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Zora Neale Hurston, Genius of the Harlem Renaissance

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Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Twentieth century African-American author Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. But her perseverance and love of her culture made for a much richer life than many people know.

Near the turn of the century, Hurston was born the spirited daughter of former slaves. Her parents had gone on to become a schoolteacher and a Baptist preacher. Her father's sermons were likely what sparked the girl's fascination with storytelling, which she'd later use not only in her works, but also in the construction of her public persona.

Over the course of her life, Hurston offered contradictory dates of birth. And in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, she inaccurately claimed Eatonville, Florida, as her birthplace, when in truth she was born in Notasulga, Alabama, probably on January 7, 1891. But Eatonville was her home from about age 3 to 13, and a major influence on her work. One of the first places in the United States to be incorporated as an all-black town, it was also home to a vibrant and proud African-American community that protected the young Hurston from the cruel racial prejudices found elsewhere in the United States. Years later, Hurston would cherish this place and the self-confidence it instilled in her works. She once described it as "A city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jailhouse."

Despite a seemingly ideal hometown, Hurston knew hardship. At 13, she lost her mother, and was booted out of boarding school when her father and new step-mom failed to foot the tuition bill. Down but not out, Hurston found work as a maid, serving an actress in a traveling theatrical company that gave her a taste of the world beyond Florida. In Baltimore, she lopped a decade off her age (a subtraction she maintained the rest of her days) to qualify for free public schooling that would allow her to complete her long-delayed high school education. From there, she worked her way through college, studied anthropology and folklore, and had her earliest works published in her school's paper. By 1920, the 29-year-old earned an associate degree from Howard University in Washington D.C. Five years later, she made the fateful move to New York City, where she eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from Barnard College after studying with the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas. There, she also became a seminal and controversial icon of the Harlem Renaissance.

It's said that Hurston—with her brazen wit, affable humor, and charm—waltzed into the Harlem scene, easily befriending actress Ethel Waters, and poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Professor and fellow folklorist Sterling Brown once remarked of her appeal, "When Zora was there, she was the party."

Electrified by the thriving literary movement that strove to define the contemporary African-American experience, Hurston penned the personal essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," where she boldly declared

"I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."

She and Hughes teamed up in 1930 to create a play for African-American actors that wouldn't use racial stereotypes. Regrettably, creative differences led to a falling out between the two that sunk The Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life In Three Acts before the Eatonville-set fable managed to be produced. But Hurston rebounded with her musical The Great Day, which premiered on Broadway January 10, 1932. Next, came her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in 1934. The following year saw the release of a meticulously curated collection of African American oral folklore. Mules and Men became the greatest success she'd see in her lifetime, and yet it earned Hurston only $943.75.  

Her next book, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written during her anthropological expedition to Haiti to study voodoo. Reflecting its divorced author's life, it followed a forty-something African American woman's journey through three marriages and self-acceptance. While the mainstream press praised Hurston's anthropological eye and her writing "with her head as with her heart," she faced a backlash from some of her Harlem Renaissance peers.

Zora Neale Hurston drumming, 1937. Wikimedia/Library of Congress // Public Domain

As the movement evolved, Harlem Renaissance writers had been debating how African-Americans should present their people and culture in their art. Should they devotedly fight against the negative stereotypes long established by Caucasian writers? Should their work be penned as progressive propaganda intended to expose the racism of modern America as a means to provoke change? Or should African-Americans create without the constraints of a political or creative ideology? Hurston sided with the last group, and saw her novel criticized for its embrace of the vernacular of the black South, its exploration of female sexuality, and its absence of an overt political agenda. Literary critic Ralph Ellison called Their Eyes Were Watching God a "blight of calculated burlesque," while essayist Richard Wright jeered, "Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction." But fiction wasn't all she wrote. 

