Zora Neale Hurston, Genius of the Harlem Renaissance

Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain
Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Twentieth century African-American author Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. But her perseverance and love of her culture made for a much richer life than many people know.

Near the turn of the century, Hurston was born the spirited daughter of former slaves. Her parents had gone on to become a schoolteacher and a Baptist preacher. Her father's sermons were likely what sparked the girl's fascination with storytelling, which she'd later use not only in her works, but also in the construction of her public persona.

Over the course of her life, Hurston offered contradictory dates of birth. And in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, she inaccurately claimed Eatonville, Florida, as her birthplace, when in truth she was born in Notasulga, Alabama, probably on January 7, 1891. But Eatonville was her home from about age 3 to 13, and a major influence on her work. One of the first places in the United States to be incorporated as an all-black town, it was also home to a vibrant and proud African-American community that protected the young Hurston from the cruel racial prejudices found elsewhere in the United States. Years later, Hurston would cherish this place and the self-confidence it instilled in her works. She once described it as "A city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jailhouse."

Despite a seemingly ideal hometown, Hurston knew hardship. At 13, she lost her mother, and was booted out of boarding school when her father and new step-mom failed to foot the tuition bill. Down but not out, Hurston found work as a maid, serving an actress in a traveling theatrical company that gave her a taste of the world beyond Florida. In Baltimore, she lopped a decade off her age (a subtraction she maintained the rest of her days) to qualify for free public schooling that would allow her to complete her long-delayed high school education. From there, she worked her way through college, studied anthropology and folklore, and had her earliest works published in her school's paper. By 1920, the 29-year-old earned an associate degree from Howard University in Washington D.C. Five years later, she made the fateful move to New York City, where she eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from Barnard College after studying with the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas. There, she also became a seminal and controversial icon of the Harlem Renaissance.

It's said that Hurston—with her brazen wit, affable humor, and charm—waltzed into the Harlem scene, easily befriending actress Ethel Waters, and poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Professor and fellow folklorist Sterling Brown once remarked of her appeal, "When Zora was there, she was the party."

Electrified by the thriving literary movement that strove to define the contemporary African-American experience, Hurston penned the personal essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," where she boldly declared

"I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."

She and Hughes teamed up in 1930 to create a play for African-American actors that wouldn't use racial stereotypes. Regrettably, creative differences led to a falling out between the two that sunk The Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life In Three Acts before the Eatonville-set fable managed to be produced. But Hurston rebounded with her musical The Great Day, which premiered on Broadway January 10, 1932. Next, came her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in 1934. The following year saw the release of a meticulously curated collection of African American oral folklore. Mules and Men became the greatest success she'd see in her lifetime, and yet it earned Hurston only $943.75.  

Her next book, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written during her anthropological expedition to Haiti to study voodoo. Reflecting its divorced author's life, it followed a forty-something African American woman's journey through three marriages and self-acceptance. While the mainstream press praised Hurston's anthropological eye and her writing "with her head as with her heart," she faced a backlash from some of her Harlem Renaissance peers.

Zora Neale Hurston drumming, 1937
Zora Neale Hurston drumming, 1937.
Library of Congress, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

As the movement evolved, Harlem Renaissance writers had been debating how African-Americans should present their people and culture in their art. Should they devotedly fight against the negative stereotypes long established by Caucasian writers? Should their work be penned as progressive propaganda intended to expose the racism of modern America as a means to provoke change? Or should African-Americans create without the constraints of a political or creative ideology? Hurston sided with the last group, and saw her novel criticized for its embrace of the vernacular of the black South, its exploration of female sexuality, and its absence of an overt political agenda. Literary critic Ralph Ellison called Their Eyes Were Watching God a "blight of calculated burlesque," while essayist Richard Wright jeered, "Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction." But fiction wasn't all she wrote. 

In 1938, Hurston published the anthropological study Tell My Horse; her aforementioned autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, came six years later. But following the release of her final novel Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston's career fell into decline. Through the 1950s, she occasionally managed to secure some work as a journalist, scraping by with stints as a substitute teacher and sometimes maid. Despite a prolific output that included four novels, two folklore collections, an autobiography, and a wealth of short stories, essays, articles and plays, Hurston died penniless and alone in a welfare home on January 28, 1960; her body—dressed in a pink dressing gown and fuzzy slippers—was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce.

