She painted pictures with words and created masterpieces with the colorful inventions of her mind. She took the same mechanics of modern-day language afforded every other English speaker and somehow made hers dance and play and sparkle across a page. Under her tutelage, nouns, prepositions and conjunctions shimmered. Even “the” and “but” shed their mundane normalcy under her creative direction.
Zora Neale Hurston is, without question, my all-time favorite writer and a historical homegirl in my head, and today is the 125th anniversary of when the pixie dust God sprinkled into her mother’s womb erupted into a magical force of personhood. Go Zora. It’s your birthday.
Her professional fame comes from 30 years of legendary wordsmithing: four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, and dozens of short stories, essays, articles and plays.
Her personal notoriety, however, came from a spirit for adventure, art and wanderlust that wasn’t the standard for women in general, particularly Black women, even more particularly Black women from the South. No husband, no kids, no cares to give about settling down and making home and hearth her singular life’s work. Zora was too busy being herself to be boxed into somebody’s kitchen, nursery or, even worse, regimentation.
She traveled to Haiti and the Caribbean, one of the pioneers of anthropological work that validated the beautiful diversity of the Black experience—the dialects, the music, the people and, most important to her, the stories. She even allowed herself to be recorded singing some folklorish songs. She wasn’t a singer per se, but she could get her vocal chords to push out some notes in succession. And that’s how she generally operated: she could, so she did.
There were many times she befuddled her peers and dazzled those of us in subsequent generations with her signature inability to give even one care about what anybody else thought, felt or believed about her her-ness. These are ten of them.
10. She didn’t finish high school until she was 27 but she was in a PhD program at Columbia University by the time she was 44.
A late start didn’t jam her race even a little bit.
9. She was a drinking, smoking, fornicating preacher’s daughter.
Her behavior was part just being Zora, part big payback to the minister daddy she didn’t much get along with.
8. The time she said this:
“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me.”
7. She liked and chased and dated younger men.
The characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God were inspired by her and her real-life Tea Cake.
6. Also, she was inclined to knock a few years off of her own age.
And she was good at it, too. She had men—not to mention historians—confused about how old she really was for many, many years.
5. Once, on her way to a party, a sleazebag made an uninvited move on her in an elevator.
She crumpled him with a stiff right-hand punch, then stepped over him real ladylike as she exited in her all-white dress. Flawless.
4. She was criticized by her (mostly male) contemporaries for accepting money from wealthy white benefactors to fund her artistic endeavors.
She kept right on accepting money from wealthy white benefactors to fund her artistic endeavors.
2. She contradicted herself. Often. Because she could.
Haven’t we all had opinions we’ve retracted years, sometimes even minutes later?
1. Slaying was effortless, even though she spent much time being underpaid and living check-to-check.