Zora Neale Hurston Is for Everyone

Her work shows us that our lives are defined not by tragedy but by joy.

A collage that includes a photo of a smiling Zora Neale Hurston
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

They felt otherworldly, my morning runs in the early days of the pandemic in March 2020. They felt almost like the aftertimes. There were hardly any signs of life in Washington, D.C., as I ran in the same area where Zora Neale Hurston had started her literary run a century ago.

Most known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston, a product of rural central Florida who emerged in the 1920s as one of the lights of the Harlem Renaissance, is now considered one of the greatest American creators of the 20th century. A folklorist, an anthropologist, a short-story writer, a filmmaker, a novelist, and an essayist—in many ways she captured the many ways of life. She captured signs of everyday Black life brazenly thrusting forth in love and joy despite the murderous and miserable shadows of racism cast over Black lives a century ago.

“I am not tragically colored,” Hurston wrote in 1928. “There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes.”

Is this why whenever a great sorrow arrives and starts lurking, I know whose writings to turn to? Is this why whenever I start to think that we, Black people, are the problem, I know whose stories to turn to? Is this why …? I could go on.

“Her work had a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings and that was crucial to me as a writer,” said the novelist Alice Walker.

Hurston has been crucial to me as a writer ever since I read Mules and Men in graduate school. In this collection of southern Black folklore, Hurston “speaks the language of her subjects and places herself in the action,” as the scholar Imani Perry, who writes a newsletter for The Atlantic, explains. I regretted not being turned on to her stories earlier—as a child, as soon as I’d started reading. Because when life seems lost or found, Hurston always helps me rediscover or witness the ampleness and exquisiteness of life. And the funk and lore of rural and urban, southern and northern folk. And the presence of Afro-Indigeneity. And the customariness of fighting for freedom from toxic masculinity and racial capitalism. And the bountifulness of joy and love through it all.

Love, the fuel of life. Joy, the destination.

Hurston created life as she loved it, to the fullest. What a lesson for people, especially for children being weighed down by the tragedies of the world right now. What a lesson for my 6-year-old daughter, who, like other children, should not have to wait to read Hurston. It all inspired me to produce six children’s books adapted from the writings of Zora Neale Hurston in partnership with her descendants. The first, a love story titled Magnolia Flower and illustrated by Loveis Wise, is out this week.

Hurston’s profound message for children is this: No matter what tragedies befell me and my family and my history and my world, I am not a tragedy. I am not tragically Indigenous. I am not tragically Black. I am not tragically Asian. I am not tragically white. I am not tragically Latina. I am not tragically Muslim. I am not tragically Jewish. I am not tragically girl or boy or nonconforming. I am not tragically trans or disabled or gay. I am not tragically American, despite the tragedy that is the American political economy right now, a tragedy that resembles what caregivers were brooding over when Hurston was writing a century ago.

Economic inequality is growing as it was in the 1920s. Forced sterilizations were growing then as forced births are growing now.

Periods of resurgent white supremacy in the United States are especially tragic, whether in the 1920s or the 2020s. White supremacists shared an ideological affinity with Adolf Hitler then and share one with Vladimir Putin today. In March 1938, Hitler’s German army invaded Austria with the same imperial logic that Putin’s Russian army used to invade Ukraine almost exactly 84 years later. “People of the same blood should be in the same REICH,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf.

But that’s not the only echo of earlier eras. A century ago, the United Confederate Veterans established the Rutherford Committee to prohibit educators from teaching the truth about the cornerstone of the Confederacy. “Its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said in 1861.

The committee and its namesake, Mildred Lewis Rutherford, encouraged state divisions of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to ban particular books “because history as now written will condemn the South to infamy.” Rutherford wanted books to teach that “the North Was Responsible for the War Between the States,” that “the War Between the States Was Not Fought to Hold the Slaves,” and that “the Slaves Were Not Ill-Treated.” Similar propaganda found its way this year into a proposed law in Oklahoma that would withhold state funding from public institutions teaching “that one race is the unique oppressor in the institution of slavery” or “that another race is the unique victim in the institution of slavery.” In total, lawmakers in 36 states have proposed 137 measures this year that would limit teaching about history, sexism, homophobia, or racism. According to Pen America, 19 of these bills have become law.

