Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writingsby Zora Neale Hurston, Pamela Bordelon
A wonderful discovery of folklore writings-many previously unpublished-by Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
When Pamala Bordelon was researching a work on the Florida Federal Writers Project, she discovered writings in the collection that were unmistakably from the hand of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the leading writers of the Harlem
A wonderful discovery of folklore writings-many previously unpublished-by Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
When Pamala Bordelon was researching a work on the Florida Federal Writers Project, she discovered writings in the collection that were unmistakably from the hand of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Over half of the works included here have not been published or are only available in the Library of America edition of Hurston's works. As Hurston's fans know, all of her novels draw upon her deep interest in folklore, particularly from her home state of Florida. Here we see the roots of that work, from the wonderful folktale of the monstrous alligator living in a local lake to her recording of folk songs to her work on children's games and the black church. There are also fiery and controversial essays on race and the work of black artists. In a biographical essay, Pamala Bordelon, with the help of Hurston's niece, has re-created the years during which Hurston was working for the FWP and living in Eatonville. She has put together the portrait of a serious writer and folklorist who was running tight on money, but big on spirit. This book is an important new addition to Hurston's work.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Zora Neale Hurston
A Biographical Essay
Zora Neale Hurston has proved herself to be one of the most illusory figures in American letters. She opens her autobiographical Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) with the admonition that she is writing it because "you will have to know something about the time and place where I came from, in order that you may interpret the incidents and directions of my life." Yet, despite her bold statement, she purposely distorts her life, veiling her age, early family history, and the "lost years" following her mother's death. Similarly her autobiography reveals nothing about her time on the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project.
In Dust Tracks, Hurston wrote, "I was born in a Negro town. I do not mean by that the black back-side of an average town. Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all." In fact, Hurston was born in Alabama, not Florida, in 1891, ten years before she occasionally claimed. Years of guessing have been put to rest with the discovery of the Hurston Bible, the Bible that once belonged to John and Lucy, Zora's parents. The Bible's "Family Record" page documents the family's genealogical background as well as Zora's birth date (January 15, 1891) and birthplace (the tiny hamlet of Notasulga, Alabama, a farming community situated in the shadow of the famous Tuskeegee Institute).
Just why Hurston hid her Alabama roots can only be guessed at. Her moving from Alabama before the age of two meant that she had little conscious knowledge of the place. Being identified with the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, rather than with the sharecropping and tenant-farming plains of rural Alabama was more in keeping with the image of herself that she was trying to create.
In the 1890s, this Alabama hinterland was a poor place. John Hurston and Lula (Lucy) Potts, who had been born in the area in 1861 and 1865 respectively, married there in February 1882. Their first child, Robert Hezekiah, arrived in November of the same year. Three more sons Isaac, who died while still a small child (sometime before 1889), John Cornelius, and Richard as well as a daughter, Sarah (1889), followed. John and Lucy wanted more for their growing family than the sharecropping, degradation, and (as Hurston would say) "soul stomping" that Alabama, with its tenant system, offered. Sometime after Zora's birth and before the arrival of her brother Joel, the family moved to the citrus belt of central Florida.
The family's migration was a critical decision for the future writer Zora Neale Hurston. What would have happened if her family had remained in the Alabama countryside? Nate Shaw, a lifelong resident of the Notasulga area who sharecropped and tenant-farmed, raised his children, and moved as high up the economic ladder as one in his position could venture, testifies to the type of life the area offered blacks: "Conditions has been outrageous every way that you can think against the colored race of people. Didn't allow em to do this, didn't allow em to do that, didn't allow em to do the other.... the white man held the final rule over the Negro." As Shaw relates, in Alabama blacks were "scared to run their business together, buy their fertilize together, sell their cotton together...." Blacks locked into the vicious sharecropping and tenant system were totally dependent on the whites who ran the banks and mercantile stores that furnished their farming credit and supplies. The white power structure controlled the economic and educational systems, keys to the Hurston family's later success. Most black children in Alabama who were kept laboring in the cotton fields had little chance of receiving a good education. To send them to school would have denied white farm owners exploitation of a valuable source of labor. The little education provided black children was hopelessly inadequate.
Looking for better conditions and educational opportunity for his children, John Hurston left Alabama and sought a place where in the words of John Buddy in Zora's first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, "uh man can be soupin' ... without folks tramplin' all over yuh." John Hurston had heard of the railroad boom farther south in Florida where Henry Plant was building the Atlantic Coast Line down the east coast of the peninsula. Here there was work, good pay, and no more back-bending over rows of cotton; no more fear of the fury of Reconstruction.
In the citrus-growing belt of central Florida, John Hurston found opportunity, and sympathetic whites who donated land for the all-black town of Eatonville, named after one of its white benefactors. He decided to settle there. With his quick mind and oratorical skills, he found a position preaching soon after he arrived. He was pastor of the Zion Hope Baptist Church in Sanford, Florida, as early as 1892, a position he held for decades. With a toehold established, Hurston wrote in Dust Tracks, "Relatives and friends were sent for." Dates in the Hurston Bible, an article in the Sanford Herald indicating Reverend Hurston began pastoring his Florida church in 1892, and Hurston's comments in Jonah's Gourd Vine indicate that the family moved to Eatonville in 1892.
