She was born in Notasulga, Ala., but she didn’t like the way her story started, so she rewrote it and claimed Eatonville, Fla., as her birthplace instead. She wasn’t too partial to 1891, the year her mother delivered her, so she remixed it, and for the rest of her life, she took liberties with the mathematics of her age, knocking as many as 10 years off if the notion felt good to her.
Zora Neale Hurston was a master of creative invention and reinvention, from the personal details of her own life to her artistic catalog, which included four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, and dozens of short stories, essays, articles and plays. She was an original black girl unboxed.
It’s appropriate today, on what would be Zora’s 125th birthday, to honor the social and cultural freedoms she cleared for black female writers who stand on her platform and use our words to tell our own stories instead of allowing them to be told to and for us. She made it OK to be bold and conflicted, to wrestle with our identities and explore our differences as we chip away at the monolith, even to sometimes contradict ourselves and swerve, midaction, without apology.
Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor, both literary geniuses, have credited Hurston as an inspiration, as do others, the famous and not so famous among us, who strip away pretense and dig into our personal wells of realness when we sit at a keyboard. We awe at the musicality of her prose and absorb what she said even in between the lines. This is what Hurston taught us, the black women creatives who came up in her shine.
You don’t need anybody’s permission to love who you uniquely are.
“My mother had a number of books from the canon of black women’s literature. Among them was I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, Alice Walker’s anthology of Hurston’s work. Just the book cover and the quote did so much to shift my thinking of what it means to be a woman. Her whole damn self is inspiring, a woman who loved herself at a time when self-hatred was expected of her. I find her to be contrary, instructive, insightful, bold and a perfect guide of who I can be if I dare.” —Writer and painter Kiini Ibura Salaam
Be audacious whenever appropriate, which is pretty much always.
“I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God in college and fell in love. The lyrical prose, dynamic black female protagonist, fresh use of humor and powerful affirmation of sisterhood all bewitched me. Zora’s personal narrative, however, scared me. I aspired to write, had already started publishing some of my work, and the experience of silence and invisibility both in Zora’s work and in her life freaked me out. I was inspired by her resistance to erasure, her insistence on voiced expression, but the last years of her life seemed so tragic. I was haunted by fear of a similar kind of dispossession, even as my own writing took off after college and graduate school. Then I read Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd. She helped me understand Zora wasn’t dispossessed at all. She was free. And she could free me.” —Author Eisa Nefertari Ulen
Your talent will stretch across as many mediums and platforms as you will go.
“She refused to be pigeonholed into a single genre and craft. She was an amazing storyteller and cultural curator, as interested in collecting stories as she was in crafting them. Our creative lives are similar in that we study our people, culture and spirituality and write about them in plays, novels, stories and essays.” —M. Shelly Conner, Ph.D., writer and English instructor at Loyola University Chicago
You can’t do black womanhood one way, and you can’t do it wrong.
“I’ve often said Zora Neale Hurston saved my life. My mother gifted me her copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God when I was 16 and immersed in agoraphobic depression. Reading Zora kept me afloat and made me realize my life would and could be bigger than my sorrows. Because she wrote so powerfully and honestly and amazingly about love and oppression and navigating turmoil from the perspective of a black woman, I wield my pen as a sword to cover the same terrain.” —Evette Dionne Brown, freelance culture, race and gender writer
Know that the minutiae of everyday life can be woven into literary tapestry.
“Zora was the first writer to make me feel like I could tell a story that mattered, a story that people would listen to. Her words have so much power, she makes me feel like mine do, too.” —Author Shameka Erby
Say what you have to say in only the way you can say it.
“Zora Neale Hurston was fearless. At a time when being black was frowned upon and many writers were hoping to appease white America, she reveled in our culture and wrote in its voice. Whenever I question my voice, or whether or not I should ‘tone it down’ for the ‘mainstream,’ I think of her, and I write.” —Britni Danielle, freelance journalist and novelist
Speak for the people who don’t have the opportunity to be heard.
“Her work was honest. She wrote based on her experiences with people and provided voice to the voiceless through her characters. She was a true ethnographer depicting working-class black folks through her writing. Like her, I hope to give voice to the women that I write about in my scholarly endeavors.” —VaNatta Ford, Ph.D., visiting professor of Africana studies at Williams College
Trust your own (unconventional) approaches.
“It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much influence Zora Neale Hurston’s life and work had on my own life and work as a young ethnographer. The more I learned about and read her lesser-known anthropological work on black folklore, the more I realized that she, too, struggled early on to find her voice in academia. But what made her a significant influence to me was the fact that she lived by her wits, intuition and imagination. She continued to document black life even when academics criticized her approach. She trusted herself.” —Tara L. Conley, ethnographer and doctoral candidate, Columbia University
Outfit yourself in resilience and perseverance.
“My heart breaks knowing she died in poverty, buried in an unmarked grave. And yes, I know the great Alice Walker found the grave years later and purchased a headstone. Her end-of-life story, however, reminds me that literary notoriety is fickle and arbitrary and, as African-American women writers, we can help redeem the final chapter of Zora Neale Hurston’s life by never giving up in word or deed. That’s how her life and writing inspire me. Never give up. Keep going. Don’t stop. Ever. Always.” —Author Patricia Raybon