All the more reason for that profound Hurston message for children facing our political times: Though they treat me like I am nothing, I am something. Though poverty is dehumanizing, I am not subhuman. Though they want me to be their mule, I am not an animal. Though the world can be miserable, I am joy. Though they are hateful, I am love. Though tragedy stalks my identity like a shadow, I am not a running tragedy.

As I ran in late March 2020, the shadows had already overtaken Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, were already overtaking Black patients in New Orleans with COVID-19. But shadows not only cover reality; they cover up its harm. So, at the time, I did not know about Arbery’s lynching, about Taylor’s slaying, about Black patients already dying at the highest rates from COVID-19.

I was running from the uncertainty, worry, confinement, and tragedy that had so many causes. The deaths from a novel virus. The foolhardy words of the 45th president about that virus. The “great equalizer” talk of other politicians. Not knowing who the coronavirus victims were. My partner going to the emergency room to fight COVID-19. Our juggling of full-time work with full-time child care. Our fears that our daughter would fall behind in preschool. Worrying what would happen if my partner or I had recurrences of our cancers. Our empathetic reminders that countless people had it worse than we did, were losing their jobs and livelihoods and elders. My early-morning runs were like some of Hurston’s stories—releases, exhales, rainbows in storms. They set my mind at peace.

It was peaceful. Stillness met me except for my deep breaths and churning legs, and I watched the green lights turn yellow. No one walked to the bus stop or train. No cars dashed by giving me an extra breeze. No staff walked to Howard University. No business owners opened up shops. No dog walkers or sleepwalkers. No construction workers. Only an occasional woman in scrubs. Or a lone smoker. Or a homeless person. Even the police, thank goodness, were nowhere to be found. No sirens and stops and fears arresting Black life.

Silence, however, didn’t meet me as I ran on. Outside my personal space it did. Not inside. Inside I listened and laughed and loved the audiobook of Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick as I ran. Weeks earlier, Amistad Books and the Zora Neale Hurston Trust had released this latest edition of Hurston’s work, a collection of her short stories from the Harlem Renaissance. “Although racism and ‘white folks’ present real challenges to the characters that people this collection, oppression is not the center of their lives,” the novelist Tayari Jones explained in the foreword.

I can still remember that day I was jogging up 13th Street, away from Howard, toward the Petworth neighborhood. I jogged by the recently renovated Theodore Roosevelt High School, a structure planned in 1920 at about the time Hurston entered Howard. I usually glared at the historical architecture, the sweeping staircases that come around to an outdoor landing and the four huge columns that guard the front entrance.

But on this day, I hardly looked at the school; I was too engrossed in the imagery and agency and naturality of “Magnolia Flower.” Hurston published the story in the July 1925 issue of The Spokesman. She once described the expression “hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick” as “making a way out of no-way,” which is precisely what Magnolia, the main character, did. Her story is told by a mighty river to a little brook, “a story of love conquering all,” as Hurston’s biographer Valerie Boyd described it.

The narrator in my ear finished “Magnolia Flower” as I approached the next intersection. The mighty river finished telling Magnolia’s story to the brook, which had been “thrilled to its very bottom at times.”

I was thrilled to my very bottom as I listened. I stopped running as Dorothy I. Height Elementary School caught my eye to the left. Deep thought parked me at the intersection, in the middle of the street. The otherworldly and the worldly converged. I didn’t worry about cars coming. I didn’t worry about the anxiety of tragedy returning. I didn’t worry about anyone seeing my smiles as “Magnolia Flower” ended. I just stood there with a profound feeling of love and joy, what I wanted my daughter to have, all children to have.

I thought to myself how beautiful it would be to read a child-friendly version of “Magnolia Flower” (as well as other Hurston stories) to my daughter. Since the start of the pandemic, my partner and I had been searching for more joyous and love-filled and hope-filled and humor-filled and freedom-filled books than normal. Books for kids of kids “making a way out of no-way.” Books of “love conquering all.” I realized as the sun rose on the tragedies of the world that my family had been searching for Zora Neale Hurston.

“No, I do not weep at the world,” Hurston once wrote. “I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”