Sunday, March 13, 2016

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at the sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.
Zora Neale Hurston

Born the fifth of eight children In Notasulga, Alabama in January of 1891 to a father who was both carpenter and preacher and a mother who was a former schoolteacher, Zora Neale Hurston was described as a woman who knew how to make an entrance.  She was colorful, memorable and exuded self confidence.

“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’s beyond me.”
Zora Neale Hurston

As a toddler, Zora’s family moved to Eatonville, Florida, a rural community near Orlando that was the first incorporated black township in the U.S.  This was the fertile environment that fed her development through childhood.  All around her, Zora was able to observe black achievement - laws being established through her father and other black men of the community, black women leading church curricula and stories of community pride, efforts and successes that were shared on porches and around kitchen tables.  She was raised to aspire.

However, when thirteen-year-old Zora’s mother died and her father quickly remarried to a cold young and woman, Zora began to struggle.  It was at that point that she passed through a season of menial jobs, neglecting her education until she was forced to pass as 16 years old - when she was in truth 26 - and was able to qualify for free public schooling. She eventually graduated from Barnard college in 1928, but never went back to her original age, continuing to claim an age 10 years younger than her true age throughout her life.

Friends of Zora Neale Hurston described a passionate intellect with an infectious sense of humor and a personality that was a life of the party.  She engaged hearts and became a part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, becoming friends with such fellow writers as Langston Hughes and singer/actress Ethel Waters.  The real zenith of Hurston’s career came in the 1930s and early 1940s.  She had already published a novel (Jonah’s Gourd Vine), several short stories and some articles.  She had also published Mules and Men, a collection of black Southern folklore, which was favorably received.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
Zora Neale Hurston

The year of 1937 brought her best known work and masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Originally poorly received because of its rejection of the current racial uplift literary prescription, it is now considered a seminal work in both women’s literature and African-American literature and continues to be included on various 100 best English-language novels.

Although Hurston released further successful works and achieved long-eluded acclaim with her body of work and recognition by the literary community at large, she never found the financial rewards that she was due.  The largest royalty ever earned was $943.75.  When she died at age 69 in 1960, neighbors took up a collection to try to pay for a headstone but even then it was not to happen and Zora was buried in an unmarked grave.

In the summer of 1973 another important black writer - a young Alice Walker - gave a headstone for the author who significantly inspired her own work. Unable to afford the tall beautiful black stone that was her first choice, Alice placed a plain gray marker with the inscription; “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”

“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”
Zora Neale Hurston

Members of The Jane Austen Tea Society – pick up a copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to discuss over a Spring Book Lunch on Saturday, April 30th.

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