Supported by a growing church membership in central Florida's newly emerging citrus-and-vegetable-growing region, John Hurston prospered. He bought land in Eatonville and built a substantial two-story, eight-room house and a barn. A five-acre garden, a citrus grove, chickens, and home-cured meat supplied bountiful food. Four more children all sons were born. Although Hurston very often painted a childhood of poverty and deprivation (especially to white patrons), she was raised with the trappings of a substantial middle-class life and the prestige of being the minister's daughter. The minister then (as now) was ordinarily the most distinguished member of the black community. And John Hurston was no exception. His leadership was felt in the area as he urged black parents to keep their children from working and allow them to get an education. He took an administrative role in town affairs, serving as its mayor from 1912 to 1916. All of the Hurston children were educated. Robert Hezekiah, Hurston's eldest brother, graduated from Meharry Medical College in Nashville as a physician. Ben earned a pharmaceutical degree at the same institution. Joel became a high school principal, and John Cornelius put his education to good use in his Jacksonville meat market. Everett, the youngest, became a postman in New York.
Hurston's mother supported the ambitions of her children as well. Zora claimed that Lula (Lucy) Potts Hurston exerted the strongest influence over her. Yet, little is known about her. Everything we do know about her comes from Dust Tracks, where Hurston frames her warmest memories of her mother. Her mother supported rather than diminished her ebullient and often impudent spirit. She encouraged the young Zora and all of her other children to "jump at de sun." As Hurston explained, "We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground." Zora portrayed her mother as a gifted and intelligent woman who shared John Hurston's belief in education. Wanting more education for her children than the Jim Crow South had to offer, she supplemented their schooling with home lessons. "You had to keep on going over things until you did know," Hurston asserted. Her caring yet exacting mother imbued her with a fierce desire to get ahead, with hope for a far different life from that granted most Southern black children caught in the vortex of farm tenancy and exploitation. Her mother's spirit never left her.
Lucy Hurston's unfortunate death on September 19, 1904, when young Zora was only thirteen, interrupted what had been until that time a warm and happy childhood. In Dust Tracks, Hurston claimed to be nine years old, not the nearly grown child she was. Just after her fourteenth birthday, Hurston's father married Mattie Moge, a woman half his age, who was but six years Zora's senior and three years younger than his eldest son. His remarriage to a much younger woman so soon after Lucy's death was destined to cause problems.
Twenty-year-old Mattie Moge could not replace young Zora's mother. Hurston hated her stepmother and expresses her disdain in some of her most vehement language. They fought violently when Mattie tried to discipline her for her "sassy" and "impudent" ways: "I wanted her blood, and plenty of it. That is the way I went into the fight, and that is the way I fought it." A photograph of Mattie reveals her to be a slight, petite woman who would have been easily overcome by an enraged girl who was larger and stronger than she. Hurston describes how she beat her stepmother to the floor and then "began to scream with rage. I had not beaten more than two years out of her yet. I made up my mind to stomp her, but at last Papa came to, and pulled me away." For obvious reasons, after the fight young Zora was removed from the house.
The years following her mother's death in 1904 and Hurston's enrollment in Baltimore at Morgan Academy in 1917, which set her life on a wandering course, have remained undocumented. We have scant information on how her relations with her father and siblings proceeded, why she was unable to complete her high school education, and how her character developed. Was she really a "slave ship in shoes," as she claimed? Hurston tells us almost nothing of these years, only of her misery, her father's abandonment, and her poverty.
Deeper investigation provides some clues to the Hurston family history during this time. Although one cannot say for sure, more than likely Zora was sent to boarding school in Jacksonville. Her vivid memories of boarding school in Jacksonville recorded in Dust Tracks make this more than likely. The rest of the Hurston children lived with their stepmother and father. Census records for 1910 indicate that six years after Lucy Hurston's death, the three youngest Hurston children were living in the household of their father and stepmother Mattie. The fact that she is listed as his wife proves that John Hurston did not divorce her. It hardly seems likely that John Hurston, an upstanding pastor in the community, would abandon his daughter. Zora most likely felt deserted when she was removed from her home and sent away. Her father's career did not decline after Lucy Hurston's death as Zora claimed. Indeed, John Hurston's best years were before him; he was elected to the Baptist Convention, and he became mayor of Eatonville in 1912 and served until 1916. Sometime after 1916, John and Mattie Hurston moved to Memphis, for unknown reasons. In May 1918, the Reverend Hurston died in an unfortunate car-train collision. Such accidents were not infrequent in the early days of the automobile, when railroad crossings were often unsafe.
Once her two eldest brothers married, Zora lived for a time with each of them. A 1912 photograph shows Zora standing with her physician brother, Dr. Robert Hurston, his wife, Wilhelmina, and their infant son, Robert Jr., proving that she was with the family long before she admits in Dust Tracks. Solid evidence in the form of a Bethel Baptist Church register shows Zora in 1914 living with her brother John and his wife, Blanche; she maintained close relations with this couple for most of her life. Elder members of the congregation claim that she was attending school. Dust Tracks places her back in Memphis in 1916, caring for Bob's three children.
