An empowered Black woman from Florida
By Ginette Curry, Ph.D.
“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negro hood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it.” — Zora Neale Hurston (“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)
In 1928, Zora Neale Hurston, one of the leading literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance, published her compelling essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” in which she describes her strong sense of identity and pride in herself. At a time when Black people did not fully exercise their civil rights and when segregation between Blacks and Whites was an institution in the South, she was an empowered woman.
Several decades before the women’s right movement, she followed in the footsteps of her many outstanding predecessors such as: Harriet Tubman (1820-1913, civil rights activist, American abolitionist and humanitarian), Ida B. Wells (1862-1931, journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist and feminist) and Elizabeth Freeman (1742-1829) who was among the first slaves to file and to win a freedom suit in Massachusetts.
Hurston was a woman ahead of her time. She was not only a writer but also an anthropologist who was not afraid to live on her own terms and to defy the status quo.
At three, her family left Notasulga, Alabama and traveled to Eatonville, central Florida, where she grew up. She was raised in an all-African American town that was one of the first to be incorporated by Black people in the United States.
In her book Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (2003), literary critic Valerie Boyd explains that Hurston loved Eatonville so much that sometimes she claimed it as her birth-place. In 1897, her father was elected mayor of the town and later, he became preacher of its largest congregation at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church.
In her illuminating narrative “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston reveals her very personal rise from poverty to literary fame and clearly articulates her empowered voice as a Black woman from the South. Despite the many challenges she faced, she was able to overcome them and she became a shining star of the Harlem Renaissance.
Life was not easy for Hurston, but she built an inner shell that protected her from the challenges she encountered. She lost her mother when she was nine. In Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston acknowledges that when her mother died, it was the end of a phase: “I was old before my time with grief of loss, of failure, of remorse of failure.”
Soon after, her father married Mattie Moge, a young woman only six years older than her. They disliked each other. Her stepmother was instrumental in her being sent away to boarding school in Jacksonville. It was during that period in her life when she first experienced racism. She was made conscious of her difference because of the color of her skin: “Jacksonville made me know that I was a little colored girl…These white people had funny ways” (Dust Tracks on a Road). Though acknowledging “she felt her race” and she was perceived as “different” by White people, she refused to engage in self-pity. I have admired her fierce individualistic personality. She wrote outside the stereotype of Black people of her time and refused to complain about her woes. Instead, she claimed she had been in “Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots,” but she “stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows” with a harp and a sword in her hands. Her main weapon was her sense of humor. Therefore, she did not have time to dwell in gloominess and pity the fate of Black people.
Her father eventually stopped paying her tuition, and she had to leave before graduating. Later, she worked as a maid to the lead singer in a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan theatrical company. After her stay in Jacksonville, she experienced five years of wandering, working odd jobs as a waitress and manicurist as well as being part of the Gilbert and Sullivan Company. In 1917, she lied about her age in order to qualify for public education. At the age of 26 and in only one year, she completed high school in Maryland. Shortly after, she started attending Howard University in Washington, D.C while working to sustain herself.
Despite all that, she had a strong sense of her own identity and had a great influence on a new generation of prominent African American female writers such as Maya Angelou who followed Hurston’s lead to speak her own voice. According to Angelou in Dust Tracks on a Road’s foreword, “Hurston, who claimed to have been born in 1901 but whose records show her birth year was a decade earlier, most certainly lived through the race riots and other atrocities of her time…The southern air around her most assuredly crackled with the flames of Ku Klux Klan raiders, but Ms. Hurston does not allude to any ugly incident.” Nevertheless, she was determined not to let racial in-justice deter her from her path.
Throughout the latter half of her essay “How it Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston shows her awareness of race in her vivid description of the Cabaret where her “color comes” and through the image “beside the waters of the Hudson’ where she is ‘a dark rock surged upon.”
Despite everything, she distanced herself from the Black voices of social protest. I keep thinking it might have been a way to cope with her environment because she occasionally separated herself from the notion of being Black, stating “at certain times, I have no race.” She reshaped her identity after her travels to South America, Jamaica and Haiti and became the ‘cosmic Zora’ who belonged to no race or time.
Despite everything, Hurston persevered and rose to prominence as one of the most influential African American woman of the 20th century. After attending Howard University, one of the most prestigious Black colleges, she published a short story “John Redding Goes to Sea” in the Howard’s literary magazine The Black Stylus and three years later, she was recognized by the Black literary community with the publication of the short story “Drenched in Light” in Opportunity Magazine. She won a scholarship to Barnard College, New York and in 1926, she met anthropologist Frantz Boas who became her mentor and had a major influence on her career. At the age of 35, with no jobs, no friends but a lot of hope, she came to Harlem and rented a boarding house where artists used to live.
At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, she was a literary icon who refused to mold her experience by the perception of others. With her friend Langston Hughes, she founded the literary journal Fire that published the works of young Black artists. Her anthropological research in the Black communities of Harlem, Florida and the Caribbean reflected in her numerous books such as Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States collected in the late 1920s during her travels to the Gulf States, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938). They were the products of her extensive and profound knowledge of Black folklore and culture and its rich African American oral tradition. As a matter of fact, in the 1920s and 1930s, she traveled extensively through the South, collecting stories and returning to Eatonville, Florida to record the oral histories, sermons, songs and folktales of her people dating back to slavery. She remembered hearing them as a child. Hurston’s Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica also provides an authentic picture of customs and ceremonies based on her personal experiences in Haiti and Jamaica, where she became an initiate rather than just an observer of voodoo practices.
Though she ended up in poverty in a public assistance St. Lucie County welfare home and died of heart disease, Hurston is remembered for her accomplishments and her creativity. She dubbed herself the “Queen of Niggerati,” the Black intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance who were defining their own version of the American dream. Finally, Alice Walker payed tribute to Hurston by rediscovering her unmarked grave site in Fort Pierce as well as her literary works such as Their Eyes Were Watching God and her legacy. Hurston was a woman intensely dedicated to the preservation of her culture and a pioneer of feminism. In many ways, she paved the way to new voices of female empowerment in the African American literary community. Walker has acknowledged the power of her words and once commented: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”