Zora Neale Hurston in the Harlem Renaissance Essay
Zora Neale Hurston in the Harlem Renaissance
From the beginning, Zora Neale Hurston was ahead of her time. She was born early in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama. While she was being born her father was off about to make a decision that would be crucial to her in the development as a woman and as a writer; they moved in 1892 to Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town. In childhood, Hurston grew up uneducated and poor, but was immersed with black folk life, and the town of Eatonville had become like an extended family to her. She was protected from racism because she encountered no white people.
Booker T. Washington observed that in black-governed towns like Eatonville, Negroes are made to feel the responsibilities of citizenship in ways they cannot be made to feel them elsewhere. If they make mistakes, they, at least, have an opportunity to profit by them. In such a town individuals who have executive ability and initiative, have an opportunity to discover themselves and find out what they can do (Boyd 22). For Hurston, Eatonville was always home. Eatonville was where she received her first lessons in individualism and her first immersion in community (Boyd 25).
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With this early security had given Hurston the core of self-confidence she needed to survive in her adulthood. Hurston’s mother died at precisely the time when she needed her mama to teach her how to be a woman. I think this was a big step that helped Hurston become the independent woman she was fast becoming. Hurston wrote as she remembered the moment of her mother’s death, “That hour began my wanderings. Not so much in geography, but in time. Then not so much in time as in spirit” (Boyd 47).
After, Hurston was shuffled around by relatives and rejected by her father when he re-married. For a place to go, she resorted to being a hired domestic in several homes. In 1915, Hurston landed a job as a lady’s maid to the lead singer of Gilbert and Sullivan, a traveling company. This is just what she longed for-the opportunity to go out into the world to seek and see. During this time it was the closest she’d gotten to school. She was able to read good books loaned to the company by a Harvard man, and by her observance she received quite an education in music.
She also became deeply interested in theater, seeing firsthand its power to entertain and to move. Just as important, Hurston lived among a variety of white people. She learned what she’d long suspected, that white people were remarkably similar to the black men and women that she knew so well. This discovery enabled Hurston to develop and enduring “approach to racial understanding,” as she called it, an attitude that would inform her behavior and philosophy on race relations forever (Boyd 71). After Hurston’s boss married and got out of the singing business she ended up in Baltimore.
She enrolled in the Morgan Academy and received her high school diploma in 1919. She went directly in college classes that fall at Howard University. During her time there she studied with the great black educator Alain Locke. Although Locke rarely saw promise in young women he detected talent in Hurston. She clearly had something of value to offer to the blossoming Harlem Renaissance. As historian Steven Watson has pointed out, “she could provide the connection to the black folk heritage that Locke considered essential to the creation of a New Negro literature” (Boyd 91).
One of Hurston’s short stories appeared in the New York African American magazine Opportunity and shortly after that she decided to move to Harlem to pursue a literacy career there (Baym 528). Hurston desperately needed money at this time when she received a letter from Fannie Hurst, a politically liberal novelist. Hurston was hired as her personal secretary and moved in with her. This benefited Hurston greatly with her social success among her elite classmates. “Partly because you took me under you shelter, I have no trouble in making friends,” she wrote to Hurst, “Your friendship was a tremendous help to me at a critical time.
It made both faculty and students see me when I needed seeing” (Boyd 109). In 1926, Hurston’s life took a turn. In Harlem she became a well-known storyteller, an informal performing artist, and in Barnard she became interested in anthropology. This is where she met Franz Boas, who ran the most influential anthropology department in the country. Hurston found Boas “full of youth and fun,” but also a taskmaster. She seemed to view him as something of a father figure and called him by the nickname “Papa Franz. ” Under his influence, Hurston found a new passion and a new career track.
Anthropology gave her a fresh and valuable lens through which to view her people. She now recognized that the people she had come to known and the people she knew back in Eatonville, had huge contributions to make in the field of cultural anthropology. To satisfy Hurston’s yearning to see and know, now that she had the reliable tool of anthropology, she jumped on the opportunity to live and work among other black writers and artists in Harlem. This group called themselves “the Niggerati. ” With them Hurston felt she could be most fully herself and here her humor thrived and was appreciated.
