston stayed on Mason’s payroll until March 1931, with money trickling in on an unfinished project until the following year.
Their agreement explicitly stated that Hurston would be acting only as Mason’s agent, her eyes and ears in the field. Mason was drawn to Hurston’s gifts but she wanted final say in how she used them. She did not want Hurston to seek attention for her work, and yet Mason herself wanted to remain in the shadows.
For the five years of their formal relationship, Hurston navigated the tempestuous waters of the old woman’s personality with wit, passion, and subservience. She referred to herself as “your little pickanniny” in her letters to Mason, whom she hailed as “dearest, little mother of the primitive world.”
Was this a trick? Some rhetorical, subtle sleight of hand? It is hard to reconcile the Hurston in these letters with the Hurston that we want to see. So, we look for evidence of something else, something to confirm what we want to believe about her. Carla Kaplan, editor of Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, invented a term to capture the range of Hurston’s dissatisfying behaviors. What looks like plain subservience, Kaplan calls “feather-bed resistance.”
“‘Feather-bed resistance’ is not just play,” Kaplan explains. “It is deception necessitated by social inequality…Hurston explores secrecy and dissembling as fundamental to a tradition of double voice and masking, devices central to African American literature since its inception.” Kaplan borrows the phrase from Hurston herself, specifically from Mules and Men, Hurston’s 1935 collection of folklore. “The Indian resists curiosity by a stony silence,” Hurston writes. “The Negro offers a featherbed resistance. That is, we let the probe enter, but it never comes out. It gets smothered under a lot of laughter and pleasantries.” According to Kaplan, Hurston’s groveling is only an elaborate mask. It’s tempting to look at it this way, but it’s only another lens, no more accurate than any other.
Hurston wasn’t being a trickster or employing a mask when, a year after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that struck down racial segregation in public schools, for instance, she famously wrote an op-ed opposing the ruling. “It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association,” she wrote. The prominent journalist Roi Ottley denounced her in a Chicago Defender article titled “Handkerchief Head, Female.” Hurston had “placed herself squarely on the side of the unreconstructed white supremacists,” Ottley wrote. Hurston viewed the Supreme Court decision as an insult. She took umbrage at the idea that a formal mandate would require “somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them.” Hurston’s views on desegregation were consistent with her entire creative mission, which was to codify and celebrate Black identity and culture as unique social experiences and expressions. Certainly, she did not anticipate that her words would provoke the wrath that they did. Ottley pronounced her views on this topic to be “a disservice to her race.” Even Hurston’s most notable champion, Alice Walker, recoiled from the way Hurston wrote about race. Walker confesses that Hurston’s most famous essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” in which Hurston describes slavery as “the price I paid for civilization,” made her “flesh crawl.”
Hurston published “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” in 1928. “I am not tragically colored,” she wrote, and decried “the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal.” As such, she found herself increasingly isolated in the 1930s, during her creative prime, as protest literature, with its grim depictions of Black life, dominated the popular landscape. A key example was Richard Wright’s first book, Uncle Tom’s Children, whose stories revolve mainly around racist violence, and which was met with unquestionable critical and commercial success in 1938.
By then, Hurston had published Their Eyes Were Watching God, an ambitious novel whose broad scope is revealed in the first paragraphs: “So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead.” Replete with Biblical allusions, Their Eyes is a novel not only about a single woman but about the common predicament of being human. It is a story about marriage and intimacy, as well as a Black folk iteration of the classic tale of a singular hero on a quest. Like every great novel, Their Eyes is about much more than what it appears to be on the surface. Unfortunately, critics of the book found it trivial, even harmful.
“Miss Hurston can write,” Wright conceded stiffly in a review of the book, “but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley.” Less a review than a denunciation, Wright goes on to say that “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.”
Hurston was probably not surprised by Wright’s dim view of Their Eyes Were Watching God. She didn’t much care for his work either. “This is a book about hatreds,” she wrote in her Saturday Review assessment of Uncle Tom’s Children. She conceded that Wright had his own singular gifts. (“Some of his sentences have the shocking power of a forty-four,” she wrote.) But his characters were “elemental and brutish,” adding that “[n]ot one act of understanding and sympathy comes to pass in the entire work.”
While Wright’s misapprehension of her work and creative ambitions may have rankled, Hurston was furious when she read a review of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Alain Locke. His description of Their Eyes as “folklore fiction at its best” was faint praise in a review that ultimately dismissed Hurston for her failure to produce what Locke called “social document fiction.” Locke was more than a friend; he was someone she had looked up to. A distracted wife, an undependable lover, and not even a very good friend much of the time, by her own admission, Hurston had always been a diligent and faithful student.
