Zora Neale Hurston
On January 7, 1891 Zora Neale Hurston was born to a Baptist preacher father and country schoolteacher mother in Notasulga, Alabama. As a young child her family moved to Eatonville, Fla., the first all-black community to be incorporated in the U.S. Visited by Northern schoolteachers at the age of 12, young Zora discovered the world of literature and never looked back. Working as a maid and manicurist to prominent Blacks, Hurston would eventually put herself through undergraduate studies at Howard University; after graduation she was offered a scholarship to Barnard College at Columbia University in New York City, where she earned a BA in anthropology followed by two years of post-grad work at Columbia. She was the college’s only black student.
Hurston conducted ethnographic research throughout the American South and the Caribbean, work that would ultimately provide the backdrops for her novels and short stories. She would later say she moved to New York City in 1925 with “$1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope.” It was fortuitous timing, as she landed in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance where she was warmly embraced. She had two short-lived marriages and no children.
Later in life, Hurston’s health and finances deteriorated to the point where she found herself at St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She had a stroke there, and on January 28, 1960 she died from hypertensive heart disease. Hurston’s remains were buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida, a town where she spent many of her later years. In 1973, novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found an unmarked grave in the same area where Hurston had been buried, and marked the grave as hers.
Hurston was no social conservative: her writings portray both a fierce feminist individualism as well as the deepest respect for the diverse cultures of the African-American and Afro-Caribbean diasporas. On the other hand, Hurston’s economic politics run far too right-libertarian-bootstrappy for my tastes (and apparently for the tastes of many of her Harlem Renaissance cohort as well). Of course we will not be celebrating that at the Palace today. Nope. It is her unapologetic godlessness to which we will toast.
Of her childhood as the daughter of a Baptist preacher Hurston would later write in “Religion,” from Dust Tracks on a Road (1942):
My head was full of misty fumes of doubt. Neither could I understand the passionate declarations of love for a being that nobody could see. Your family, your puppy and the new bull-calf, yes. But a spirit away off who found fault with everybody all the time, that was more than I could fathom.
From the same piece:
Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws. The ever-sleepless sea in its bed, crying out ‘How long?’ to Time; million-formed and never motionless flame; the contemplation of these two aspects alone, affords me sufficient food for ten spans of my expected lifetime. It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me. Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels. The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn, is glory enough for me. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.
Zora Neale Hurston’s work disappeared into obscurity for decades, until an article by Alice Walker in the March 1975 issue of Ms. magazine sparked a rekindled interest in her writing, around the same time as the emergence of Black women writers such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Walker herself. The disappearance of Hurston’s writing brings to mind an insight I gained at CFI’s Women in Secularism 2 conference, where I heard Susan Jacoby speak on “Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today,” and Jennifer Michael Hecht on “The History of Atheism, Feminism, and the Science of Brains.” Both speakers touched on the theme of women activists, scholars and writers throughout history who had a profound, world-changing influence, only to be quickly disappeared from historical narratives in favor of (usually equally deserving) men. This turns out to be especially true for nonbelieving or unorthodox women, and in fact, atheist men are also typically erased from historical narratives in favor of believers—this is literally a textbook example of Christian privilege at work. But in terms of intersectional axes of privilege and oppression, the voice of a Black woman feminist atheist would surely be more likely than nearly any other to be silenced and erased. As the Combahee River Collective Statement put it so well:
If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.
Speaking for myself as a feminist and a humanist, it is especially important to amplify voices such as Zora Neale Hurston’s. This task should not rest solely on the shoulders of Black women like Alice Walker, whose own voices are in turn more likely to be diminished in our political, cultural and historical narratives. It is incumbent upon every one of us who find the status quo abhorrent and who seek to effect a more just society to amplify those whose words would otherwise be stricken, their lives forgotten, their stories erased.
Please join us in the Palace Bar today and enjoy an Emancipation Again cocktail, a luscious drink with roots in the Harlem Renaissance. The recipe comes courtesy of mixologist and entrepreneur Karl Franz, owner of the 67 Orange Street, a cocktail bar in Harlem named after the address of the first African American-owned bar in New York City: “The original Emancipation cocktail was designed by one of the early bartenders at 67 Orange. Today, Karl has recreated it, adding some ingredients and changing some proportions to bring us the Emancipation Again.”
2 oz. Crop Organic Cucumber Vodka
1 oz. Patron Citronage
¾ oz. agave nectar
½ oz. fresh squeezed lime juice
1 barspoon-full of apple cider vinegar
3 cucumber slices
4 small cubes of ginger
A few sprigs of cilantro
2 lime wedges
Muddle two slices of cucumber, ginger, cilantro and lime in the agave and lime juice. Combine with the rest of the ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake until chilled. Strain and serve up in a coupe or martini glass garnished with the remaining slice of cucumber.
Today, let’s celebrate Zora Neale Hurston and her emancipation from religion. When history is written of the emancipation of all of humanity from its bondage, may her story be proclaimed with the respect it is due. Cheers to that.
Zora Neale Hurston