Langston Hughes, part of the Niggerati, came up with an idea to start a magazine called Fire!!. He suggested that “maybe someone should start a magazine by, for, and about the Negro to show what we could do” (Boyd 122). Hurston and her friends hoped that it would burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro ideas of the past. One of Hurston’s most influential pieces appeared in Fire!! ; a short story entitled “Sweat”.
A story about a woman named Delia, an Eatonville washerwoman whose fifteen-year marriage to the abusive Sykes has been, as she puts it, “work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat. As the story goes on, they have a bitter standoff where Delia, who takes her Christian commitment seriously, firsts tastes hate. Sykes knows of Delia’s fear of snakes and brings home a rattler hoping that the fear of the snake or the snake itself will kill her. In the end Sykes is actually the one who gets attacked by the snake and Delia doesn’t do anything about it and she’s filled with a mixture of remorse and relief. “Sweat” revealed some of Hurston’s views on life. It made it clear that she placed great value on a woman’s ability to work and become financially independent.
It also showed that she seemed to view marriage as oppressive, particularly for woman, and potentially deadly. “Sweat” was one of the best of several short stories that Hurston wrote during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, a piece that charted her growth as a literacy artist (Boyd 138). In 1927, Hurston said farewell to Harlem and headed for Florida. She had received a fellowship to collect Negro folklore in the South. From then on, she strove to achieve a balance between focusing on the folk and her origins and focusing on herself as an individual (Baym 529).
When the fellowship money ran out, Hurston was supported by Mrs. R. Osgood Mason, an elderly white patron of the arts. Mason knew that Hurston was black, southern, a student of anthropology, and an already experienced folklore collector who was more suited for research than Mason herself was. Mason had firm ideas about what she wanted and required Hurston to get her permission before publishing any work. This was difficult for Hurston knowing that well-off white people were the sponsors of, and often expected to be the chief audience of her work.
Hurston received a lot of criticism in her time by other writers, some of whom were also involved in the Harlem Renaissance. She did not write to “uplift her race” because in her view it was already uplifted, she was not embarrassed to present her characters as mixtures of good and bad, strong and weak (Baym 529). Even though she was not popular among other writers, she was one of the shapers of the black literacy and cultural movement of the twenties. Hurston was the first black scholar to research folklore on the level that she did.
She researched songs, dances, tales and sayings. There was a desire to use music to keep the African heritage alive, especially jazz. The rhythms and beats of jazz were unique to African American roots in tribal music and gave them an individual voice. Hurston once said that listening to the “narcotic harmonies” of a jazz band could mover her to a feral inner state: “I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop…,” she wrote, “My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue. My pulse is throbbing like a war drum,” (Boyd 126).
Hurston also started to study voodoo practices and lived in Jamaica, Haiti and the British West Indies for two years while studying. In the Caribbean, Hurston wrote the book she is probably most known for Their Eyes Were Watching God. After the abrupt ending of a love affair she realized she had “dammed up” emotions inside her and this novel was her way of releasing them. “The plot was far from circumstances,” she noted, “but I tried to embalm all the tenderness of my passion for him” in the writing (Boyd 294).
It was about an African American woman’s quest for selfhood, it was both a woman’s story and a descriptive critique of southern African American folk society. As a novelist, anthropologist, and folklorist, Hurston was recognized for her distinctive way of relaying her feelings and ideals about racial division and for her efforts to connect both the artistic world and the African American population. She wanted to portray black life in a way unconcerned with white people and unaware of problems attributed to being black.
She wanted to show them laughing, celebrating, loving and struggling. Through her talent, Hurston helped develop a common identity for her people during an influential time in history. Robert Hemingway once wrote, Zora Hurston was an extraordinarily witty woman, and she acquired and instant reputation in New York for her high spirits and side-splitting tales of Eatonville life. She could walk into a room of strangers…and almost immediately gather people, charm, amuse, and impress them (Baym 528). She was generous, outspoken, high spirited, eccentric and an interesting conversationalist.
At the end of her time, Hurston had no audience and worked time to time being a maid. Even though she was poor, she had lived a full and fulfilled life. She once said that she came into this world with nothing and that’s the way she wanted to leave. She died in 1960 but death was not the end for Zora Neale Hurston. Instead it was a new beginning. “I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms,” she once said, “when the consciousness we as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of this world,” (Boyd 433).
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 27 January 2017
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