The Literary Unburial of Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston: African American writer and folklorist, sovereign of the Harlem Renaissance, filmmaker, poet, playwright, and anthropologist. Hurston can be heralded as one of the greatest African American writers of the 20th century, with her works now selling almost 500,000 copies each year.

And yet – for decades after her death – her grave was left unmarked. When she died in 1960, she was living on welfare and in poverty, and her name is too often lamented in African American studies and literary canons. How such a prolific author and all-round remarkable woman can die in this condition, buried in an unmarked grave, certainly serves as a lesson in the racial climate of 20th-century American society.

Novelist, essayist, and poet Alice Walker, in the introduction to her 1975 article in Ms. Magazine titled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” captures the reality clearly: Hurston’s “unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida” is a resting place “generally symbolic of the Black writer’s fate in America.” Despite her genius and success, Hurston, as a Black woman in America, was left to rot, outside of the memory of America’s great literary canon.

But Walker made it her mission to revive the works of Zora Neale Hurston. Walker’s discovery happened accidentally, while she was researching for a short story about voodoo, in which she stumbled upon Hurston’s authority in the subject. Walker described this discovery as being “like a golden key to a store-house of varied treasure.” Seeing Hurston perhaps as a spiritual guide, but mostly a woman too important to be missed, Walker professed that “we are a people. And a people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children, and if necessary, bone by bone.”
And so, Hurston’s literary unburial began.

Zora grew up in the first all-Black town in America: Eatonville, Florida. It is a place with a rich and diverse history – the first African American municipality successfully established by freedmen and women following the American Civil War. Eatonville had a great effect on Hurston, and is often as much of a character in her stories as it is a place. Being an all-Black town, Eatonville enabled Hurston to hold a unique perspective on her heritage and ethnicity. There, it was as if she did not exist in a racial minority, and because of this, she was gifted with a wholly unique experience of growing up as a Black woman in 1890s-1900s American society.  
Eatonville allowed Hurston to be independent (something which was rare for Black women at the time): she would often drive around in her little red car alone, collecting stories, talking to people and recording what they told her of their lives. The place fuelled her works and imagination. Eatonville can be seen in so many of her stories; in intimate scenes of conversations on back-porch benches, in the synaesthetic pound cakes and homemade lemonade, and in fishing in Lake Sybelia – Hurston achieves a sense of transcendence which alights in the mundane, but which is no less beautiful for it.

The significance of Eatonville on Zora Neale Hurston can be seen in perhaps her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Set predominantly in Eatonville, Hurston enables a presentation of African Americans not dictated by their relationship to white Americans, but simply (and refreshingly) through their relationships with each other. This is the beauty of Hurston; as her biographer Valorie Boyd points out, “what she wrote about was the lives of regular, ordinary, self-educated Black folk. But she wrote about their lives when white people weren’t looking.” In her works, Zora often removed white antagonists from the story completely, releasing her characters from a narrative which would have therefore always placed them in subordination (for surely Hurston realised, that if the only role available for Black characters is the subordinate role, this in itself compromises part of their humanity).

Their Eyes Were Watching God follows the character Janie Crawford as she endeavours to find happiness and love in a society that is wholly indifferent to the struggles of Black people, and Black women in particular. Written in the 1930s, when African Americans were disproportionately suffering the very worst of America’s Great Depression, a story like this was revolutionary, and a reminder that the story of a Black woman’s quest for love is as important as any other. Entered into the marriage market by her grandmother when she was only sixteen, the reader accompanies Janie in the ebbs and flows of her life. We see Janie beaten, loved, used, and berated until finally, by the end of the novel, she permits herself to step completely outside of marriage, and its “male defined circuit of exchange.”

Hurston’s greatness lies in her authentic narrative voice. Janie is not “unerringly strong and soulful,” instead, she makes mistakes and is often brash. The men in Hurston’s novel are equally complex, who on the one hand can be generous and kind, but on the other are plagued by insecurity, and who take out their feelings of inferiority most often on the people closest to them. Hurston’s presentation of African Americans is multi-faceted like all people inherently are. Her characters are not written to be consumable for the white gaze (a phrase coined by Toni Morrison), and their faults are only symptoms of their humanity. She does not fall into the traps of idealism or oversimplification. This would, as Hurston clearly identifies, be a disservice to African Americans, who for centuries have been typified and stereotyped more than often to their own detriment.

Importantly, Janie’s story is a universal one. Although it is very specific, about a rural Black southern self-educated woman, her story is essentially a journey of self-discovery and acceptance, and it is a journey that we all – whatever our race, gender, ethnicity, or creed – are bound to face.

Hurston’s choice of dialect (African American Vernacular English) provides Janie with a voice that belongs completely to her, in which she is free to communicate her struggles and joys even against the grain of society. In her work, Hurston lifts African American Vernacular English to the level of literature, recognising its poetic potential at a time when no one else would. Their Eyes Were Watching God manages to weave this poetic narrative into a much deeper discussion of race, class, colourism, and gender issues; making it so much more than just a tragic love story.

The novel ends cyclically, with a conversation on a back-porch bench between Janie and her friend, Phoebe Watson. The dynamic of their relationship presents a staunch contrast to the nature of heterosexual relationships presented earlier in the novel. The final image of Phoebe washing Janie’s sore feet, a sign of tenderness and affection, captures a “spirit and hope for some new community, based on sisterhood.”

In her 1928 essay, “How It Feels to be Colored Me,” published in World Tomorrow Magazine, Hurston wrote, “Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It astonishes me.” But, away from her life in Eatonville, Zora Neale Hurston was painfully reminded of her “supposed inferiority.” In 1960, Their Eyes Were Watching God had proved a commercial failure, two of her other novels were rejected and she found herself engulfed in mounting debt. Surely the circumstances in which she found herself at the end of her life reflect the racial climate in 20th-century America. For one of America’s most talented writers to lie for decades in an unmarked, overgrown, and segregated grave shows just how indifferent the Black woman was to the nation.

But, this particular literary unburial, and the political and social landscape which must exist to enable such an unburial, should give us hope. Her works, and indeed her life, are integral to our modern understanding of the struggles inside beleaguered African American communities, and specifically the Black female experience in 20th-century America. Yet, if the rediscovery of Zora is a kind of de-silencing of Black history and Black voices, then we must now create space to amplify those voices and bring these forgotten histories into the mainstream - which includes seeing works by Black female authors embraced in our curriculums. Such works are crucial in today’s world and political landscape, reminding us all of our shared similarities, rather than our differences.

Photo Credit: Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston: Eatonville, Florida from Florida Memory via Wikimedia Commons