Bob Hurston was nearly ten years older than his sister, and he may have felt responsibility toward her in the years following their mother's death. No doubt he knew that she was having a hard time and wanted to help her. A family photograph shows Hurston with Bob Hurston's three eldest children. This evidence supports her assertion in Dust Tracks that she lived with the family for a while. In her autobiography, Hurston admits her excitement at her brother's invitation: "I was going to have a home again. I was going to school. I was going to be with my brother. He had remembered me at last. My five haunted years were over." She goes on: "I shall never forget the exaltation of my hurried packing. When I got on the train, I waved goodbye not to anybody in particular, but to the town, to loneliness, to defeat and frustration, to shabby living, to sterile houses and numbed pangs, to the kind of people I had no wish to know; to an era. I waved it goodbye and sank back into the cushions of the seat."
Memphis at this time was attracting droves of rural black Southerners who were looking for economic opportunity. Some settled there; for others, it proved a way station, the gateway north. Richard Wright passed through the city during the 1920s on his way to Chicago and later New York. To Hurston as well, Memphis was a halfway house that freed her from her insular rural environment and provided her a way out of the South.
Dr. Hurston lived in the Scott Street area of the city. He had a substantial two-story home and an office not far away. He was well known in the tight-knit community, a place where "everyone knew everyone." Here newly arrived rural migrants sought to replicate the communal atmosphere they had left behind. In her brief residence, Hurston was sheltered and protected by this Scott Street community as well as by a strong and loving brother.
In Dust Tracks, Hurston speaks of her life in her brother's home. She resented rising early and lighting the fires. She chafed under the heavy workload with no pay. But her deepest dissatisfaction was something else: "There was to be no school for me right away. I was needed around the house."
Bob Hurston's daughter Winifred provides a profile of her father that offers additional insight into why Hurston left. Bob Hurston was a hardworking physician who went out of his way to help others in need. He offered his medical services regardless of his patients' ability to pay. "If people said they were sick, he was there," Winifred recalled. He was a compassionate man who made house calls late into the night, bailed men out of prison, and gave them jobs driving him to patients' homes or doing odd jobs around his home. When he died in 1935, many of his patients owed him money.
Kind as he was, Bob Hurston was a strict disciplinarian. An incident from Winifred's early childhood illustrates this. One night after returning home late from seeing a patient, Bob Hurston noticed that Winifred had failed to wash the pots after dinner and had put them on the back porch to soak. Rather than let his daughter's work slide, he got Winifred out of bed and, she recalled, "made me wash those pots. He only had to do it once. I didn't want to wash those pots, but I did from then on."
Given Bob Hurston's exacting standards, there is little doubt that the fun-loving Zora, a young woman of twenty-five, chafed under his rule. Here her account of her life in Dust Tracks rings true. Rather than serve, she fled, finding amusement and release by joining a Gilbert and Sullivan company as personal maid to one of the actresses. After her travels with the troupe, she landed in Baltimore, Maryland, where her sister Sarah lived.
In Baltimore, Hurston attended Morgan Academy and graduated with a high school degree. She was now a young woman of twenty-six. Just why she had not completed high school sooner is not clear, but her desire to get an education never left her.
Following her graduation from Morgan Academy, Hurston went on to Howard University, a place and time in her life she describes warmly in her autobiography. There her intelligence and literary talent quickly emerged. She won second place in an Opportunity magazine writing contest and the attention of Charles S. Johnson, editor of the magazine. He encouraged her to come to New York, where the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, the "New Negro" was in vogue, and white patronage of black artists, writers, and actors flowed freely. This proved a wise decision. Judges of the Opportunity contest, influential whites and patrons of the arts, assisted her. Annie Nathan Meyer, who was a trustee of the college, found her a scholarship to Barnard College of Columbia University, and Fannie Hurst gave her employment as her secretary, despite her poor typing skills. At Barnard, Hurston came under the influence of Franz Boas, Melville Herskovits, and Ruth Benedict, towering figures in the new field of anthropology. Together these intellectual pioneers charted the new direction that the discipline would take. Although Benedict and Herskovits influenced Hurston profoundly, it was Boas who molded and directed her career. It was "Papa Franz," as Hurston teasingly called Boas, who grounded her in the field experience needed to launch her career as an anthropologist and writer. He imbued Hurston with his ideas about cultural relativism, a theory that lifted anthropology from the racial constraints of nineteenth-century evolution theory and placed equal value on all cultures. Boas's tutelage sparked in her the desire to switch from English to anthropology in order to illuminate the beauty and vibrancy of African American life.
Boas recognized Hurston's gifts and her potential as a collector of black folklore in the South, where she would have obvious advantages over white researchers. He guided her early field efforts, obtained a research fellowship for her, and directed her earliest field collecting. Thanks to Boas's exacting standards, rigorous training, and stern discipline, early field disappointments led later to startling success.
