Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was born somewhere between 1891-1901. Because throughout her life she was dishonest about her age no one is quite sure of her year of birth. She was born in the town of Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville is five miles from Orlando. It was an all African American town and was not a ghetto or a slum. Eatonville was the first all black community to be incorporated. In childhood Hurston grew up uneducated and poor, but she was immersed with black folk life. She had little experience with racism early on since the town was all one race. This caused her to have unconventional attitudes later in life which alienated her from others.

Zora had two siblings: Sarah who was older, and John who was younger. Her father, John Hurston, preferred Sarah over Zora. He resented that Zora was born a girl. Her mother, Lucy Hurston, died when Zora was nine years old. Lucy strongly encouraged her to be independent and creative. She encouraged all of her children to "jump at de sun". After the death of her mother Zora was shuffled around by relatives and rejected by her father when he re-married. For a place to go, Zora resorted to being a hired domestic in several homes.

At the age of fourteen, Hurston was hired by a traveling drama troupe, Gilbert & Sullivan, as a wardrobe girl and maid. During this time she came to Baltimore and enrolled in the Morgan Academy. She had one change of clothes and a lot of ambition. She graduated in June of 1918 From there she went on to Howard and got her associates degree in 1920. She kept studying there until 1924.

During her college years Hurston worked many jobs from manicurist to maid, but she was still often in debt. Throughout most of her life she struggled with poverty despite her hard work. Mary Helen Washington wrote that "In 1950, when she was a noted American writer, she was discovered "masquerading" as a maid for a wealthy white woman in a fashionable section of Miami. Though she claimed she was temporarily "written out" and wanted the experience for an article about domestics, the truth was she was living in a shabby studio, had received a number of rejection slips for stories, was hustling speaking dates and borrowing form friends, and was flat broke. These were some of the most critical facts of her adult life. On the other hand, during her earlier writing period, Zora Hurston was extremely adept at finding people to give her money to further her career, a talent which sparked the accusation that she pumped whites for money, compromising her own dignity in the process" (1979).

Hurston went to Barnard College in the later 1920's and studied under anthropologist, Dr. Franz Boas. She continued to work under him later when she attended Columbia University. In 1927, "Papa" Franz as she called him, helped Hurston go back to Eatonville to collect folklore.

Zora Neale Hurston started to work under a woman in 1928, Mrs. Mason. Mrs. Mason funded Zora so that she could go south and collect more folklore. Mrs. Mason was extremely controlling and was a large factor concerning what Hurston did and did not write about and publish.

Hurston lived in New York during different times in her career from 1925 on, and joined the Harlem Renaissance. She was one of the shapers of the black literary and cultural movement of the twenties. Hurston received a lot of criticism in her time by other writers, some of whom were also involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes, an important black author of the period was supported early on by the same white woman as Hurston but still offered harsh criticism toward her, regarding her career. Darwin Turner was a critic of Hurston's work who tended to primarily base his critique of her work on his person views of her personality. He said she was a "quick-tempered woman, arrogant toward her peers, obsequious toward her supposed superiors, desperate for recognition and reassurance to assuage her feelings of inferiority" (1979). Darwin Turner states that all of Hurston's work must be looked at in regards to the above statement. When Darwin Turner critiques an African American male writer of that time period, Jean Toomer, he mentions nothing of Toomer's marriage to a white woman or that at one point in his career he refused to be identified with other blacks. Turner skirts this issue and says that Toomer's insisting that he wasn't a "Negro" or Caucasian- but a member of the "American" race is "philosophically viable and utterly sincere" (1979). Hurston's work came at a time when critics were both white and black, but were all men. Mary Helen Washington has said that "To a large extent, the attention focused on Zora Hurston's controversial personality and lifestyle has inhibited any objective critical analysis of her work. Few male critics have been able to resist sly innuendoes and outright attacks on Hurston's personal life, even when the work in question was not affected by her disposition or her private affairs" (1979).

Hurston was the first black scholar to research folklore on the level that she did. She researched songs, dances, tales, and sayings. Much of her book material revolves around issues of slavery and the time period immediately following it. She took her black rural culture and heritage and celebrated it at a time when most black scholars were trying hard to deny and forget it. Hurston also studied voodoo practices in Jamaica, Haiti, and the British West Indies. She took photographs and recorded their songs, dances, and rituals. She had a Guggenheim Fellowship to research in the Caribbean, where she stayed for two years.

In the Caribbean, Zora Neale Hurston wrote the book she is probably most known for Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was written in 1937, after the ending of a love affair she had with a younger man. It took her seven weeks to complete. The book is about a woman named Janie who learns to find herself and accept an identity that society is not so fast to accept, as a fulfilled and autonomous black woman. Janie also finds love in this novel in a way untypical of other "love" stories of the time.

Zora Neale Hurston was married several times in her life. In Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston wrote about love: "Under the spell of moonlight, music, flowers, or the cut and smell of good tweeds, I sometimes feel the divine urge for an hour, a day, or maybe a week. Then it is gone and my interest returns to corn pone and mustard greens, or rubbing a paragraph with a soft cloth. Then my ex-sharer of a mood calls up in a fevered voice and reminds me of every silly thing I said, and eggs me on to say them all over again. It is the third presentation of turkey hash after Christmas. It is asking me to be a seven-sided liar. Accuses me of being faithless and inconsistent if I don't. There is no inconsistency there. I was sincere for the moment in which I said the things. It is strictly a matter of time. It was true for the moment, but the next day or the next week, is not that moment. No two moments are any more alike than two snowflakes. Like snowflakes, they get the same look from being so plentiful and falling so close together. But examine them closely and see the multiple differences between them. Each moment has its own task and capacity; doesn't melt down like snow and form again. It keeps in character forever. So the great difficulty lies in trying to transpose last night's moment to a day which has no knowledge of it. That look, that tender touch, was issued by the mint of the richest of all kingdoms. That same expression of today is utter counterfeit; or at best the wildest of inflation. What could be more zestless than passing out canceled checks? It is wrong to be called faithless under circumstances like that. What to do?" (1942).

Zora Neale Hurston was a relatively private person. She has been described by those who knew her as having the personality traits of loudness and coarseness. She was controversial, highly outspoken, arrogant, independent, and eccentric. To be a black woman with a career in writing in the 1920's through the 1950's was eccentric. She lived in controversy and died poor in 1960. When she died she was thirty years out of print. She was a writer, an anthropologist, and a folklorist.

Hurston had a hard time with depicting blacks as defeated, humiliated, degraded, or victimized in her work. This is because she didn't experience herself or other African Americans in those ways. This helped bring about much of the criticism she received. She wanted to portray black life in a way unconcerned with white people and unaware of problems attributed to being black. She wanted to show them laughing, celebrating, loving, and struggling.

The work of Zora Neale Hurston was out of print when Alice Walker resurrected it in the 1970's. If it had not been for that it may have remained forgotten even still.


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