In 1938, Hurston published the anthropological study Tell My Horse; her aforementioned autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, came six years later. But following the release of her final novel Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston's career fell into decline. Through the 1950s, she occasionally managed to secure some work as a journalist, scraping by with stints as a substitute teacher and sometimes maid. Despite a prolific output that included four novels, two folklore collections, an autobiography, and a wealth of short stories, essays, articles and plays, Hurston died penniless and alone in a welfare home on January 28, 1960; her body—dressed in a pink dressing gown and fuzzy slippers—was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce.

It was an especially cruel fate because she'd once appealed to activist W.E.B. Du Bois to create "a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead" to assure that they'd never be discarded. Her rejected proposal read in part: "Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness. We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored." 

This confident and rebellious creator's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance seemed certain to have doomed her to the realm of the forgotten. But in 1975, Alice Walker, who would go on to write the heralded novel The Color Purple, penned a legacy-shifting essay for Ms. magazine called "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." The essay encouraged a new generation of readers to rediscover Hurston’s work. Their Eyes Were Watching God found a new life, and began popping up on school reading curriculums and earning reprintings in other languages, as did her other books. Mule Bone was finally published and staged in 1991. Historians scoured archives and uncovered a never-published manuscript of folklore Hurston had collected. Titled Every Tongue Got To Confess, it was published posthumously in 2001.

Not only were Hurston's works at long last given their due—so was she. In honor of the author who'd inspired her and countless others, Walker traveled to Florida to put a proper tombstone on Hurston's grave. It reads: "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South. Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist."

This story originally ran in 2016.

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10 Terrific Facts About Stephen King
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Scott Eisen/Getty Images for Warner Bros.

As if being one of the world's most successful and prolific writers wasn't already reason enough to celebrate, Stephen King is ringing in his birthday as the toast of Hollywood. As It continues to break box office records, we're digging into the horror master's past. Here are 10 things you might not have known about Stephen King, who turns 70 years old today.

1. STEPHEN KING AND HIS WIFE, TABITHA, OWN A RADIO STATION.

Stephen and Tabitha King own Zone Radio, a company that serves to head their three radio stations in Maine. One of them, WKIT, is a classic rock station that goes by the tagline "Stephen King's Rock Station."

2. HE'S A HARDCORE RED SOX FAN.

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Not only did he write a story about the Boston Red Sox—The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (who was a former Red Sox pitcher)—he also had a cameo in the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie Fever Pitch, which is about a crazed Sox fan. He plays himself and throws out the first pitch at a game.

In 2004, King and Stewart O'Nan, another novelist, chronicled their reactions to the season that finally brought the World Series title back to Beantown. It's appropriately titled Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season.

3. HE WAS HIT BY A CAR, THEN BOUGHT THE CAR THAT HIT HIM.

You probably remember that King was hit by a van not far from his summer home in Maine in 1999. The incident left King with a collapsed lung, multiple fractures to his hip and leg, and a gash to the head. Afterward, King and his lawyer bought the van for $1500 with King announcing that, "Yes, we've got the van, and I'm going to take a sledgehammer and beat it!"

4. AS A KID, HIS FRIEND WAS STRUCK AND KILLED BY A TRAIN.

King's brain seems to be able to create chilling stories at such an amazing clip, yet he's seen his fair share of horror in real life. In addition to the aforementioned car accident, when King was just a kid his friend was struck and killed by a train (a plot line that made it into his story "The Body," which was adapted into Stand By Me). While it would be easy to assume that this incident informed much of King's writing, the author claims to have no memory of the event:

"According to Mom, I had gone off to play at a neighbor’s house—a house that was near a railroad line. About an hour after I left I came back (she said), as white as a ghost. I would not speak for the rest of the day; I would not tell her why I’d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I wanted to come home; I would not tell her why my chum’s mom hadn’t walked me back but had allowed me to come alone.

"It turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing the tracks (years later, my mother told me they had picked up the pieces in a wicker basket). My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened, if it had occurred before I even arrived, or if I had wandered away after it happened. Perhaps she had her own ideas on the subject. But as I’ve said, I have no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it some years after the fact."

