January is a month of great significance in the life of Zora Neale Hurston.
The author, best known for the proto-feminist novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” was born on Jan. 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, and died destitute in Fort Pierce, Florida, on Jan. 28, 1960. In those years between, Hurston, raised in the all-Black community of Eatonville, Florida, became a renowned novelist, short story writer, ethnographer, anthropologist, playwright and an icon of the New Negro Movement, also known as the Harlem Renaissance.
In yet another January of note, Hurston had one more major achievement that survives through present. On Jan. 22, 1924, while enrolled at Howard University, she and Louis Eugene King cofounded the Howard University Hilltop newspaper, the campus publication that still serves the student body today.
The Hurston/Wright Foundation, named for the author and fellow writer Richard Wright, celebrated her contribution to student journalism with a birthday celebration, including readings by former Hilltop writers and editors, a cake and champagne toast, and a “surprise.”
Despite the fact that Hurston died 58 years ago, a newly published book by her will be released this spring. “Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave” which was originally rejected by publishers when Hurston submitted the manuscript but has now found a new life in 2018.
Known to be unapologetic and fiercely protective of her work, Hurston refused to revamp the African-American vernacular used by the subject of the story, Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
In 1931, Hurston spent more than three months interviewing the actual man who lived in Plateau, Alabama. The book is a result of those interviews. But true to her nature, the author may have taken some artistic liberties with his stories of slavery, the Middle Passage and life in West Africa.
The 2018 birthday commemoration at Sankofa Video Books and Café featured five journalists and writers who came through The Hilltop as students at Howard University: Brandi Forte, author and executive director of the nonprofit Amala Lives Institute; Maya Rhoden, staff writer for Time magazine; Ayesha Roscoe, White House correspondent for Reuters news agency; Zerline Hughes Spruill, managing director of The Advancement Project; and Bobby White, a former writer for the Wall Street Journal who currently serves as a communications consultant.
Introduced by Natalie Hopkinson, a Hilltop alum and board member of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the panel did a shared reading of Hurston’s short story “Spunk.” Considered to be Hurston’s first published story, it won second prize in the 1925 literary contest in Opportunity, the Urban League’s journal, and was later published in the 1925 anthology, “The New Negro,” edited by Alain Locke.
“She studied right across the street at Howard University from 1918 to 1924,” Hopkinson said. “We could fill the whole year with events celebrating different dimensions and contributions, but today we decided to focus on just one element of Zora’s legacy. She didn’t write for The Hilltop, but she got it started and was an adviser and mentored some of the writers who worked there. We decided that we would have people from The Hilltop who represent different eras who could also show how they are building on her legacy.”
Hughes Spruill read from “Barracoon,” which like “Spunk” was written in Black vernacular dialect from the South. The excerpt was Cudjo Lewis’ remembrance of Africa, and how things were different from the place he died in 1935, an enclave dubbed “Africa Town.”
Hopkinson prefaced the reading by providing some background information about how the book came to be written and why the manuscript was never published in the author’s lifetime.
“As the Civil War broke out, there were about 100 people who ended up stranded here and they weren’t able to go back,” she said. “They petitioned the government to go back [to Africa]. They actually ended up setting up a town in Alabama they called ‘Africa Town.’ Cudjo Lewis was the last surviving member of this group that came over.
“Zora Neale Hurston, first working for Carter G. Woodson then working on her own, funded by other patrons she had, spent some time with [Lewis] over the years and she actually pulled together this manuscript,” Hopkinson continued. “By the time she tried to get it published, the publishing industry was not interested in Negro dialect. They really wanted her to clean it up, and knowing Zora, she was not having that.”
After the reading from “Barracoon,” the panelists spoke about how Hurston, Howard University and The Hilltop influenced their own development and work.
“For those who don’t know, [Howard University] is an awesome collection of Black minds from across the Diaspora, from across all strata of class,” White said. “When you get this kind of diversity in the same room, it has a powerful impact.
“I would believe that just being amongst so many different voices within the community definitely had some kind of influence on her,” he said. “You’re also empowered because you get to talk to people from the Caribbean, you get to talk to people from Africa and from the South and the West Coast. That was the kind of influence it had on me. It was really empowering and you realize there is much diversity within the race.”
All the panelist acknowledged Hurston’s dedication to authenticity of the voice.
Author Marita Golden, who penned “Migrations of the Heart,” “A Long Distance Life” and her most recent book, “The Wide Circumference of Love,” and bibliophile Clyde McElvene co-founded the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation in 1990 in response to a need for a literary organization that recognized a “tremendous and dynamic change among Black writers” and offered community, expanded opportunities, mentorship and recognition.
“We know that Zora could bring it,” Golden said. “She could dish it and she could take it. I named the foundation for Hurston and Wright because they dished it, took it and couldn’t stand each other! In the ’90s when the organization was first founded, we had just come out of a kind of Black literary war of the sexes. Alice Walker was ascending and Toni Morrison was ascending.
“There were many Black male writers who found their writing diminishing of Black male strength, so there was a huge schism in our literary and intellectual community around feminism, and who is really Black. It was pretty ugly,” she affirmed.
“When I was inspired to start the organization, I purposely named it for a man and a woman to signal that this organization would be open to Black men and Black women,” Golden said. “And I purposely named it for the two writers despite their differences. It brought together two writers who were rebels, who were iconoclasts, who were geniuses of the American South who took our stories into the wider world.”