"I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions."
Over the years I've done a huge amount of research on women explorers and explorers in general. Although things are changing, the world of adventure and exploration is still largely dominated by the same white male figures. We see them in books and on our TVs, and I stared this project to try in some small way to break that cycle.
One thing I noticed early on was the lack of information on black explorers, especially black women. They were not included in the any books I read, and there's hardly any information about them online.
Today, in the first of my posts about black women explorers and adventurers, meet Zora Neale Hurston. Zora captured my attention purely for her shear determination and belief that she could do whatever she wanted in life, no matter what setbacks she faced.
Growing up in a poor household in Florida, Zora had to work throughout her childhood to help keep her family afloat. After her mother died, her father remarried and Zora disappeared on what she called her "years of wondering". To this day, there is no record of where she went for nearly a decade, but age 26, Zora came back. Somehow, she managed to disguise herself as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, and re-entered high school to finish her education. She went on to graduate, and more determined than ever, moved to New York in 1925 with $1.50 in her pocket, to study anthropology at Columbia University.
“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”
Zora was fascinated by people and their cultures, especially traditional African American history, and travelled extensively through the US, with her guitar in hand, singing songs and stories from her childhood in the hope that those she met would share theirs. She found that music was the best way to connect with people who were willing to share their stories for her work.
Zora became particularly interested in the ancient practice of voodoo, which at the time, believed to be a dangerous black magic, was illegal in America. This didn’t deter her from attempting to uncover its secrets, and travelling to New Orleans, she gained the trust of voodoo practitioners by taking part in their ceremonies, at one point mixing her blood with rattlesnake blood.
In 1937, after receiving funding to study voodoo culture in Jamaica and Haiti, Zora set off on her journey through the Caribbean. It was on this trip, in Haiti, that Zora wrote her most celebrated novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Amazingly, she wrote the book in just 7 weeks!
As a feminist novel, about a black woman, written by a black female author, Their Eyes Were Watching God was sadly rejected by the literary world at the time, and was largely forgotten. It was only after Zora’s death that the book gained the recognition it deserved.
Most of Zora’s writing was rejected during her lifetime, as were here achievements as an anthropologist, and to me, as an explorer. Throughout her life, her humour and determination never allowed her to feel inferior, even during the time she was caught up in a widely publicised sex scandal that tarnished her career even further. “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me,” she wrote. “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
Zora died without a penny to her name on January 28 1960. After a collection, her neighbours were able to pay for a funeral, but a headstone wasn't placed on her grave until 1973, by The Color Purple author Alice Walker. Walker, who championed Zora’s work and the influence it had had on her own life, travelled to Florida to mark the grave, engraving the headstone with: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”
Today, Zora’s work is largely celebrated, and has influenced many from Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou to Beyoncé and Solange Knowles.
If you would like to learn more about Zora's writing and her legacy, you can visit her dedicated website here.
Popular work by Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” Mules and Men Dust Tracks on a Road Every Tongue Got to Confess Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica