Happy birthday, Zora Neale Hurston!

January 7th, 2013

On January 7, 1891, the African American author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama. At age three, she moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-black towns incorporated after the Emancipation Proclamation, and later attended Howard University in Washington, DC. After earning an associate’s degree at Howard, she was offered a scholarship to Barnard College, Columbia University, where she studied anthropology and was the school’s only black student. Much of her anthropology work focused on black folklore traditions in the American South and in the Caribbean. For example, for her 1935 collection Mules and Men, Hurston returned to Eatonville to record many of the oral traditions she had grown up with. She explains:

I hurried back to Eatonville because I knew that the town was full of material and that I could get it without hurt, harm or danger. As early as I could remember it was the habit of the men folks particularly to gather on the store porch of evenings and swap stories. Even the women folks would stop and break a breath with them at times. As a child when I was sent down to Joe Clarke’s store, I’d drag out my leaving as long as possible in order to hear more.

Folklore is not as easy to collect as it sounds. The best source is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually underprivileged, are the shyest. They are most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by.

Hurston also wrote fiction, including her best-known work, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which, with the help of Alice Walker (The Color Purple), was made popular in the 1970s. 

In 1928, Hurston published a short essay entitled “How It Feels to be Colored Me,” which is well worth reading and discussing, especially as we prepare to observe Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The selection is included in our upcoming e-book on the holiday, from which this introduction and guiding questions come:

In the essay discussing her own self-understanding, Hurston appears to be anything but conflicted, alienated, or angry. On the contrary, she speaks as if being colored is no big deal for her: “I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries. My country, right or wrong.” Is she being sincere or ironic? What does she mean when she says, “At certain times I have no race, I am me”? Can her identity—and our identity—as “me” ever really be utterly disconnected from race? What enables Hurston not to be angry? What is the basis of her strong sense of identity and personal self-worth?

I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief.

I remember the very day that I became colored. Up to my thirteenth year I lived in the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a colored town. The only white people I knew passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando. The native whites rode dusty horses, the Northern tourists chugged down the sandy village road in automobiles. The town knew the Southerners and never stopped cane chewing when they passed. But the Northerners were something else again. They were peered at cautiously from behind curtains by the timid. The more venturesome would come out on the porch to watch them go past and got just as much pleasure out of the tourists as the tourists got out of the village.

The front porch might seem a daring place for the rest of the town, but it was a gallery seat for me. My favorite place was atop the gatepost. Proscenium box for a born first-nighter. Not only did I enjoy the show, but I didn’t mind the actors knowing that I liked it. I usually spoke to them in passing. I’d wave at them and when they returned my salute, I would say something like this: “Howdy-do-well-I-thank-you-where-you-goin’?” Usually automobile or the horse paused at this, and after a queer exchange of compliments, I would probably “go a piece of the way” with them, as we say in farthest Florida. If one of my family happened to come to the front in time to see me, of course negotiations would be rudely broken off. But even so, it is clear that I was the first “welcome-to-our-state” Floridian, and I hope the Miami Chamber of Commerce will please take notice.

During this period, white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there. They liked to hear me “speak pieces” and sing and wanted to see me dance the parse-me-la, and gave me generously of their small silver for doing these things, which seemed strange to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to stop, only they didn’t know it. The colored people gave no dimes. They deplored any joyful tendencies in me, but I was their Zora nevertheless. I belonged to them, to the nearby hotels, to the county—everybody’s Zora.

Continue reading Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” here.

Related: Check out the EDSITEment! lesson plan “Folklore in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” 


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