S&F Online

The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 3.2 - Jumpin' at the Sun: Reassessing the Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston - Winter 2005

Introduction: Zoramania
Monica L. Miller


I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances. . . . 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 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. . . .

I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.

For instance at Barnard. "Beside the waters of the Hudson," I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, overswept by a creamy sea. I am surged upon and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.

At certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance. . . . The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race or time, I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.—Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" (1928)[1]

Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist, "genius of the South," Zora Neale Hurston, Barnard College, class of 1928, is hot. On the 75th anniversary of her graduation from Barnard in 2003, Hurston found herself the subject of a new biography, her letters were collected in a doorstop volume billed as a "life in letters," and, fittingly for such a prolific letter-writer, she was honored by the US Postal Service with a new stamp. Nearly all of her work published during her lifetime—four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, and numerous short stories, plays, and essays—is back in print, along with folklore and short stories not published when she was alive. A trove of Hurston plays was found recently at the Library of Congress; and Oprah Winfrey's production of a TV-film version of Hurston's most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), will air in the spring of 2005, starring Halle Berry, and with a script written by Pulitzer Prize–winner Suzan-Lori Parks. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Zora Neale Hurston Street Festival of the Arts in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, where there is also a Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts. So, while Zoramania may have started to simmer in the late 1970s, with Alice Walker's search for Hurston's grave and her effort to get Their Eyes Were Watching God back in print, now the pot clearly has started to boil over.

Hurston's own life, work, and the vicissitudes of its legacy do indeed have much to teach "us"—not the least of which is the diversity of the "us" who could learn from her example. What the new biographies and interest in Hurston tell us most of all is that we should take each term of Alice Walker's inscription on Hurston's grave seriously—novelist, folklorist, anthropologist, "genius of the South." Hurston was indeed a "genius," a tutelary spirit, not only of the south, but also, in nearly equal parts, of fiction writing, folklore collecting and analysis, anthropological research and methodology, and, most fascinatingly, of performance theory. While most of us know Hurston as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and may, perhaps, have read her autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road (1942), what we may not have appreciated is the fact and multiplicity of the many roles that she played throughout her lifetime. Always passionate about words and the way in which language can both reveal and conceal the inner workings of the soul, Hurston dissembled as much as she divulged, fictionalizing her life at the same time that she turned the oral folklore that infused her upbringing into groundbreaking social-scientific research. As the above excerpt from the essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" suggests, how Hurston felt as Barnard's first black student was something that she did and did not want to unveil. Given that she came to Barnard to complete her education as a 34-year-old woman passing for age 26, and that she struggled to procure a golf outfit for her physical-education class even as she won accolades for her stories from those shepherding the Harlem Renaissance, who she was or wanted to be can only be uncertain, and perhaps strategically so.

Zora Neale Hurston relied on the many "Characteristics of Negro Expression" that she herself identified (in an essay of the same name) as essential to understanding black consciousness and culture. What she found true for blacks as a group, her life and work reveals as true for herself; indeed, characteristics she identified, like drama, the will to adorn, angularity, asymmetry and originality, all go a long way toward uncovering the mystery of Zora's self expression. In the "Characteristics" essay, she also mentions the "absence of the concept of privacy" as a phenomenon that influences African American voices, a result of chosen and enforced communal living and struggle. At the risk of continuing to violate Hurston's privacy, I present Issue 3.2 of S&F Online, "Jumpin' at the Sun: Reassessing the Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston," a project that comes out of the Virginia C. Gildersleeve Conference held at Barnard College, October 2–3, 2003.

