“I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.”
- Letter from Zora Neale Hurston to Countee Cullen
Zora Neale Hurston knew how to make an entrance. On May 1, 1925, at a literary awards dinner sponsored by Opportunity magazine, the earthy Harlem newcomer turned heads and raised eyebrows as she claimed four awards: a second-place fiction prize for her short story “Spunk,” a second-place award in drama for her play Color Struck, and two honorable mentions.
The names of the writers who beat out Hurston for first place that night would soon be forgotten. But the name of the second-place winner buzzed on tongues all night, and for days and years to come. Lest anyone forget her, Hurston made a wholly memorable entrance at a party following the awards dinner. She strode into the room–jammed with writers and arts patrons, black and white–and flung a long, richly colored scarf around her neck with dramatic flourish as she bellowed a reminder of the title of her winning play: “Colooooooor Struuckkkk!” Her exultant entrance literally stopped the party for a moment, just as she had intended. In this way, Hurston made it known that a bright and powerful presence had arrived. By all accounts, Zora Neale Hurston could walk into a roomful of strangers and, a few minutes and a few stories later, leave them so completely charmed that they often found themselves offering to help her in any way they could.
Gamely accepting such offers–and employing her own talent and scrappiness–Hurston became the most successful and most significant black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century. Over a career that spanned more than 30 years, she published four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, numerous short stories, and several essays, articles and plays.
Born on Jan. 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, when she was still a toddler. Her writings reveal no recollection of her Alabama beginnings. For Hurston, Eatonville was always home.
Established in 1887, the rural community near Orlando was the nation’s first incorporated black township. It was, as Hurston described it, “a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse.”
In Eatonville, Zora was never indoctrinated in inferiority, and she could see the evidence of black achievement all around her. She could look to town hall and see black men, including her father, John Hurston, formulating the laws that governed Eatonville. She could look to the Sunday Schools of the town’s two churches and see black women, including her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, directing the Christian curricula. She could look to the porch of the village store and see black men and women passing worlds through their mouths in the form of colorful, engaging stories.
Growing up in this culturally affirming setting in an eight-room house on five acres of land, Zora had a relatively happy childhood, despite frequent clashes with her preacher-father, who sometimes sought to “squinch” her rambunctious spirit, she recalled. Her mother, on the other hand, urged young Zora and her seven siblings to “jump at de sun.” Hurston explained, “We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
Hurston’s idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end, though, when her mother died in 1904. Zora was only 13 years old. “That hour began my wanderings,” she later wrote. “Not so much in geography, but in time. Then not so much in time as in spirit.”
After Lucy Hurston’s death, Zora’s father remarried quickly–to a young woman whom the hotheaded Zora almost killed in a fistfight–and seemed to have little time or money for his children. “Bare and bony of comfort and love,” Zora worked a series of menial jobs over the ensuing years, struggled to finish her schooling, and eventually joined a Gilbert & Sullivan traveling troupe as a maid to the lead singer. In 1917, she turned up in Baltimore; by then, she was 26 years old and still hadn’t finished high school. Needing to present herself as a teenager to qualify for free public schooling, she lopped 10 years off her life–giving her age as 16 and the year of her birth as 1901. Once gone, those years were never restored: From that moment forward, Hurston would always present herself as at least 10 years younger than she actually was. Apparently, she had the looks to pull it off. Photographs reveal that she was a handsome, big-boned woman with playful yet penetrating eyes, high cheekbones, and a full, graceful mouth that was never without expression.
Zora also had a fiery intellect, an infectious sense of humor, and “the gift,” as one friend put it, “of walking into hearts.” Zora used these talents–and dozens more–to elbow her way into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, befriending such luminaries as poet Langston Hughes and popular singer/actress Ethel Waters. Though Hurston rarely drank, fellow writer Sterling Brown recalled, “When Zora was there, she was the party.” Another friend remembered Hurston’s apartment–furnished by donations she solicited from friends–as a spirited “open house” for artists. All this socializing didn’t keep Hurston from her work, though. She would sometimes write in her bedroom while the party went on in the living room.