It was an especially cruel fate because she'd once appealed to activist W.E.B. Du Bois to create "a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead" to assure that they'd never be discarded. Her rejected proposal read in part: "Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness. We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored." 

This confident and rebellious creator's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance seemed certain to have doomed her to the realm of the forgotten. But in 1975, Alice Walker, who would go on to write the heralded novel The Color Purple, penned a legacy-shifting essay for Ms. magazine called "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." The essay encouraged a new generation of readers to rediscover Hurston’s work. Their Eyes Were Watching God found a new life, and began popping up on school reading curriculums and earning reprintings in other languages, as did her other books. Mule Bone was finally published and staged in 1991. Historians scoured archives and uncovered a never-published manuscript of folklore Hurston had collected. Titled Every Tongue Got To Confess, it was published posthumously in 2001.

Not only were Hurston's works at long last given their due—so was she. In honor of the author who'd inspired her and countless others, Walker traveled to Florida to put a proper tombstone on Hurston's grave. It reads: "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South. Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist."

This story originally ran in 2016.

Kitty O'Neil, Trailblazing Speed Racer and Wonder Woman's Stunt Double

PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE
PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE

Kitty O’Neil could do it all. A stuntwoman, drag racer, and diver, the legendary daredevil's skills were once described by the Chicago Tribune as “full and partial engulfment in fire; swimming; diving; water skiing; scuba diving; horse falls, jumps, drags, and transfers; high falls into an air bag or water; car rolls; cannon-fired car driving; motorcycle racing; speed, drag, sail, and power boat handling; fight routines; gymnastics; snow skiing; jet skiing; sky diving; ice skating; golf; tennis; track and field; 10-speed bike racing; and hang gliding.”

During her lifetime, O’Neil set 22 speed records on both the land and sea—including the women’s land speed record of 512 mph, which remains unmatched to this day. Through it all, she battled casual sexism and ableism, as she was often not only the lone woman in the room, but the lone deaf person on the drag strip or movie set.

"It Wasn't Scary Enough for Me"

O’Neil was born on March 24, 1946, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her father, John, was an Air Force pilot and oil driller, while her mother, Patsy, was a homemaker. When she was just a few months old, O’Neil contracted mumps, measles, and smallpox, an onslaught of illness that damaged her nerves and caused her to lose her hearing. Patsy, who had packed her in ice during the worst of the fever, went back to school for speech pathology so she could teach her daughter how to read lips and form words. She placed the young girl’s hand on her throat as she spoke, allowing her to feel the vibrations of her vocal cords.

Feeling those sensations helped Kitty learn to talk, while the sensations associated with engines would teach her something else. At the age of 4, O’Neil convinced her father to let her ride atop the lawn mower in what would be a transformative experience. “I could feel the vibrations,” she told the Associated Press. “That’s what got me into racing. When I race, I feel the vibrations.”

But racing wasn’t her first thrill ride. As a teenager, O’Neil showed such an aptitude for diving that Patsy decided to move the family to Anaheim, California, where O’Neil could train with the two-time Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee. She was on her way to the qualifying rounds for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when she broke her wrist, eliminating her from consideration. Soon after, she contracted spinal meningitis. Her doctors worried she wouldn’t walk again.

She recovered, but found she was no longer interested in diving. “I gave it up because it wasn’t scary enough for me,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

Motorcycle racing proved to be a better adrenaline rush, so she began entering competitions along the West Coast. It was at one of those races that she met another speedster named Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton, who offered his assistance after O’Neil crashed her bike, severing two fingers. Once she had gotten stitched up, the pair began a professional and romantic relationship. O’Neil moved onto a 40-acre ranch in Fillmore, California, with Hambleton and his two children from a previous relationship.