When I suggested to Janet Jakobsen, Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, over two years ago that it might be time to reassess Hurston's impact, I had only begun to see the imminent tidal wave of interest in her and her work. In fact, the idea for the conference and this journal originated not as a result of nascent Zoramania, but from a different experience in my first-year English class, spring 2002. On the day I was to teach "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," I asked my students what they knew about Hurston. They responded vaguely, asking uncertainly, "Isn't she an alumna, just like Martha Stewart?" While they both possess different kinds of entrepreneurial spirits, it is intriguing and extremely odd to consider Hurston and Stewart as "just like" each other; therefore, I sensed that it might be time to distinguish Hurston for these students and the Barnard community. So, when I sat down to do the research necessary to make my case to the Barnard administration, imagine my delight when the biographical sketch that I was reading indicated that Hurston had been born in 1903—not only was it time to reassess Hurston, but it was also nearly time to celebrate her 100th birthday! (Many of you know where this is going). So I dashed off an excited e-mail to Janet, explaining our opportunity, to which she replied, "YES, absolutely, excellent!" Then, imagine my horror when, a few months later, I was continuing my research and learned that according to official and unofficial sources (i.e., Hurston herself), Hurston had also been born in 1891, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1910. Although I spent a sleepless night after this discovery trying to figure out what to say to Janet, I also very much appreciated Hurston's ability to thwart an easy celebration or any particular timeliness concerning efforts to recognize her and her work. So, given Hurston's trickery on me, her characteristic use of "angularity, asymmetry, and originality," it seems as if the time to reassess Hurston and her work would have been not only in 1991 (which was her true centenary), but constantly as we continue to discover her and her work in both expected and unexpected places.

Recognizing the multiplicity of roles that Hurston chose to play and those into which she fell or was forced, it is not surprising that the veil between her and us would be raised and rent occasionally. As a black woman "jumping at the sun," she was bound to shine brilliantly and fall sometimes; I would like to read the resurgence of interest in her life and work as evidence of both her bravery and complexity. Fighting constant poverty (she died in a welfare hospital), overcoming or ignoring the limited vision others would have of her as black and a woman, Hurston wanted and achieved "a big life," of having "not only books to read, but the kind of life that would fill a book."[2] Indeed, her Life in Letters biographer Carla Kaplan has said that Zora has suffered from "being loved too simply," being an object only of worship.[3] I am hoping that by acknowledging and being thankful for her triumphs and contradictions, "the helter-skelter skirmish that [was] her life," we can save Zora Neale from icon status, even as we celebrate her in this issue of S&F Online. Let us focus on the fact that, although sometimes surged upon and overswept by societal and personal demons, Hurston always remained herself, "witty, brave, bold"—human, real.[4] Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist, "genius of the South," Barnard's self-described "sacred black cow" would, I hope (to paraphrase the title of Alice Walker's 1979 collection of Hurston's work) love herself today, just as she would laugh, certainly at us, while continuing, for all time, to look "mean and impressive."


The conference from which this issue derives was an absolute pleasure to organize—one of the greatest effects of Zoramania is the enthusiasm and spunk that people brought to the conference, whether they served on panels, performed on stage, or sat rapt in the audience. Everyone I contacted agreed to take part in the conference—from Alice Walker, the keynote speaker, who drew a prodigious crowd, to my sometimes shy students who brilliantly performed Hurston's work in front of a similarly packed audience. Hurston is both "hot" and inspirational; it has been fascinating for me to witness and analyze the many ways in which her person and her work touch, intrigue, and challenge so many people.

The essays, creative pieces, and performances assembled here represent elements of the conference and its aftermath, providing a sense of new directions in Hurston studies, as well as Hurston's particular legacy on the Barnard-Columbia campus.

In Part One, "'Sharp Shadows, High Lights, and Smudgy in-Betweens': Narrating the Life of Zora Neale Hurston," Hurston's most recent biographers, Valerie Boyd and Carla Kaplan, share some of their new discoveries about Hurston, painting a picture of her during her time at Barnard and in New York in the 1920s. "Enter the Negrotarians," Chapter 12 from Boyd's Wrapped in Rainbows, and Kaplan's exegesis of Hurston's wiliness in her letters collected in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters give us different contexts from which to appreciate Hurston's magnetic appeal to the black intelligentsia and white philanthropists that helped her to launch her writing and performing career while she completed her education.

