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Zora Neale Hurston: Influential Black Leaders

Zora Neale Hurston: Influential Black Leaders

Because she inspired generations of proud black Southern artistry

 1891 – 1960

Recently, Salvage the Bones author and Fire This Time editor Jesmyn Ward published an essay rejoicing in the visibility and celebration of Southern blackness and the fact that it had made its way to television in the form of Atlanta and Queen Sugar. Ward is a Mississippian who drank in the words of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker because they spoke to her existence, and she, like so many other black Southern artists and writers, owes a debt of gratitude to Hurston.

Long before Andre 3000 took to the stage at the 1995 Source Awards to famously proclaim “the South got somethin’ to say,” Hurston was laying the intellectual groundwork for such a case. The author of four novels, including the now beloved and celebrated Their Eyes Were Watching God(1937) and the autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), was dismissedas a southern bumpkin by her male contemporaries, including Richard Wright, Sterling A. Brown, Ralph Ellison and Alain Locke. Even Langston Hughes, who co-founded Fire magazine with her and Wallace Thurman in 1926, called her an “outrageous woman.”

Wright in particular derided her style and voice as “minstrel technique.” Hurston had the pesky habit of writing the way black people in the South — and in particular the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, where she was raised — actually spoke. Furthermore, she had the nerve not to think anything was wrong with it, not even after spending six years studying at Howard University, from 1918 to 1924, which Hurston regardedas a clearinghouse of “Negro money, beauty and prestige.” While she was a student there, Hurston founded The Hilltop, Howard’s student-run newspaper.

As a folklorist, Hurston is part of a literary tradition that shares its ethos with the blues and with contemporary musical acts such as Alabama Shakes, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and OutKast. You can draw lines from Hurston’s earnest interest in hoodoo to Beyoncé’s embrace of all things Southern gothic in Lemonade. The longstanding divide between Northern and Southern black people, metropolitan vs. agrarian, is one that repeatedly informs our history and culture, even the civil rights movement. It was Walker, who in 1975, brought Hurston out of the American literary hinterlands with Looking for Zora, her essay published in Ms. Magazine.

But Hurston retained a self-assured elegance and wit that didn’t bother worrying itself with outside acceptance. And it’s that sort of thinking that allowed her to gift us with this gem of quotation, and a philosophy we could all stand to internalize, Southern or not: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me,” Hurston once said. “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” – Soraya Nadia McDonald

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