Once Hurston graduated from Barnard in 1927, she found the generous backing of a patron who would sponsor nearly four years of nonstop folklore collecting throughout the South between 1928 and 1932. Mrs. Charlotte Osgood Mason sponsored not only Hurston but also the poet Langston Hughes. It was Hughes, her close friend and fellow Harlemite, who introduced Hurston to Mrs. Mason, who was already sponsoring a number of other gifted black writers, musicians, and intellectuals involved in the Harlem Renaissance, including Alain Locke, Miguel Covarrubias, and Hall Johnson. Hurston's letters to both "Godmother" (as Mrs. Mason wanted her protégés to call her) and Hughes reveal how dearly both Hughes and Hurston paid for Mrs. Mason's largesse. Hughes later broke with her completely, but Hurston did not. Mrs. Mason was a rigid taskmaster who insisted on wielding unnerving control over every detail of Hurston's life, setting rigid accounting standards, and retaining power over her fieldwork. But in the end, she must be credited for recognizing Hurston's genius and sustaining her fieldwork.
Hurston's perseverance in the field paid off. Although crushed by early disappointments, she plowed deeper into the fabric of Southern society as she learned to move among the people in railroad, lumber, and turpentine camps, places untouched by the larger flow of civilization. She learned to talk and dress like those among whom she collected, and to accustom herself to dangerous situations, jealous women, and barroom fights. "Primitive minds are given to sunshine and quick to anger," Hurston wrote. "Some little word, look or gesture can move them either to love or to stick a knife between your ribs. You have to sense the delicate balance and maintain it." Her genius is based on her sense of this "delicate balance." She drove alone through the backwoods, packing a pistol but relying mainly on her sharp eye and quick wit.
Hurston's Barnard education and ability to find a patron were the hinges upon which her career turned, but it was her perseverance, her fortitude during trying times, that ultimately assured her success. The onset of the Great Depression heightened Hurston's struggle. It gripped the nation from the fall of 1929, when the stock market crashed, until World War II began and full employment returned. Even Godmother had felt the pinch by 1932, when the Depression bottomed out, and her financial assistance abruptly ended. As Hurston wrote in Dust Tracks, "The depression did away with money for research."
By this time, the breadwinner in one out of every four families was out of work. State and local relief efforts crumbled under the overwhelming burden of trying to keep upward of twelve million people fed, clothed, and housed. It was at this desperate national juncture that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the relatively unknown governor of New York, won the Presidential election of 1932, promising a defeated nation "a new deal for the American people." Change was in the wind as the federal government began taking control of relief.
More determined than ever and fearing she would never get her collection of African American folklore published, Hurston returned to Florida, subsisted on fifty cents a week for groceries lent to her by a cousin, and continued revising the collection. Publication of "The Gilded Six Bits" in Story magazine led to a query from publisher J. B. Lippincott: did she have a novel? She replied that she did, and began writing Jonah's Gourd Vine. The book's publication in 1934 led to acceptance of her folklore collection as Mules and Men (1935). Although her books sold (Jonah's Gourd Vine even became an alternate selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club), Hurston never earned enough in royalties to sustain herself financially. She continually had to seek out alternate sources of funding to keeping her writing career afloat. For a black woman in Jim Crow America, this was a difficult feat indeed.
During these years, Hurston struggled constantly to make ends meet and persevered against incredible odds to establish herself as a professional writer. The ripples of her pioneering spirit would reverberate through the generation of black women writers who followed her. Margaret Walker in a 1986 interview paid Hurston the deepest compliment by noting her singular influence on her own life. "It was unheard of for a young black girl to aspire to be a writer. Only one person had even tried, and that was of course a woman from Florida, Zora Neale Hurston."
Hurston searched continually for alternative sources of funding to keep her writing career afloat. In 1934, she worked briefly at Bethune Cookman College in Daytona Beach as a drama instructor. In early 1935, she returned to Columbia to earn her doctorate, funded by a Rosenwald Scholarship. But she was bored by her Ph.D. studies, and she abandoned the attempt. Finding herself without sustenance, she frantically sought any employment she could find. Fortunately the federal government had stepped into the relief business and the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt had launched a number of relief experiments, among them the Works Progress Administration, later named the Work Projects Administration (WPA). The WPA sponsored projects for writers, musicians, theater personnel, and artists, and black professionals like Hurston, virtually without prospects in the private sector, were able to find work in these projects the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theater Project, and the Federal Writers' Project.
In October 1935, Hurston joined the newly organized Harlem Unit of the Federal Theater Project, where she shared company with some of the greatest names in the business, including Orson Welles, whose legendary performance of VooDoo MacBeth made theatrical history, and John Houseman, who codirected the unit. She did not record her feelings about the experience, but she left six months later when she received the first of two successive Guggenheim grants.
