Visible Women

“Why author Zora Neale Hurston is the patron saint of black women”

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Natalie A Carter and Melissa Cummings-Quarry
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Throughout Black History Month 2018, black women are discussing the women who inspire them on stylist.co.uk. Here, Black Girls Book Club founders Natalie A Carter and Melissa Cummings-Quarry discuss Zora Neale Hurston, the writer who introduced them to the concept of ‘black girl magic’. 

Throughout her lifetime Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, educator, librarian and a maid. She was a Harlem Renaissance luminary and one of the most prolific African American writers of the first half of the twentieth century. In her introduction to a republished edition of Hurston’s seminal novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the author Alice Walker said of Hurston’s work: “It speaks to me, as no novel, past or present has ever done.”

In the Twenties, Hurston was the only black woman at Barnard College; for a time, she was a literary star. But her work fell out of favour and out of print, and she spent her last years working as a maid. When she died, she was penniless: buried in an unmarked grave, with the local community having to fundraise for her funeral costs. Her life’s work would have been left to burn into obscurity in a fire after she passed away, had her manuscripts not been saved by a black police officer familiar with her writing. Without the determination of Walker, the world may not have rediscovered Hurston at all.

Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama on 7 January 1891, but moved to the “Negro town” of Eatonville, Florida as a young child. Founded by 27 black families in 1887, Eatonville went on to become one of the first incorporated all-black towns in the United States and the only all-black town in Florida.

Hurston felt at home in Eatonville. She was empowered by the evidence of black achievement that surrounded her there, and the place inspired much of her later work. But after the death of her mother when she was 13, she was forced to leave the town and start working as a maid to support herself. 

Zora Neale Hurston was forced to start working as a maid aged 13 

At 26, Hurston shaved 10 years off her age and re-entered high school. She went on to study at numerous institutions, collecting scholarships along the way, and finally earned her BA in anthropology at 37. During this time she found literary success, becoming a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance alongside other greats such as Langston Hughes.

Hurston went on to pen Their Eyes Were Watching God as well as three other novels, folklores, various essays and short stories, and anthropological research into voodoo practices in the Caribbean. She wrote tirelessly and persuasively for the independence of black people, using her own experiences to write about the racial and sexual discrimination she faced as a black woman.

But despite her earlier success, Hurston was again working as a maid by the Fifties. She had been outcast from Harlem society, accused of plagiarism, pandering to the white gaze and employing ‘minstrel techniques’ due to her use of dialogue rooted in the patois-like dialect of the rural American South. Writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance were uncomfortable with Hurston’s work, feeling that it diminished the movement and the experience of blackness that they had attempted to cultivate in Harlem, away from the segregationist constraints of the South.

Hurston faded into obscurity until her untimely death in 1960. But more than a decade later, Alice Walker – whose status as a key African-American writer was then on the rise – brought her back out of the shadows by declaring Hurston a “genius of the South”. Walker published an essay titled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in the feminist magazine Ms in 1975, launching a Hurston revival.

Hurston at a book fair in New York, circa 1937 

To tell the story of how we at Black Girls’ Book Club discovered Hurston, and to explain her importance to us, is to tell the story of how one woman inspired a generation of black women to choose themselves first. Finding Hurston ultimately meant finding ourselves, and having confidence in the women we wanted to be. Through her work, Hurston allowed us to realise the importance of financial, sexual and – most importantly – spiritual independence.

As young black women, we felt a particular connection to the story of Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God. In that novel, Hurston lays bare the many expectations placed upon black women in relationships, and the journey that we must take to find our liberation. The first time we read Hurston, she allowed us to access feminism in a way that was relatable – speaking in a language that we, as black woman, instinctively understood.

It was said by writer Richard Bruce Nugent that “Zora would have been Zora even if she were an Eskimo”, and Hurston said of herself: “I wanted to conform, but it was impossible”. It was in this spirit that Black Girls Book Club was founded. We were determined to create a safe space for black women where they could feel seen and be unapologetically themselves, just like Hurston did all those years ago.

Through her work, Hurston embodied the true meaning of ‘black girl magic’ – not only before that concept had a name, but at a time before black women could even dream of its possibilities. Alice Walker may have named Hurston the “Patron Saint of Black Writers”, but to us she is the patron saint of black women: a beacon of independence, freedom and self-love.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images 

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