Hambleton would act as O’Neil’s manager, often speaking to the press for her after stunts or record attempts. However, O’Neil later alleged that he stole money from her and physically abused her during their partnership. In 1988, a Star Tribune reporter would describe O’Neil’s scrapbooks as containing a photo of Hambleton with his face scratched out; she had also written “not true” in the margins of newspaper clippings touting his profound impact on her success.

The Need for Speed

O’Neil wanted to go fast and she didn’t care how. So she expanded her scope beyond motorcycles, setting a new women’s water skiing record in 1970 with a speed of 104.85 mph. Her national breakout arrived six years later, when she drove a skinny three-wheel rocket car into the Alvord Desert. The hydrogen peroxide-powered vehicle was dubbed “The Motivator,” and it was the work of William Fredrick, a designer who normally created cars for movie and TV stunts. When O’Neil got behind the wheel of The Motivator, she quickly smashed the women’s land speed record. Her average speed was 512 mph, over 1.5 times faster than the previous 321 mph record held by Lee Breedlove since 1965.

She believed she could beat the men’s record of 631.4 mph, too, which should’ve been great news for her entire team. Fredrick and his corporate sponsors were gunning for a new record, and O'Neil had already reportedly hit a maximum speed of 618 mph in her initial run. But before she could take The Motivator for a second spin, she was ordered out of the car.

As O’Neil would discover, she had only been contracted to beat the women’s record. Marvin Glass & Associates, the toy company that owned the rights to the vehicle, wanted Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham to break the men’s record. The company claimed it was purely a business decision, as they had a Needham action figure in the works. But according to Hambleton, the company reps had said it would be “unbecoming and degrading for a woman to set a land speed record.”

“It really hurts,” O’Neil told UPI reporters as she choked back tears. “I wanted to do it again. I had a good feeling.” She earned the immediate support of the men’s record holder, Gary Gabelich, who called the whole incident “ridiculous” and “kind of silly.” She and Hambleton tried to sue for her right to another attempt, but she wouldn’t get a second ride in The Motivator. Needham wouldn’t break the record, either, as a storm dampened his chances. Not that he was especially polite about it.

“Hell, you’re not talking about sports when you’re talking about land speed records,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It doesn’t take any God-given talent … even a good, smart chimpanzee could probably do it. Probably better—because he wouldn’t be worried about dying.”

As the messy legal battle dragged on, O’Neil focused on her budding career in stunt work. According to The New York Times, she completed her first stunt in March of 1976, when she zipped up a flame-resistant Nomex suit and let someone set her on fire. For her second job, she rolled a car, which was practically a personal hobby. (She liked to tell people she rolled her mother’s car when she was 16, the day she got her driver’s license.) O’Neil eventually became Lynda Carter’s stunt double on Wonder Woman, where she famously leapt 127 feet off a hotel roof onto an air bag below. “If I hadn’t hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed,” she told The Washington Post in 1979.

Her work earned her a place in Stunts Unlimited, the selective trade group that had, until that point, only admitted men. O’Neil continued racking up credits with gigs on The Bionic Woman, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The Blues Brothers. Although few stunt doubles achieve name recognition, O’Neil was a media darling who inspired her own 1979 TV movie starring Stockard Channing and a Barbie in her trademark yellow jumpsuit.

A Pioneer's Legacy

But by 1982, feeling burned out after watching the toll the work had taken on colleagues, O'Neil decided she was finished. She retired from the business at the age of 36, packing up and leaving Los Angeles entirely. She wound up in Minneapolis and then in Eureka, South Dakota, a town with a population of fewer than 1000 people. She would live out the rest of her days there, eventually dying of pneumonia in 2018 at the age of 72.

O’Neil lived her life as a never-ending challenge—to go faster, jump higher, do better. She always said that her lack of hearing helped her concentrate, eliminating any fear she might’ve felt over the prospect of breaking the sound barrier, let alone self-immolation.

“When I was 18, I was told I couldn’t get a job because I was deaf,” she told a group of deaf students at the Holy Trinity School in Chicago. “But I said someday I’m going to be famous in sports, to show them I can do anything.”

O’Neil did exactly that. Over her the course of perilous career, she carved out a name for herself in a space that was often openly hostile towards her, setting records and making it impossible for anyone who doubted her to catch up.

Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

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