The grant funded deeper study of hoodoo, begun as early as 1927 in her fieldwork throughout the South. She intensified that inquiry in New Orleans in 1928, which she framed as an article, "Hoodoo in America," and published in Mules and Men. But Hurston wanted to get to the root of the rituals. Jamaica and Haiti offered rich and abundant material. She remained in the Caribbean for the rest of 1936 and part of 1937 doing field work. Her persistence in the field despite warnings ended in a violent illness. (She later wrote, "For a whole day and a night, I'd thought I'd never make it.)" Terrified, she cut short her collecting and returned to New York in mid-1937.
By 1938, Hurston was living in Florida on the remainder of the second Guggenheim grant. In March she completed the manuscript that would be published that fall as Tell My Horse. With her book months away from publication and grant funding exhausted, she found herself in the same bleak financial position that she had experienced three years earlier while in New York, awaiting the publication of Mules and Men. As she had in 1935, Hurston turned to the only opportunity available for black professionals, New Deal relief. In the spring of 1938, the WPA projects were still going strong, despite mounting criticism from conservatives in Congress.
Strong political pressure on the part of black leaders resulted in the hiring of black writers like Hurston. A number of aspiring writers, including Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, got their starts on the Federal Writers' Project. In the South, Florida, Louisiana, and Virginia had instituted black writers' units "Negro Units," as they were known colloquially. These Southern states were the only ones to sustain enough black employment to produce state African American histories. Only one was published The Negro in Virginia (1940), which received laudatory reviews.
There is some evidence that the Florida FWP had contacted Hurston while she was finishing the manuscript for Tell My Horse and asked her to be a consultant for The Florida Negro. She is said to have declined, citing "a heavy work schedule." But months later her need for funding was acute. There remains no correspondence describing her hiring. But field representative Darel McConkey, working temporarily in the Florida state office as a troubleshooter, reported to national director Henry Alsberg that "machinery had been put in operation to add Zora Neale Hurston to the project on a security wage basis." McConkey cited her impressive credentials, her two Guggenheim Fellowships, "three or four books," and "great interest in all the project was doing."
Hurston impressed her project supervisors with her "enthusiasm" and "interest," but joining a Southern writers' unit was personally challenging. It meant that despite being the toast of New York literary circles, receiving prestigious grants, and garnering solid, laudatory reviews of her books, she could not support herself. The humiliation of "going on the WPA" for middle-class persons like Hurston cannot be overemphasized. Hurston's situation was compounded by the fact that despite being the most published writer on the Florida FWP, she was forced to accept a relief rather than a supervisory position. Professional writers of Hurston's caliber were rare and ordinarily found editorial, supervisory positions at twice the relief salary of $67.50 a month that she was offered. Since most FWP personnel, especially in the South, were not professional writers, editors with writing skills and background were sought to do the actual writing that the individual project units required. Early in the program, Henry Alsberg had foreseen that "one person of writing and editorial ability will be worth fifty people without writing experience." During the early planning stages of the program, FWP administrators had built in a small nonrelief editorial quota with job security and higher wages to attract of persons with literary skills who could edit fieldworkers' copy. Unlike the Federal Art, Music, and Theater Projects, which mandated trained professionals in their respective fields, the FWP became a catchall for just about anyone who could literally write with pen and paper. Architects, businessmen, pharmacists, journalists, teachers, and other white-collar workers who were unsuited to employment on the regular works programs were often assigned to the WPA's literary and research division, the FWP.
Had Hurston been given an editorial position, she would not have had to go through the lengthy and humiliating process of being "certified." Hurston had to prove her indigence by being investigated by a certification worker who visited her home and asked a number of questions about her finances. She had to swear under oath that she did not own property or have a job or draw any other means of support. Only after passing the standard "means test" could Hurston, like any other person applying for work relief, become eligible and have her name placed on a roster of "certified persons." It was from this list that the names of persons eligible for work on the Florida Federal Writers' Project were drawn.
Hurston's hiring in a relief rather than an editorial-supervisory capacity was a clear-cut case of racial discrimination, and it produced repercussions. In June 1938, shortly after being hired, Hurston attended the National Folklore Festival in Washington, D.C., with a group of singers from Florida's Rollins College. While in the nation's capital, she visited FWP headquarters, where she met national director Henry Alsberg for the first time. Their conversation must have been animated by common literary and theatrical interests. He, too, held a degree from Columbia University and had been involved in New York's theatrical scene. There is little doubt that Alsberg was deeply impressed by Hurston's intelligence, wit, and charm and especially by her literary background and publishing record. After meeting Hurston, Alsberg immediately recognized in her a ready-made editor who could assist the floundering Florida staff with their stalled guidebook and African American history. Florida had proved a recent thorn in the director's side. So great was the state's administrative tangle, and so lacking its editorial support, that he was forced to send Reed Harris, the FWP's assistant director, to Florida to reorganize the state office, which desperately needed persons with Hurston's background and literary skills.
After meeting Hurston, Alsberg quickly wrote Florida director Carita Doggett Corse and suggested that Hurston be put in charge of editing The Florida Negro. He proposed that in order to compensate her for this additional responsibility, her salary be raised to $150. Alsberg's liberal recommendation that Hurston be made an editor sent shock waves through Florida's WPA organization, which controlled the state FWP's employment and finances. In the Southern scheme of things, blacks were not given supervisory positions, even if they were more capable or better suited. Placing an African American over whites would have violated the unwritten code of the Jim Crow South and rankled whites on the WPA and its arts projects.
