Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography
Mules and Men
In the years after World War I blacks began to migrate to the North and its imagined freedoms in great numbers—“Russian” came to mean a black who had rushed from the South. Along with them came the “Jazz Age” of the Charleston and the Black Bottom, of the musical hit Shuffle Along with Josephine Baker in the chorus, and of Scarlet Sister Mary with Ethel Barrymore in blackface. It was also the time of the “Harlem Renaissance” and the “New Negro,” when more books were published by blacks than ever before and more whites wrote about blacks than have ever done since. Langston Hughes wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea: “I had a swell time while it lasted. But I thought it wouldn’t last long…. For how could a large and enthusiastic number of people be crazy about Negroes forever?”
Born in Eatonville, Florida, in 1901, Zora Neale Hurston arrived in New York in 1925 with, as she said, “the map of Dixie on her tongue” and $1.50 in her purse, one among many promising young black writers drawn to the Black Mecca. Eatonville was an all-black town, incorporated since 1886, self-governing, proud, not at all the “black backside” of a white city. No doubt this was a source of Hurston’s self-confidence and self-sufficiency, as well as the reason for her impatience with what she called “Negrotarians,” blacks who felt they had to launder their image in order to be accepted by white society. She herself was at ease on Park Avenue as well as on 137th Street, having been spared, in her all-black town, the sting of a childhood marked by daily encounters with racism. Hurston had no sympathy for blacks whom she felt were weak with self-pity and a sense of tragedy about their skin color. Throughout her life she tried to make literature out of the black folk culture into which she was born.
She had supported herself from the age of fourteen, working as a maid and a manicurist, and had already attended Howard University and won prizes for a short story and a play in a contest sponsored by Opportunity, an Urban League publication, when she arrived in New York. There she met other black writers and soon became known as the “Queen of the Niggerati.” Witty, intelligent, always “dressed down,” Hurston had only to open the door to make her presence felt. Her circle included nearly all the prominent black literary figures of the time as well as white writers like Carl Van Vechten and Sinclair Lewis. The frenzy of interest in blacks among whites also brought her introductions to upper-class white women like Katherine Biddle and Charlotte van der Veer Quick, who became her dictatorial patron. (She once received a list of expenses that included sixty-five cents for sanitary napkins).
While traveling with a “fast crowd” and developing as a writer, Hurston was admitted to Barnard College. The only Negro student enrolled in the school in 1925, she …
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