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zora neale hurston

"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."- Zora Neale Hurston




        The Harlem Renaissance exalted black culture and began a detachment from the imitation of white artists by blacks.  Musicians, artists, and authors all absorbed black culture and drenched their works with it and with pride.  The movement changed the helpless attitude many blacks had and empowered them with the celebration of their ethnicity.  Authors during the Harlem Renaissance no longer copied the white vernacular and themes of writing; they applied the culture that is inherently theirs into their writings.  Zora Neale Hurston was one of many to employ her upbringing in her short stories and novels.  The literature of the Harlem Renaissance mimicked the cultures shift in music and art.  Jazz was the soundtrack to the story.  Each art form garnered support from one another and all combined to create the surfacing of a mutual black pride.  Hurston stood out not only because she was a woman but also because of her unique perspective due to her isolated upbringing.  Hurston truly saw the delineation between whites and blacks not as skin deep but as a cultural distinction.  She hailed blacks and their vast cultural background and felt pity for whites and their lack of any cultural connections.  Literature played an important part in the Harlem Renaissance because it reached many people unaffected by the music craze of Jazz.  It reached intellectuals, who eventually looked on with respect for those associated with the movement.  Combined, literature, art, and music joined to create the impact that the Harlem Renaissance left on America.

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        In 1903 Zora Neale Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, a rural community alleged to be the first completely incorporated black city in America.  This isolation of black culture left Hurston unexposed to the unnecessary evils of racism occurring at the time until almost her pre-teen years.  The third of five children, Zora had a unique upbringing that affected her future as a writer and served as an inexhaustible source of ideas for her creative mind.  Her father was a preacher among other odd jobs he provided for the community and her mother, a homemaker, died when she was at the early age of thirteen (Women in History 1).  Her death marked Hurston’s introduction into the segregated world of which she had lived unbeknownst.  Hurston was passed around from family member to family member, exposing her to communities other than her little isolated black one; communities that passed judgment on her because she was black.  Hurston graduated high school unlike her parents and even went on to complete two years of college, where she studied under Alain Locke, before taking Charles S. Johnson up on an offer to go to New York and pursue a literary career.  In January 1925, Hurston arrived with “$1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope” (Bontemps 193).  Her first short story "John Redding Goes to Sea" appeared in The Stylus, a widely read magazine at the time.  She slowly gained notoriety and another short story “Spunk” was published in Opportunity, capturing the attention of Harlem Renaissance pioneers Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen (Women in History 1).  Within a few short years, Hurston burst onto the Renaissance scene and quickly became a favorite.  Her wit was notorious, her storytelling unmatched, and most notably she reinforced the affluence of blacks racial heritage through her works.  Hurston celebrated black culture and wrote stories that expressed her pride for it.  She influenced future black writers Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Ralph Ellison who all attend to the issue of prejudice in their novels (Bontemps 214).  Her enlightened outlook on black culture eventually garnered much opposition when she attacked civil rights movements and the much-celebrated defeat of ‘separate but equal’ quotas for American schools in 1954 (Krull 84).  Zora Neale Hurston’s last years were plagued with resentment, poverty, and sickness.  Hurston passed in 1960 of hypertensive heart disease but her literary works forever impacted the Harlem Renaissance and black authors to come.   


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"How it Feels to be Colored Me" 

    One of Zora Neale Hurston’s most acclaimed literary works How it Feels to be Colored Me, an autobiographical account, describes her moment of self- realization “the very day that” she “became colored”.  Hurston’s upbringing in Eatonville, an all black community, shielded her from the definitive lines that separated blacks and whites.  When Hurston comes into her own she still does not emphasize the racial difference between herself and someone not of color.  This ambitious, free-spirited approach to life is eminent in all of her works.  She does not pity herself for being a woman of color but rather celebrates it and finds comfort in who she is (Cortez 1). 

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 aboutit.  (Hurston 1)

Hurston does not feel limited by the fact that her ancestors slaved the land that she walks on today but rather grateful and more determined to move forward (Cortez 1).  Her rich ancestral history serves as an impetus for her; she is ready to go and urges all blacks to do the same.  By now, Hurston understands the differences between whites and blacks but still refuses to make it a racial issue and focuses on the effect Jazz has on her compared to her white companion. 

This orchestra grows rambunctious, rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury, rending it, clawing it until it breaks through the jungle beyond.  I follow those heathen--follow them exultingly.  I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeooww!...My pulse is throbbing like a war drum.  I want to slaughter something--give pain, give death to what, I do not know…I creep back slowly to the veneer we call civilization with the last tone and find the white friend sitting motionless in his seat, smoking calmly.  "Good music they have here," he remarks, drumming the table with his fingertips.  (Hurston 1)

Hurston feels the music.  It lives inside of her.  Contrastingly, the white man simply enjoys it superficially.  Hurston is proud of her special connection with the music and her culture.  Hurston's changes the negative connotation associated with “color” and inverts one of optimism.  She forces the reader to consider the value that society places on color; by not having color take precedence in her story, she tells the world that it should not in our society (Cortez 1).  Hurston changes the lines of black and white to those that feel colored and those that do not; "great blobs of purple and red emotion" none of which touch the white man…"so pale in his whiteness" (Hurston 1).  To be colored now means something new, something desirable, and ‘whiteness’ no longer seems as enviable.  Hurston’s confidence with who she is exceeds simply finding comfort in her-self but she actually shows remorse for those unlike her, like the white man.  “The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult…the game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting” (Hurston 1).  She relishes in the challenges that lie ahead of her and “it is thrilling to think--to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame.”  Zora Neale Hurston changes the plight that blacks have long suffered and extracts from it the desire to persevere and feeling of equality and even supremacy.  It is exactly that mentality that made her writings so inspirational and influential during the Harlem Renaissance.  Hurston redefined the view of blacks both within and outside of her society with How it Feels to be Colored Me    

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Short Stories

Black Death


Mule Bone

Hey, Hey Blues

Gilded Six-Bits

Novel Excerpts

Excerpt. Mules and Men

'Member Youse a Nigger- Mules and Men

Excerpt. Their Eyes Were Watching God

Excerpt, Sweat

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Bontemps, Arna.  “The Harlem Renaissance Remembered”.  New York:  Dodd, Mead, and Company.  1972. 

Cortez, Mario.  “How it Feels to be Colored Me”.  American Reader.  September 3, 1996.  20 Jan 2003.  

Krull, Kathleen.  “Lives of the Writers: Comedies, Tragedies (and what the neighbors thought)”.  New York: Harcourt Brace and Company.  1999. 

Hurston, Zora Neale. “How it Feels to be Colored Me”.  From the World Tomarrow.  1928.  20 Jan 2003.  

Women in History. Zora Neale Hurston biography.  01/20/2003 22:05:49. Lakewood Public Library.

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