Florida's WPA supervisors did not follow Alsberg's recommendation. Rather than confront him directly, however, Corse sidestepped the issue and suggested that Hurston be given an additional $75 in travel allowance. This would bring her salary to $142.50, close to the $150 that Alsberg had recommended. Since the highest-paid state editor earned only $160, Hurston was being paid well. But Alsberg's suggestion that she be made an editor was ignored entirely. Hurston's unfortunate experience in Florida, typical of what a black writer could expect in just about any Southern state, provides a clear example of how race and politics undermined the best interests of the Federal Writers' Project. Her ambivalent feelings about joining the FWP were magnified by the blatant racism that she had to navigate in order to collect her relief salary.
Even though the Florida FWP officials denied Hurston a formal editorial position, in correspondence they often referred to her as their "Negro Editor." She herself used the title while querying several publishing houses during the spring of 1939, as she tried to get the state's African American history manuscript published. But these references were little more than window dressing. True editors received nonrelief status, a higher pay scale, and job security. Hurston did not.
Understanding the Southern scheme of things, Hurston dared not protest this racial slight. She needed her relief position. Even regular WPA jobs were highly coveted political plums, and whites' demand for them far exceeded availability. Furthermore, being a field writer made it possible for her to live and work out of her own home in Eatonville, a privilege extended to only a handful of writers nationwide. For Hurston this was a far greater prize than editorial status. It enabled her to come and go as she pleased, do her own writing, and merely check in with director Corse in the state office periodically. Had Hurston been made an editor, she would have had to live and work in Jacksonville. The task of turning fieldworkers' amateur copy into publishable works would have bored her. It is not likely that Hurston would have lasted long at such a mundane, bureaucratic task.
Being left alone in Eatonville fit Hurston's artistic personality, as did her cordial, almost familial relations with her boss, Carita Doggett Corse. In Corse, the most unusual of personalities, Hurston found the ideal supervisor. She was a Southerner by birth, steeped in the region's white paternalistic outlook. But Carita Corse ventured out of her protective environment more than most Southern women would have dared. She led an active life for a wife and mother. She was a teacher, a published historian on Florida subjects, and a promoter of Florida tourism. This combination of credentials made her the leading candidate for Florida's FWP directorship. She not only was recommended by literary people, but had strong political endorsement as well. Those political and social contacts proved helpful in enlisting sponsors and consultants for the project.
Although Corse and Hurston came from such different backgrounds, the two women had much in common. Both had been educated in Northern colleges, had earned degrees from Columbia, and had written books about Florida; each was interested in the other's work. Hurston admired Corse's knowledge of early Florida history, while Hurston's folkloric background fascinated Corse.
Hurston carefully courted Corse, treating her much as she had other powerful white women who could help her. Knowing of the project's intense interest in black studies, Hurston asked Corse to attend a "sanctified church" service. (In earlier years she had extended the same gesture to Fannie Hurst and Mrs. Mason.) Corse recalled the occasion twenty-five years later in an interview:
She [Zora] asked me one time if I would like to go visit a store front church in Jacksonville. Of course, my editors and I were delighted. So about nine o'clock one night we went down on the corner of Broad and Forsyth, further out Forsyth Street than we were accustomed to going at night as it was sort of a Negro section. And there one of the abandoned stores had been occupied as a church by the neighboring Negro congregation. We arrived about ten o'clock, and the preacher wasn't preaching very earnestly and loudly at the time, but after we took our seats, Zora whispered to me, "I'm gonna get 'em on their feet." She rose and began clapping her hands and saying in a rhythmic tone, "Yeah, Lord ... Yes ... Yes ... Yes," until the rest of the congregation began to imitate her, and finally they were in such ecstasies from the hypnotic rhythm that they began to roll on the floor. I got very uneasy at this uncontrolled activity and whispered to Zora that I would like to leave. So we slipped out a side door, and took our car from the alley and departed. But it made a deep impression on me....
Their mutual interests and writing backgrounds helped form a solid bond between the two women. It cannot in any way be interpreted as a real friendship, for their societal roles prevented equality and neither woman was willing to cross the invisible line that separated blacks and whites. Instead, Hurston played the self-proclaimed role of "pet darkey," a guise similar to the one that she acted out with Charlotte Mason and Fannie Hurst. Today the idea seems shameful, but at the time it was a clever stratagem that Hurston used to forge a special connection with Florida's FWP director and win favors not extended to others. The curious dynamics of this relationship axe spelled out in "The 'Pet' Negro System," an article Hurston wrote a few years after leaving the FWP. In it she asserted that the "South has no interest and pretends none in the mass of Negroes but is very much concerned about the individual." She pointed out that in the South, whites singled out favorite blacks, "pet negroes" as she referred to them, "for special attention and privilege." She noted, "In the unwritten Book of Dixie ... every white man shall be allowed to pet himself a Negro. Yea, he shall take a black man unto himself to pet and to cherish, and this same Negro shall be perfect in his sight." This special attachment defied race, trouble, or strife: "Nor shall hatred among the races of man, nor conditions of strife in the walled cites, cause his pride and pleasure in his own Negro to wane."