So, if the Wright review stung, Locke’s words hit her with, well, the shocking power of a forty-four. She rushed to compose a response, which she titled “The Chick with One Hen.” Locke knew nothing of literary criticism, she said, but “in his eagerness to attract attention he rushes at any chance to see his name in print, however foolish his offering.” She called his review “an example of rank dishonesty” and “a conscious fraud.” Even more, she wrote, Locke knew “less about Negro life than anyone in America. I will send my toe-nails to debate him on what he knows about Negroes and Negro life, and I will come personally to debate him on what he knows about literature on the subject. This one who lives by quotations trying to criticize people who live by life!!” Hurston dashed the piece off to Opportunity magazine, which, probably wisely, declined to publish it.
Whatever Wright, Locke, and other gatekeepers who deemed Hurston the wrong kind of Black started in response to Their Eyes Were Watching God had devastating material consequences for its author. The book was a commercial failure, selling fewer than five thousand copies in Hurston’s lifetime.
After Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston published two more novels, the ambitious but disorganized Moses, Man of the Mountain, in 1939, and the equally ambitious but saccharine Seraph on the Suwanee, her last published novel, in 1948. Both books were largely dismissed by reviewers, with the “growing gang of black male critics,” as Boyd describes them, making their usual criticism: Zora Neale Hurston was bad for the race. In the eyes of Ralph Ellison and Wright, according to Boyd, Moses served as “more evidence of her alleged refusal to deal with racial issues or contemporary political concerns.” Most Black reviewers simply ignored Seraph, which featured a white woman as its protagonist.
Though some white reviewers praised Seraph, Hurston wasn’t able to enjoy the good press for very long. A week following its publication, someone leaked to a national Black newspaper the fact that a ten-year-old boy, prompted by his mother, had accused Hurston a month earlier of having molested him in the past. Black newspapers pounced.
Boyd describes the backlash that ensued. The headlines stole phrases from Seraph on the Suwanee: “Reviewer of Author’s Latest Book Notes Character Is ‘Hungry for Love’” blared a headline from the Baltimore Afro-American. Another one read: “Did She Want ‘Knowing and Doing’ Kind of Love?” Other headlines stole language from a positive review of Seraph on the Suwanee in the Herald Tribune, twisting the original language to make Hurston appear brazenly indecent, running an old photograph that featured her in a low-cut dress, mugging for the camera. Hurston fell into a suicidal depression. Hughes and his close friend, poet and Fisk University librarian Arna Bontemps, gossiped in letters about “one of [our] leading lady writers of color (not a poet, thank the Lord)” being forced to stand trial “on a charge that should hardly be written down.”
Hurston continued to work, but her health quickly deteriorated. She died in January 1960, and was laid to rest without a marker in a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida. At the time, all her books were out of print. In 1971, Darwin Turner wrote that it was “eccentric but perhaps appropriate” that Hurston “return[ed] to Florida to take a job as a cook and maid for a white family and to die in poverty.” In other words, according to Turner, Hurston got what she deserved.
And that was the scholarly memorial to the life of Zora Neale Hurston until Alice Walker published “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” for Ms. magazine in 1975. A petition at that year’s Modern Language Association convention got Their Eyes Were Watching God back into print a few years later. “In that same year at a conference on minority literature held at Yale and directed by Michael Cooke,” Mary Helen Washington remembered in 1990, “the few copies of Their Eyes that were available were circulated for two hours at a time to conference participants, many of whom were reading the novel for the first time.” Washington writes of a heated discussion at the MLA conference in San Francisco, chaired by Robert B. Stepto, about Janie’s voice during the courtroom scene in the novel. Washington writes: “What was most remarkable about the energetic and at times heated discussion that followed Stepto’s and Walker’s remarks was the assumption of everyone in that room that Their Eyes was a shared text, that a novel that just ten years earlier was unknown and unavailable had entered into critical acceptance as perhaps the most widely known and the most privileged text in the African-American literary canon.” In 2019, the BBC identified Their Eyes Were Watching God as one of the top 100 novels that “shaped our world.”
“We need everybody and all that we are,” writes June Jordan. “We need to know and make known the complete, constantly unfolding, complicated heritage that is our Black experience.” We all contain multitudes; in each of us lives the trickster and the sycophant, a model citizen and a reprobate. We simultaneously forge our own unique paths and live as creatures produced by the larger world.
Every life story is singular. As singular as Hurston’s is, however, it is not unique in the annals of Black literary history. Her predecessor Phillis Wheatley died under similar conditions, from poverty and malnutrition, which continue to disproportionally plague Black Americans. Zora Neale Hurston and Phillis Wheatley: both literary pioneers who saw their careers rise and plummet, both considered “race traitors” at a certain point in time, both of whose careers have been rescued posthumously. New generations have new stories to tell about the two of them, as if death itself was the condition necessary for these rebirths to take place.
In an essay called “The Welcome Table,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes the painful judgments that devastated James Baldwin during the Black Power Movement and shaped his later writing. “We like our heroes dead,” Gates Jr. concludes. Maybe that’s because after they’re gone, we can make them into who we need them to be.