A Sparkling Life: Zora Neale Hurston was one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance. A new book illuminates her complicated history.

By Lise Funderburg

January 5, 2003

WRAPPED IN RAINBOWS: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, by Valerie Boyd. Scribner, 528 pp., $30.

What delineates the brilliant from the ordinary? Is it innovation or idiosyncrasy? Productivity or paradox? Biographer Valerie Boyd suggests all of the above with the subject of her new book, “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.”

Boyd, an arts editor and book critic at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has taken on one of the most luminous, irresistible characters in the pantheon of Harlem Renaissance figures – those writers and artists who broke new artistic ground in the first half of the 20th century. Hurston has garnered her own small renaissance of late, with Boyd’s book following on the heels of “Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters,” a collection of correspondence edited by Carla Kaplan.

Certainly Hurston deserves the attention. Her accomplishments include four novels, including “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “Jonah’s Gourd Vine,” as well as a number of short stories and plays. As a journalist, she covered murder trials and politics for both black- and white-run magazines. Her social commentary was too brazen for some, and she alienated supporters for finding fault in the construction of Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated American schools. (Her objection – since legitimized as part of the public debate on effective schooling – was that the ruling presumed only proximity to whites would afford black students a good education.)

Furthermore, as a field researcher trained under Columbia University’s famous anthropologist Franz Boas, Hurston made extraordinary contributions to the preservation of African-American folk tales and vernacular songs. She reported her findings to both academic and mass audiences, going so far as to produce musical revues based on the stories she recorded.

But Hurston is also a compelling subject by virtue of the paradoxes that filled her life. She was a child of limited circumstances and unlimited imagination, a girl from the backwoods of Florida who managed – dared – to settle herself among the rich and powerful. And, most mysteriously, after decades of success, she began working as a maid, only to later die in poverty.

Boyd’s biography is based on Hurston’s writing and correspondence, as well as the work of her contemporaries and interviews with them. The book makes a solid contribution toward illuminating this complicated life, and yet, as flamboyantas Hurston could be – always the life of the party, always the public figure – there are aspects of her personality that even Boyd’s careful research cannot unveil.

Certainly, Boyd does Hurston fans an immense service in untangling a chronology that Hurston herself often intentionally confused, especially in the effort to appear years or even decades younger.

Hurston was born in 1891 and raised in the small Florida town of Eatonville, one of the nation’s first towns to be officially incorporated and run solely by African-Americans. She came from a large, fairly poor family, but never lacked for food or playmates. According to Boyd, Hurston’s mother, Lucy, understood young Zora’s innate ambition and penchant for fantasy, and told all her children to “jump at de sun.” But Zora’s father, John, felt that his younger girl was greatly in need of bridling. Boyd cites an incident from Hurston’s engrossing autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road,” in which Zora has the audacity to ask for special treatment.

“When I begged for music lessons,” Hurston recalled, “I was told to dry up before he bust the hide on my back.”

When Zora was only 5, her mother died. Over the next few years siblings tried unsuccessfully to give her the home she needed, and her father, unable to pay a boarding school fee, asked the school to adopt her. (It didn’t.) In her teens, she wandered for several years from job to job, waitressing and taking care of children, working in a doctor’s office and as a manicurist, but always with the hope of getting back to school. Finally, Zora made her way to the historically black Howard University, where she first started to publish her stories and poetry. After several years, she moved to New York and began attending Barnard College, where she was the only black student in her classes. One class introduced her to Boas, who become an ardent supporter and sponsored her first trip south to collect folklore. Over the years, she spent time with rough-and-tumble turpentine workers, New Orleans voodoo doctors and Bahamian singers.

In her adventures and relationships, Hurston sparkled her way through the first half of the 20th century. She lived in Harlem several times, befriending other struggling young writers, artists and social powerbrokers. This loose coalition of talent collaborated on projects such as the single-issue magazine Fire!!, which came out in 1926 and was “devoted to younger Negro artists.” The short-lived journal featured the art of Aaron Douglas and writing by Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent and Wallace Thurman.

Until the end of her life, when she claimed to weary of writing, Hurston’s creative spirit was indomitable. If a musical revue didn’t earn money or a play never got produced, she managed to derive some small sense of accomplishment from the effort and then moved on.

When sufficient resource material is lacking, Boyd reverts to conjecture. As scrupulous as she is to distinguish opinion from fact, there are one too many declarations of opinion preceded by, “She might have argued … “; “she might have told him … “; and “Hurston seems to say. … ”

Another lapse in the midst of Boyd’s otherwise impressive effort is the absence of insight into Hurston’s romantic life. Each of Hurston’s three marriages appears in “Wrapped in Rainbows” as almost a fait accompli, then disappears as quickly. Boyd acknowledges that the “role Zora Hurston played in the sexually liberal Harlem of the 1920s remains largely unknowable,” but then proceeds to suggest that she might have participated in sexually experimental “buffet parties.” She further points out Hurston’s friendships with women known to be lesbian or bisexual, but because the implications of sexual connection are mere conjecture, the observations, and indeed the entire line of reasoning, seem equal parts prurient and gratuitous.

Boyd’s prose is by and large fluid and straightforward, though she is occasionally carried away in the attempt to bolster the tale. “The charges came out of nowhere,” she writes of false child molestation accusations that plagued Hurston in 1948, “like a puff of poisonous gas. Or like a sudden, savage thunderstorm on a cloudless day.”

More important, however, Boyd fulfills the biographer’s duty to establish her subject in a historical context. It is eminently helpful to know of Hurston’s place in the Harlem Renaissance – who championed her, whom she befriended. The patronage of white liberals and “primitivists” is fascinating, particularly in the subservience it demanded from its beneficiaries. Hurston and Hughes shared one benefactor, an older white woman named Charlotte Mason, who liked to be referred to as Godmother and treated her protégés as pets, sending Hurston exotic costumes to wear and demanding that Hughes move from Harlem to New Jersey as a way of increasing his productivity.

Hurston’s unconquerable drive transcended racial prejudice and reversals of fortune, fallout with friends and publishers, as well as a long succession of health problems. Her output was, in fact, astounding, given all the obstacles she faced. That she ended her life by returning to Florida, tending a garden and patching together an income, may seem like a surrender, but it may also have been simple exhaustion.

“Wrapped in Rainbows” seems a curious title at first, but its provenance is well-suited. It is the lesser-known portion of a famous Hurston quote, which reads in its entirety: “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

Boyd’s book is a tribute to Hurston’s life in its entirety. The choice of title concludes that it’s not the sorrow surrounding Hurston’s lonely last stage of life – dying in relative obscurity in 1960 at the age of 69 – that should mark her memory; it’s the brilliant, rainbow-filled life she lived.
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