Monday, June 10, 2013

Zora Neale Hurston as Maid

Zora Neale Hurston, renowned African-American author, folklorist, and anthropologist, really knew how to put a spin on her life. I suspect her philosophy was never reveal vulnerability.

It's public knowledge that Zora died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave. (The beautiful Alice Walker went in search of her grave in the 70s and put a symbolic marker in the general area of Zora's burial.) It's been said that she was too proud to tell her family that she needed help.

As you can see from the clip below in the April 27, 1950, edition of the Anniston Star, Zora would not admit to prying reporters that she was in financial distress when it was discovered that she was working as a maid. However, I admire the spiritual truth she spun into why she, a black woman with an astonishing resume, was working as a domestic in a white woman's home.
'You can use your mind only so long,' she explained to the U. P. Reporter. 'Then you have to use your hands.'

'I was born with a skillet in my hand. I like to cook and keep house. Why shouldn't I do it for somebody else for a while?'

Found on

What Zora really liked to do was write, travel, study people, and network. Her answer to the reporter was a stretch, given that she was not particularly enamored of marriage, which in those days would have given her ample opportunities to cook and clean for someone if she really aspired to keep house. She was, after all, married three times.

In the documentary Jump at the Sun, scholar Valerie Boyd said that Zora "was afraid that marriage would only widen her hips and narrow her life? Her work was her master, and she followed its commands. And you know, she loved these men but they were mere men."

This adventurous woman worked as maid simply because she needed money. But like many writers, she probably rationalized to herself that she was also doing research for her next book while she worked as a maid, something she could never tell a reporter because what would her white employer do after that? The famous anthropologist/writer probably told herself she was observing white people more since she had spent so much of her life previously observing black people and writing about them. Writing about black people, however, no longer paid the bills.

Telling ourselves stories to help us cope with discomfort is what people do to hold on to hope or to manufacture happiness while in undesirable circumstances. They rationalize their choices and find purpose in their troubles. Nonetheless, it is true that it's good sometimes to rest your mind and work with your hands.

Another inaccuracy in the article, unbeknownst to the reporter, is that Zora was born in Eatonville, Fla. She was actually born January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Ala. but fabricated a story about her birth so she could get a scholarship to finish her high school studies, I've read. She told people she was born in Florida in 1901.

Zora died indigent at age 69, January 28, 1960, in Saint Lucie County Welfare Home, Fort Pierce, Fla.  I recommend Walker's essay "Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale" to anyone contemplating this aspect of Zora's life from In Search of Our Mother's Gardens.

1 comment:

Stephen Brooke said...

Are you familiar with Hurston's recordings? I didn't know they existed until a friend presented me with a CD that included her rendition of 'Shove It Over.' There are several available as free downloads from the Florida state archives--