Part Two, "Everybody's Zora: The Legacy of Hurston's Work," features new work on Hurston from both well-established and emerging scholars of African American literature, theater, and dance. In her essay, "The Mark of Zora: Reading Between the Lines of Legend and Legacy," Ann duCille takes on "Zoramania" (her term is "Hurstonism"), and gives it a history and a politics as she recounts the way in which Hurston's legend as a singular genius "not only obscured the larger legacy of black women writers, [but] also has distorted Hurston's individual literary history." In a personal account of her own discovery of Zora in the 1970s, duCille correctively places the rise of Hurston in a tradition of black women's reading, writing, and criticism, excavating the trajectory of "literary, historical, and cultural studies BZ—Before Zora," in order to distinguish between Hurston's current celebrity and the real importance of her place in black feminist literary studies.

In "Zora Neale Hurston's Essays: On Art and Such," Cheryl A. Wall considers Hurston as few have done before: as an essayist with a theory of the performativity of black aesthetics that she simultaneously preaches and practices metatextually. Wall explains that Hurston's method—her sense of the essayist as author-preacher or "prayer artist" who sings her song over, but not separate from the harmony of the congregation—constitutes an original contribution to the history of African American literature. Wall also distinguishes her from a long tradition of African American essayists, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Alice Walker. Wall argues that such a method makes Hurston a visionary in yet another literary genre, as she "anticipates concerns and innovations of recent African American writing," especially its focus on the author/essayist as both critic and creator, a jazzman or bluesman, charged with being a writer of the African American "sound."

Hurston's influential, but little-known, impact on American dance history is the subject of Anthea Kraut's "Everybody's Fire Dance: Zora Neale Hurston and American Dance History." Focusing on Hurston's staging of the folk revue The Great Day in 1932, specifically Hurston's arrangement of the Bahamian Fire Dance within it, Kraut traces the process by which Hurston's formidable success as the choreographer of the dance was erased from dance history. As the dance was taken up by prominent white innovators of modern dance and attributed to them by the white dance press, a clear case of modernist "love and theft" vis-à-vis a black performance occurred. Yet, as Kraut argues, Hurston was not simply a victim of this process—in characteristic fashion, she "flipped the script" and also managed to take advantage of white avant-garde interest in black cultural expression.

Finally, Hurston's interest in performance is further explored in an excerpt from David Krasner's groundbreaking book on the history of African American theater, A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance. "Migration, Fragmentation, and Identity: Zora Neale Hurston's 'Color Struck' and the Geography of the Harlem Renaissance" reads Hurston's 1926 play in a way that highlights her iconoclasm, arguing that in this play Hurston examines the least glamorous subjects for Harlem Renaissance–era creative work—rural, working-class women from the South who had not made the Great Migration north. In his reading of Hurston's dramatization of the uncertainty of these women's lives, Krasner argues that Hurston's topic is not only intraracial color prejudice, but also the necessity and difficulty of preserving a performative, oral-based "folk" culture as a basis for African American cultural production in an increasingly urban, "textual" world.

Part Three, "My People, My People: Zora Neale Hurston in Performance," features members of Barnard's black student organization, BOSS (Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters), plus one honorary member, performing some of Hurston's best-known work. Directed by Peter Campbell and introduced and commented on by David Krasner, these excellent performances allow the audience to enter the world of Hurston's dynamic, polyphonous language. Featured here are excerpts from the first chapter of Their Eyes Were Watching God, read by Sheena Gordon (Barnard College, class of 2004); the last scene of the play "Color Struck" (1926) performed by David Johns (Columbia College, class of 2004) and Niki Williams (Barnard College, class of 2004); and, finally, members of BOSS reading "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" ensemble.

In Part Four, "Finding a World that I Thought Was Lost: Zora Neale Hurston and the People She Looked at Very Hard and Loved Very Much," Alice Walker speaks of her conception of Hurston's legacy in an excerpt from her 2003 Virginia Gildersleeve lecture. Every conference, panel, paper, and, indeed, Web journal on Zora Neale Hurston owes a debt to Alice Walker for her efforts in bringing Hurston's life and work to our collective attention nearly 30 years ago. In a 1975 article, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston," published in Ms. magazine, Walker began a process of honoring Hurston's life and work and uncovering her legacy by narrating her own efforts to locate Hurston's grave and place a marker on it. At that time, Walker made an important contribution to biographical work on Hurston by recounting the stories of some that knew her in Florida (and posing as a Hurston niece to do so); and she also provided a bibliography of Hurston's major works, those in and out of print, and thereby ignited Hurston interest from academics and publishers. Even more importantly, perhaps, than Walker's recovery of Hurston biography or bibliography is the spiritual work that her article enacts—the reclamation of a foremother and that mother's literary "garden," a profoundly personal and deeply political act. Alice Walker last spoke about Hurston at Barnard in 1975; we were especially pleased to welcome her back as a Gildersleeve lecturer for "Jumpin' at the Sun."

