Today is the birthday (1891) of Zora Neale Hurston, African-American novelist, short story writer, folklorist, and anthropologist who is known not only for her contributions to African-American literature, but also for her portrayal of racial struggles in the American South, and works documenting her research on African-American folk traditions in Florida, and voodoo in Jamaican and Haiti. She is probably best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. . Her novels went relatively unrecognized by the literary world for decades, but interest revived after author Alice Walker published “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in the March 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine.
Hurston was the sixth of eight children of John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston (née Potts). All of her four grandparents had been born into slavery. Her father was a Baptist preacher and sharecropper, who later became a carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher. She was born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, where her father grew up and her grandfather was the preacher of a Baptist church. When she was three, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida which later became the location of several of her important works. Eatonville was one of the first all-African-American towns to be incorporated into the United States (1887). Hurston said she always felt that Eatonville was “home” to her because she grew up there, and sometimes claimed it as her birthplace. Her father later was elected as mayor of the town in 1897 and in 1902 became minister of its largest church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist.
Eatonville was a place where African Americans could live as they desired, independent of White society, and this upbringing undoubtedly influenced Hurston’s political outlook. She often sided with Southern conservatives who opposed integration, seeing “separate but equal” as a positive value, given that integration inevitably exposed African-Americans to racism and discrimination. The problem, of course, as was made clear by the Civil Rights movement is that the “separate” part is easy to accomplish, the “equal” part is not.
In 1917, Hurston began attending Morgan College, the high school division of Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland. At this time, apparently to qualify for a free high-school education (as well, perhaps to reflect her literary birth), the 26-year-old Hurston began claiming 1901 as her year of birth. She graduated from the high school of Morgan State University in 1918. In 1918, Hurston began her studies at Howard University, where took courses in Spanish, English, Greek and public speaking and earned an associate degree in 1920. In 1921, she wrote a short story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” which qualified her to become a member of Alaine Locke’s literary club, The Stylus. Hurston left Howard in 1924 and in 1925 was offered a scholarship by Barnard trustee Annie Nathan Meyer to Barnard College of Columbia University, where she was the college’s sole African-American student.
Hurston received her B.A. in anthropology in 1928, when she was 37. While she was at Barnard, she conducted ethnographic research directed by Franz Boas. She also worked with Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead was a fellow student. After graduating from Barnard, Hurston spent two years as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University. Living in Harlem in the 1920s, Hurston befriended the likes of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Her apartment, according to some accounts, was a popular spot for social gatherings.
In later life, in addition to continuing her literary career, Hurston served on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in Durham, North Carolina. Hurston traveled extensively in the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research. Based on her work in the South, sponsored from 1928 to 1932 by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy philanthropist, Hurston wrote Mules and Men in 1935. In 1936 and 1937, Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti for research, with support from the Guggenheim Foundation. She drew from this for her anthropological work, Tell My Horse (1938). From October 1947 to February 1948, she lived in Honduras, at the north coastal town of Puerto Cortés. While in Puerto Cortés, she wrote much of Seraph on the Suwanee, set in Florida.
Hurston never had much income from her writing and so later in life she took a number of poorly paid odd jobs to make ends meet. She worked at the Pan American World Airways Technical Library at Patrick Air Force Base in 1957, but was fired for being “too well-educated” for her job. Subsequently she moved to Fort Pierce, taking jobs where she could find them. She worked occasionally as a substitute teacher. At age 60 she was helped by public assistance, and at one point she even worked as a maid on Miami Beach’s Rivo Alto Island
During this period of financial stress and medical difficulties, Hurston was forced to enter St. Lucie County Welfare Home, where she suffered a stroke. She died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960, and was buried at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her remains were in an unmarked grave until 1973. Novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte D. Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried, and decided to mark it as hers.
Hurston has two distinct voices in her writing: one was a standard literary voice; the other was an attempt to capture the sounds and rhythms of Southern African-America speaking style. Here’s some examples of both:
There are years that ask questions and years that answer.
Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place
Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.
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.
If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.
Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.
Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep.
At the beginning of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the lead character, Janie Crawford, returns from the Everglades, where she has shot her husband and been acquitted, to Eatonville, in ragged overalls, where all the women are gossipy and unwelcoming. The one exception is her best friend Phoeby, who brings her a “heaping plate of mulatto rice.” Phoeby notes that it “ain’t so good dis time. Not enough bacon grease . . . but it’ll kill hongry.”
The Savannah Cook Book: A collection of old fashioned receipts from Colonial kitchens by Harriet Ross Colquitt contains this recipe for mulatto rice:
Fry squares of breakfast bacon and remove from the pan. Then brown some minced onion (one small one) in this grease, and add one pint can of tomatoes. When thoroughly hot, add a pint of rice to this mixture, and cook very slowly until the rice is done. Or, if you are in a hurry, cold rice may be substituted, and all warmed thoroughly together.
Seems simple enough. I’m assuming that you use the bacon in another dish but keep the rendered fat for flavoring. On the other hand, I see no reason not to include the fried bacon in the dish.