Hurston referred to herself as a "pet darkey" in a letter she wrote to Corse in December 1938, shortly after her return from a book fair in Boston and a short stopover in New York promoting the newly published Tell My Horse:
It would have been lovely if you had been in Boston with me. Everything was so restrained and polished that you would have been right in your element. Somehow they [the town] showed great enthusiasm for me.... You might have been a little proud of your pet darkey. Yes, I know that I belong to you ... and that Sterling Brown belongs to Alsberg. You should see the little finagling he [Alsberg] does to give Sterling the edge over me. BUT he cannot make him no new head with inside trimmings and that's where he falls down. You ought to see Sterling exhibiting his jealousy as I top him time after time.
By drawing attention to her warm reception in Boston and her alleged besting of national "Negro affairs editor" Sterling Brown, Hurston was building herself up in her boss's estimation. She was appealing to Corse's sensibilities, for she knew that her boss resented Brown's constant criticism of the state's insufficient coverage of African American life and the glaring errors and offensive racial comments in state copy. While Hurston's intention may have been to use "pet darkey" ironically in her letter, the irony cannot hide the element of truth in her relationship with Corse.
Corse in turn played the role of patron. Shortly after Hurston joined the project, Corse wrote Washington to obtain a recording machine for her. No doubt Hurston had discussed with Corse the tremendous difference that a recorder could make in collecting folklore and mentioned a Library of Congress trip she had made three years earlier with Alan Lomax and Elizabeth Barnacle, when they had used one. Corse's requisition underscores her unusual willingness to petition the national office in Hurston's behalf and support her work.
Corse extended special privileges to Hurston in other ways. Shortly after Hurston joined the FWP, Corse invited her to visit FWP headquarters in downtown Jacksonville, an unusually liberal gesture for the times. In keeping with the strict Jim Crow code of the South, black FWP workers kept to their own office across town in the black section of the city. Black and white project workers seldom mixed. Stetson Kennedy, who worked off and on in the state office, recalled that normally the only black person ever seen at the downtown office was the runner sent over every two weeks to pick up the black writers' paychecks.
Hurston's visit to state headquarters caused a stir, one that Kennedy well remembered. He recalled Corse "calling us into her office, closing the door, and telling us that Zora was on board and would soon be paying us a visit." Corse explained to the state staff that "Hurston had been feted by New York's literary society, and had put on certain 'airs,' including the smoking of cigarettes in front of white people, and that we would all have to 'make allowances' for her...." So, Kennedy added, "Zora came, and Zora smoked, and we made allowances." Even more unusual was Corse's invitation to Hurston to visit her home to meet her husband, Herbert Corse, and their four children.
Corse let Hurston stay in the field, requiring her presence or services only sporadically. Most FWP fieldworkers had to report daily to a nearby field office and fill out time sheets. Hurston's only requirement (one she often failed to fulfill) was to mail in her weekly assignments of 1,500 words, a task that she could complete in a day or less, leaving her the rest of the week to do her own writing. Knowing the high-quality copy she would eventually receive, Corse made allowances for Hurston's artistic personality, condoning her erratic work habits, her periodic writing lapses, her all too frequent disappearances, and her unmet deadlines. As Corse explained in a 1976 interview, "She [Hurston] would go off and you wouldn't know where she was and she was supposed to be working by the week." After these lapses, Hurston would suddenly appear at state headquarters or else frame a heartfelt letter offering her apologies and a host of excuses. One of these letters survives, showing the way in which Hurston finagled her way back into her boss's good graces:
I am sitting down this time to write you a much-felt letter, Boss. I am risking it because you are an author yourself and I feel that you can understand my form of insanity perhaps. Dr., every now and then I get a sort of phobia for paper and all its works. I cannot bring myself to touch it. I cannot write, read or do anything at all for a period.... I have just been through one of those periods that lasted about nine days. It is stronger than I am boss. But when I do come out of it, I am as if I had just been born again.
The privilege of working out of her home in Eatonville without visible ties to the WPA enabled Hurston to ask the true nature of her employment and keep up appearances. Years later when asked about her aunt's relief position on the FWP, Winifred Hurston knew nothing, even though she had lived with her aunt at the time. Hurston's Maitland post office address might have been part of the guise as well.
Hurston's relief check was generous enough that she could help support Wilhelmina and Winifred Hurston, her now deceased brother Bob's daughters. Sometime after September 1937, Hurston invited Wilhelmina, Robert's eldest daughter and a young woman of twenty just starting out on her own, to come and live with her in Eatonville. Hurston was especially close to Wilhelmina, whom she had cared for as a child. Winifred was also very close to her aunt. Hurston had visited Memphis frequently when both of them were growing up.
