Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)
From Zora Neale Hurston: Novels & Stories
One hundred years ago, in 1921, Zora Neale Hurston’s first published story appeared.
“John Redding Goes to Sea” was included in a literary magazine published by undergraduates at Howard University under the supervision of Professor Alain Locke, who would later become a driving force of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston’s journey to Howard was itself remarkable. She had been a promising student until she was thirteen, when her mother died and her father sent her to a school in Jacksonville. He remarried less than a year later, and Zora and her siblings lived with various friends and relatives, moving from one house to another. Her schooling was intermittent, and in 1912 she left home for good after a physical altercation with her stepmother. After moving to Memphis to live with her older brother, she joined a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe as a maid but was stranded by the company in Baltimore when she was hospitalized with appendicitis. She found work as a waitress, enrolled in a city high school, and finally received her high school diploma.
She was then admitted in Howard’s preparatory program in September 1918 and told administrators and fellow students she was seventeen and had been born in Florida—neither of which was true. When she had enrolled as a high school student, she recorded her birth year as 1901 instead of 1891, probably both to be eligible for enrollment and to fit in better with other students. In subsequent years, she was able to maintain this deception; in fact, her real age wasn’t revealed until the 1980s, when Hurston scholar Cheryl A. Wall found 9-year-old Zora in the 1900 census.
She also claimed, even in her autobiography, that she had been born in the all-Black town of Eatonville, Florida five miles north of Orlando. In fact, she was born in Notasulga, Alabama, the fifth of Lucy Ann Potts and John Hurston’s eight children. Her family moved to Eatonville when she was just three years old, and her father was elected mayor by the time she was six. As the only hometown she ever knew, Eatonville looms large in her writing, and she described it with pride as “not the first Negro community in America, but the first to be incorporated, the first attempt at organized self-government on the part of Negroes in America.”
Like many of her more famous works (including Their Eyes Were Watching God), “John Redding Goes to Sea” is set in an unnamed Florida town much like Eatonville, and its lead character—like Hurston—wants nothing more than to leave it and “go roving about the world for a spell.”