American Literature 211H
1 May 2012
Zora Neale Hurston and 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). 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...