Nothing in Winifred's growing-up years equaled the excitement when Aunt Zora came to town. Winifred recalled that the family never knew when Zora might suddenly appear. "She would just leave and you couldn't hear from her for a long time, and then the next thing you knew she might pop up to visit for a few days," Winifred asserted. When she arrived, word quickly spread through the Scott Street neighborhood: "Doc's sister's here! Doc's sister's here!" The neighbors would gather to listen to her and admire her clothes. She was invited to speak at church, an opportunity extended only to important individuals. Hurston's silk pajama outfits made an indelible impression on the little girls in the neighborhood, who tried to imitate her by wearing their sleeping pajamas to the corner store. They were chagrined when the store owner asked, "Did you just get out of the bed? You can't do just like Zora!" Hurston's presence kept the school bullies at bay when her nieces and nephews, capitalizing on the well-known fact that Zora carried a pearl-handled revolver, announced on the school grounds, "Don't bother us anymore. Our aunt is up here with a pistol." The ploy worked and the Hurston children enjoyed a reprieve. "But after Zora left," Mrs. Clark added, "they tore us up!"
Wilhelmina loved Eatonville and wrote her sister Winifred back in Memphis about the good times that she was having. And indeed she was. While there, Wilhelmina met John Hamilton, known by the nickname "Seaboard," who was reputed to be the fastest orange picker in Orange County. Seaboard became a frequent visitor, and in August 1938 he married Wilhelmina.
Once Wilhelmina married, Hurston extended a similar invitation to Winifred, who had just graduated from high school in Memphis and was working in her Uncle Ben's pharmacy. Winifred jumped at the opportunity to follow in her sister's footsteps.
While working on the FWP, Hurston lived on the edge of Eatonville at the crossroads known as Tuxedo Junction, a name which recalls a popular jukebox tune of the times and reflects the earlier use of Hurston's dwelling as a nightclub. Hurston had chosen the location because it offered solitude as well as beauty and inspiration. The house, which had once been a barn, stood on the bank of one of the many lakes in the area, amid a magnificent setting of massive oaks dripping with Spanish moss. The pristine beauty of the place so struck federal writer Paul Diggs, who visited Hurston there, that he judged it "an ideal setting for a country lodge."
It was here in this location in central Florida, a place to which she was compulsively drawn, that Hurston found the inspiration and peace she needed to write her fifth novel, Moses: Man of the Mountain, as well as to turn out her Federal Writers' Project assignments. Winifred recalled her aunt's habits while writing and offered a rare glimpse of Hurston at work. She noted that while working on a manuscript, Hurston stayed relatively close to home. "Most of the time she was there at night," Winifred remembered. "Sometimes she would go out. Mostly she'd stay around the house. When she did go out, she'd go to Winter Park ... to Rollins College ... or she played croquet with a white woman in Maitland." She often moved her typewriter, a card table, and a chair outdoors and wrote under the trees, dressed in coveralls. She stayed there all day, talked to no one, and everyone knew to leave her alone." Winifred noted that writing days like these were interspersed with research and reading.
Hurston created a comfortable, homelike setting for herself and her nieces. She cooked for them every night, serving meals so delicious that Winifred readily recalled her aunt's culinary skills decades later. The girls were enthralled by their aunt's impetuous nature and unpredictable behavior, which contrasted sharply with their strict Memphis upbringing. Winifred vividly recalls one episode. One day, her aunt approached her with the simple question "Do you want to go and see your Uncle John?" Winifred voiced her approval of the idea, thinking they would plan the trip to Jacksonville and leave in a few days. But to Winifred's amazement, Zora said, "Get ready, let's go." With that the pair made a whirlwind trip, staying but a few hours and returning the same day. Much to her niece's chagrin, Hurston wore her coveralls on the trip.
Treating her nieces like trusted daughters, Hurston left them in charge of the house and lent them her car when she had to go out of town. Evidently she preferred to take the bus when she made her frequent trips to FWP headquarters in Jacksonville. At these times she would announce to Winifred, "I've got to go to New York for a few days." Winifred would drive her aunt to the local bus station, drop her off, and keep her aunt's car until she returned. "I know I kept her car a lot in those days," Winifred recalled.
These trips to "New York" were doubtless a ruse to conceal Hurston's FWP employment. In the 1930s, New York was a two-day bus ride. More than likely Hurston was traveling on FWP assignments around the state or to Jacksonville to check in with Carita Corse at FWP headquarters.
Meet the Author
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and folklorist, is best known for her book Their Eyes Were Watching God. Other classics include the acclaimed short story Sweat. She was deemed "one of the greatest writers of our time" by the novelist Toni Morrison. With the publication of Lies and Other Tall Tales, The Skull Talks Back, and What's the Hurry, Fox? new readers will be introduced to her extraordinary legacy.
- Date of Birth:
- January 7, 1891
- Date of Death:
- January 28, 1960
- Place of Birth:
- Eatonville, Florida
- Place of Death:
- Fort Pierce, Florida
- B.A., Barnard College, 1928 (the school's first black graduate). Went on to study anthropology at Columbia University.
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