Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston arrived in Harlem when she was 35 years old (but claiming to be 26), with "no job, no friends and a lot of hope."6 Her timing was perfect. Harlem was the epicenter of a flowering of black music, literature, and culture in the 1920s, a golden age later known as the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston could not have picked a better time or place to be (as the Nina Simone song goes) young, gifted, and black. The city suited her sense of fearless individuality. "I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library," she wrote. "So far as my feelings are concerned, Peggy Hopkins Joyce on the Boule Mich with her gorgeous raiment, stately carriage, knees knocking together in a most aristocratic manner, has nothing on me. The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads."
Hurston lived in a series of rented rooms, including one located near 267 House, a boarding house at 267 West 136th Street that allowed artists to live free of charge. There she met the poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, both of whom would become close friends. Together Hurston and Hughes founded the literary journal Fire!!, a publication devoted to the work of young black artists. Though short-lived—Fire!! ran only a single issue—the journal boldly explored topics like homosexuality, jazz, and black ideals of beauty. The first issue carried Hurston's play Color Struck and her short story, "Sweat." In 1927, Hurston graduated from Barnard. Also that year she married Herbert Sheen, a fellow student she had met at Howard. Their marriage soon began to unravel, however, and it ended in divorce within just a few years.
In 1928, Hurston published a remarkable and controversial essay in The World Tomorrow entitled "How It Feels to Be Colored Me." The essay's tone and themes were quintessentially Hurston. She mixed fearless proclamations of her individuality with views on race that veered sharply from the opinions held by most of her fellow black intellectuals. Black critics were outraged by her views on the legacy of slavery: "Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it. No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory."7 She bucked what she saw as a maudlin stereotype of black life created by literature. "I am not tragically colored. … 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 but 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."8 The essay outlined Hurston's creed that she would never conform to expectations of blackness, as laid out by either blacks or whites. She enjoyed being herself too much to compromise her uniqueness for anybody.
This period also saw the end of Hurston's friendship with Langston Hughes, a schism that was one of the greatest disappointments of Hurston's life. In 1930 the two collaborated on a play entitled Mule Bone, a work about racial identity. The pair argued over who would get credit for writing the play, and as a result of the feud their friendship dissolved and the play was never produced. Despite that disappointment, Hurston continued to work in the theater. Her own musical, The Great Day, premiered on Broadway in 1932.