“Spunk” from beginning to end

There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet.

 Much has been written about the fact that Zora Neale Hurston died poor. The more salient fact is that she was poor for nearly all her life. Despite her degrees, scholarship, accomplishments or celebrity, she never escaped the grinding anxiety of poverty.

That she went as far in life, given the times she lived in and the barriers against her, is incredible. She desperately sought an education to escape the inevitableness of the options available to Black women in the 1920s — domestic work or marriage. She didn’t let her age or lack of money stop her. Slow her down, yes; stop, no. When she enrolled at Howard, she had one change of clothes. When she arrived in New York after graduation, she had $1.50 to her name. She aggressively (but sweetly) solicited backing from whites to finish school or for living expenses.

Her efforts paid off — she was the first Black graduate of Barnard College, the female division of Columbia University. But she was frequently destitute, during and after college. She never made more than a $1,000 advance on any of her books. 

Some of Zora’s predicament was the result of her poor choices. Was it realistic for any “Negro” in the 1940s America to believe that they could make a full-time career from writing? She didn’t have a backup plan, a day job. But not because she didn’t have opportunities. She did have short-lived careers as a professor, a drama coach and even as a consultant on a Hollywood movie set. Sometimes she got fired, sometimes she quit, sometimes she just lost interest. She had marvelous opportunities that she seemed to fritter away. So she paid the price. You could say that Zora suffered for her art, but she would vehemently object to being categorized as a victim. It was antithetical to who she was.  It is not how she defined herself, even at the darkest times of her life. So if she had any regrets, she kept them to herself. But I don’t doubt that when she reflected on her life — as we all tend to do when we mature — that she felt disappointment at where the road of life had ended for her. And that continues to make me sad.

 

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4 thoughts on ““Spunk” from beginning to end

  1. I do agree with everything that is compiled on this website.
    I should say we do have the exact same insights with regards to this idea and I am
    happy I am not the only one. Thanx!

  2. thanks so much for this concise look at the life of Zora. so often, we know just the thumbnail version of people who have shaped our community and given voice to our experience—which is sad, really. someone had to teach us about Ms. Hurston. glad it was you.

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