Meet the Genius of the South
Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific author of novels, short stories, plays, and essays in the early half of the 20th century. Her signature novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, has become required reading in high schools and colleges.
Zora was born in Alabama, the fifth of eight children, in 1891. All four of her grandparents had been born into slavery. At a young age, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-black townships incorporated in the United States. When she was thirteen her mother passed away and she was sent to a boarding school in Jacksonville. Then her father quit paying her tuition and she was left to fend for herself. She was uneducated and relegated to a life of menial labor. Or so one might have thought.
How she became the first female African-American to make a living as a published author is equal parts inspirational and tragic. It is also instructive for you and me.
Here are the lessons I learned from Zora Neale Hurston.
1. It is Your Responsibility
By the time Zora was 25, she had no formal education and her job experience included maid, waitress, and manicurist. But she had a burning desire to write.
She determined that she needed an education.
She also needed perspective. She needed to learn about people. Black. White. Society. Relationships. The world.
She recognized that she’d have to educate herself, by any means necessary.
After her father stopped paying for her education, she had to work to make ends meet. To survive.
She found work housecleaning for different wealthy white families and their homes provided something of value to her. Books.
She would find opportunities to read single paragraphs or pages in secret, whenever she could. She’d try to memorize passages and then think about those passages in her free time.
One of her employers was the lead performer for the Gilbert & Sullivan traveling troupe. Not only did this provide exposure to books, but she was able to listen to conversations that provided an awareness of the culture and customs of the educated white world.
She took a job as a manicurist at a barbershop in Washington, DC, where politicians and business leaders frequented. They would gossip about people and life as if she wasn’t there. It provided further insights into power and priorities in the white world.
She was learning about the world, but she lacked formal education. Unacceptable.
She lied about her age and said she was sixteen, which allowed her to attend a free school in Maryland.
At age 26 she became a freshman in high school.
To understand the craft of writing. To better understand people. To better understand the world.
Any. Means. Necessary.
2. Let a Strong Purpose and Positive Perspective Drive You
Zora had grown up in Eatonville, and saw her black neighbors as interesting, complex people, both powerful and flawed.
During that time, she hadn’t experienced racism. It wasn’t until she was sent to Jacksonville at age 13, that for the first time she was referred to as “a little colored girl.”
Less than. Different.
She loved her time in Eatonville but understood that world experiences would enhance her writing…eventually.
She wrote, “It grew upon me that I ought to walk out to the horizon and see what the end of the world was like.”
She attended Barnard College, the first and only black student among a thousand white students.
Stares. Whispers. Curiosity. Disdain.
She was willing to endure to get valuable exposure to the professors. For the education. For the tools she would need to become a successful writer.
She not only concentrated on her writing, but she also developed a keen interest in anthropology. She was fascinated by culture and the study of people. Her background allowed her to observe and celebrate black life on its own terms and not through the prism of white society.
By the time she graduated from Barnard at age 37, she maintained a healthy, optimistic perspective about life and her future.
In 1928 she wrote an essay called How it Feels to be Colored Me. Despite a background of hardship and disappointment, she offers the following perspectives:
“But 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 but 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.”
In another passage:
“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
Determined. Optimistic. Confident. Strong.
And busy sharpening her oyster knife. No time for distractions or drama. The world is her oyster. And she is preparing herself to go out and grab it.
3. You Never Know How You Will Impact Others or the Lives You May Change
Zora was recognized as one of the leading black writers of her time, male or female. She received an honorary doctorate from Morgan State University. She was a consultant to Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. She received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Howard University.
Despite the acclaim, she struggled financially. The largest royalty she ever earned from her writing was $943. To support herself in the 1950s she worked as a maid in Miami, a librarian at Patrick Air Force base, and a substitute teacher in Fort Pierce, Florida.
Her most popular novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, sold less than five thousand copies during her lifetime.
By the time she died in 1960, all of her books were out of print. She was forced to live in a welfare home. Friends had to contribute funds for her funeral and she was buried in an unmarked grave.
If that was the end of the story, it would indeed be tragic.
In 1973, Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple, came to Fort Pierce to honor the woman who had inspired her career as a writer. She provided a headstone for Zora’s grave, on which she had inscribed “Zora Neale Hurston, Genius of the South.”
Walker wrote an article entitled In Search of Zora Neale Hurston, in Ms magazine in 1975, which brought attention to the author and her work.
Over the last fifty years, appreciation for her talent and work has grown. By the late 70s, her work was being reprinted. Their Eyes Were Watching God began to get included in high school and university courses. A film of the book, produced by Oprah Winfrey and starring Halle Berry, was released in 2006.
Several years ago the BBC included Their Eyes Were Watching God as one of the 100 most influential novels ever written.
In 2005 Their Eyes Were Watching God reached the New York Times Bestseller list, 68 years after its initial publication. HarperCollins, the publisher of Zora’s works, has stated that annual sales of her books now exceed 500 thousand copies per year.
Her works are being read all over the world. Millions have been touched by her observations. Her stories. Her gift.
Sharpen YOUR Oyster Knife
Zora Neale Hurston lived her life with purpose. She paired that purpose with a positive perspective that allowed her to persevere through extraordinary circumstances. Others would have given up. They might have accepted their status and allowed themselves to be defined by it. Not good enough.
Not educated enough. Less than.
There are three perspectives that she embraced that are examples for all leaders. Maybe for all humans.
1. It is your responsibility
What you accomplish and what you become are your responsibility. Others may be given an easier path by income, education, connections — or chance, but your success and fulfillment are up to you. Zora didn’t settle for excuses. As you think of her example, keep in mind: Any. Means. Possible.
2. Let a Strong Purpose and Positive Perspective Drive You
A strong purpose and a relentlessly positive outlook allowed Zora to continue to move forward to become the writer, anthropologist, and influencer that she wanted to be from a young age. Let those same elements drive your journey. It will allow you to overcome the roadblocks and disappointments in your path.
3. You never know how you will impact others or the lives you may change
Zora’s greatest influence arguably came more than fifty years after her death. She is now shaping the perspective and social consciousness of people all over the world. You can only control your effort. Deliver great value to others. You may never know the impact that you have on others — and that they carry forward based on what they’ve learned from you.
If you’re going to live, leave a legacy. Make a mark on the world that can’t be erased. — Maya Angelou
You have an oyster knife. You can use it to open the shell and reach the healthy, tasty oyster inside. You can use it to open that same shell and find the pearl — the valuable elements that life has to offer.
You can also hand your knife to others so that they can experience the value and wonder of what they find inside.
It is the gift that great leaders provide to others.
It is the gift that Zora Neale Hurston gave to all of us.
A thing is mighty big when time and distance cannot shrink it. — Zora Neale Hurston