5. HE WROTE A MUSICAL WITH JOHN MELLENCAMP.

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King, John Mellencamp, and T Bone Burnett collaborated on a musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which made its debut in 2012. The story is based on a house that Mellencamp bought in Indiana that came complete with a ghost story. Legend has it that three siblings were messing around in the woods and one of the brothers accidentally got shot. The surviving brother and sister jumped in the car to go get help, and in their panic, swerved off the road right into a tree and were killed instantly. Of course, the three now haunt the woods by Mellencamp's house.

6. HE PLAYED IN A BAND WITH OTHER SUCCESSFUL AUTHORS.

King played rhythm guitar for a band made up of successful writers called The Rock Bottom Remainders. From 1992 to 2012, the band "toured" about once a year. In addition to King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening and Ridley Pearson were just some of its other members.

7. HE'S A NATIVE MAINER.

A photo of Stephen King's home in Bangor, Maine.
By Julia Ess - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

King writes about Maine a lot because he knows and loves The Pine Tree State: he was born there, grew up there, and still lives there (in Bangor). Castle Rock, Derry, and Jerusalem's Lot—the fictional towns he has written about in his books—are just products of King's imagination, but he can tell you exactly where in the state they would be if they were real.

8. HE HAS BATTLED DRUG AND ALCOHOL PROBLEMS.

Throughout much of the 1980s, King struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. In discussing this time, he admitted that, "There's one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don't say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page."

It came to a head when his family members staged an intervention and confronted him with drug paraphernalia they had collected from his trash can. It was the eye-opener King needed; he got help and has been sober ever since.

9. THERE WAS A RUMOR THAT HE WROTE A LOST TIE-IN NOVEL.

King was an avid Lost fan and sometimes wrote about the show in his Entertainment Weekly column, "The Pop of King." The admiration was mutual. Lost's writers mentioned that King was a major influence in their work. There was a lot of speculation that he was the man behind Bad Twin, a Lost tie-in mystery, but he debunked that rumor.

10. HE IS SURROUNDED BY WRITERS.

A photo of Stephen King's son, author Joe Hill
Joe Hill
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Stephen isn't the only writer in the King family: His wife, Tabitha King, has published several novels. Joe, their oldest son, followed in his dad's footsteps and is a bestselling horror writer (he writes under the pen name Joe Hill). Youngest child Owen has written a collection of short stories and one novella and he and his dad co-wrote Sleeping Beauties, which will be released later this month (Owen also married a writer). Naomi, the only King daughter, is a minister and gay activist.

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Dedicated Middle School Teacher Transforms His Classroom Into Hogwarts
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Kyle Ely

It would be hard to dread back-to-school season with Kyle Ely as your teacher. As ABC News reports, the instructor brought a piece of Hogwarts to Evergreen Middle School in Hillsboro, Oregon by plastering his classroom with Harry Potter-themed decor.

The journey into the school's makeshift wizarding world started at his door, which was decorated with red brick wall paper and a "Platform 9 3/4" sign above the entrance. Inside, students found a convincing Hogwarts classroom complete with floating candles, a sorting hat, owl statues, and house crests. He even managed to recreate the starry night sky effect of the school’s Great Hall by covering the ceiling with black garbage bags and splattering them with white paint.

The whole project cost the teacher around $300 to $400 and took him 70 hours to build. As a long-time Harry Potter fan, he said that being able to share his love of the book series with his students made it all pay off it. He wrote in a Facebook post, "Seeing their faces light up made all the time and effort put into this totally worth it."

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Though wildly creative, the Hogwarts-themed classroom at Evergreen Middle School isn't the first of its kind. Back in 2015, a middle school teacher in Oklahoma City outfitted her classroom with a potions station and a stuffed version of Fluffy to make the new school year a little more magical. Here are some more unique classroom themes teachers have used to transport their kids without leaving school.

[h/t ABC News]

Images courtesy of Kyle Ely.

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