Part Five, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me: Race, Gender, and Higher Education—Students Sound Off," takes its inspiration from Hurston's 1928 essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," the only essay in the Hurston oeuvre in which she puzzles out the relationship of her blackness to her position as the first student of color at Barnard College. This section was originally devoted exclusively to Elvita Dominique's excellent thesis on the history of black women at Barnard in the years 1968 to 1974 (Barnard College, 2004). However, immediately after the conference, during the time that this Web journal was being prepared (in the winter and spring of 2004), a number of racial incidents rocked the Barnard-Columbia campus, igniting another set of responses to "how it feels to be colored" at Barnard and Columbia.

Now included in this expanded section are Dominique's thesis as well as a number of student responses to these recent racial incidents. In her essay, Dominique fast-forwards from Hurston's initial integration of the college in 1926 to the late 1960s and concentrates on the story of Barnard's integration from the perspective of the black women who experienced it, during the college's largest recruitment of black students. In chronicling how these women initially accepted and rejected Barnard's offer of integration, Dominique pays special attention to their radicalization on campus as a result of the black power movement and antiwar protests. Student responses from last year's incidents include editorial columns written by Danielle Evans (Columbia College, class of 2004) for the student newspaper Columbia Spectator, expressing her views on the incidents in sassy, straightforward language, and a manifesto and poems by Alexis Gumbs (Barnard College, class of 2004), Leah King (Barnard College, class of 2004), and Esinam Bediako (Columbia College, class of 2004).

Part Six recovers Zora Neale Hurston from the Barnard College Archives. While Hurston writes very little about her experience at Barnard, clues to the texture of her time in Morningside Heights are in the Barnard College Archives. Reproduced here are a letter from the Barnard Committee on Transfers, discussing Hurston's academic qualifications; Hurston's Record of Freshman Interest, in which she lies about her age and indicates, with characteristic wit, her future aspirations; her transcript, which reveals that she majored in English and minored in geology; a letter from Dean Virginia Gildersleeve to Hurston's publisher, advancing an opinion on Hurston's first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934); and a 1930 letter exchange between the dean of Bryn Mawr College and Dean Gildersleeve, discussing the potential perils of boarding black students on campus (Hurston was not allowed to live on campus during her time at Barnard).

While all of these voices give us a better view of Hurston's life, work, and legacy, a closer examination of them also indicates to us how much we do not know and cannot even imagine about this fascinating woman. With that caveat and challenge, I leave you with Hurston's own words—from the ending of her 1942 autobiography—which perhaps indicate what her attitude would have been toward enterprises devoted to her, like this issue of S&F Online:

I give you all the right hand of fellowship and love, and hope for the same from you. In my eyesight, you lose nothing by not looking just like me. I will remember you all in my good thoughts, and I ask you kindly to do the same for me. Not only just me. You who play the zig-zag lightning of power over the world, with the grumbling thunder in your wake, think kindly of those who walk in the dust. And you, who walk in humble places, think kindly too, of others. . . . Let us be kissing friends. Consider that with tolerance and patience, we godly demons may breed a noble world in a few hundred generations or so. Maybe all of us who do not have the good fortune to meet or meet again, in this world, will meet at a barbecue.[5]


1. Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1995), 826–29. [Return to text]

2. Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Scribner, 2003), 59. [Return to text]

3. Carla Kaplan, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 30. [Return to text]

4. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, "The Ocoee Riot," Essence (February 1989): 61. [Return to text]

5. Zora Neale Hurston, "Dust Tracks on the Road," Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1995), 768. [Return to text]

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