The Contributions of Freethinkers: Zora Neale Hurston

I’ve been reading this essay from Sikivu Hutchinson in the L.A. Watts Times, which calls on black atheists to come out of the closet while acknowledging the difficulties they face in doing so. The cultural barriers, she says, are even greater than for white atheists: African-American culture is “heavily steeped” in Christian dogma, the legacy of a “culturally specific survival strategy” – in the slave era, it served them as a unifying force and a source of comfort (despite the fact that it was also the religion of the slaveholders). That legacy persists even today, as she notes: “In these (black) communities you find more tolerance towards gangbangers, drug addicts, and prostitutes, who pray to God for forgiveness than for honest productive citizens who deny the existence of God.”

The only way to overcome this in the long run is for more black atheists to speak out, but it might also help to point out that some famous figures of the black community have held unorthodox views. I’ve written before about the life and skepticism of the civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBois, but he was by no means the only prominent African-American who was also a freethinker – as we’ll see from today’s post.

Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, a rural community that was one of the first all-black towns founded in America after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father, John Hurston, was a Baptist preacher and later the mayor. Her childhood in Eatonville, by her account, was idyllic: in an all-black community, she was blissfully insulated from the racism that still pervaded much of the country, even though her preacher father sought to stifle young Zora’s rebellious spirit.

The end of this happy time came in 1904, when Hurston’s mother Lucy died; Zora was only 13 at the time. Her father, “bare and bony of comfort and love”, remarried, but had little time or attention for his children. She was sent away to finish school, but ended up working at a series of menial jobs, including a Gilbert & Sullivan theater troupe, where she worked as a maid to the lead singer. She wound up in Baltimore, where she finally finished high school in 1918, at the age of 26 – although she gave her age as 16. For the rest of her life, she would always cut at least ten years off her date of birth in public.

In 1925, Hurston was offered a scholarship to Barnard College, a New York City affiliate of Columbia University. She studied anthropology under the noted scholar Franz Boas; one of her fellow students was Margaret Mead. But more importantly for her own literary career, she had the good fortune to be living in Manhattan at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston met and collaborated with black writers and artists like Langston Hughes; she published both fiction and, drawing on her background in anthropology, books such as Mules and Men that documented customs and folklore of the black community in the United States and the Caribbean. Her masterwork was the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was judged one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century (source). Her other books include Mules and Men (1935), Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939).

Despite her literary acclaim, Hurston never achieved the financial success her work deserved. She died, penniless, in 1960, and was buried in an unmarked grave, where she lay forgotten for decades until her writing, and her burial site, was rediscovered by a young writer named Alice Walker.

What’s less well known is that Zora Neale Hurston, throughout her life, was a freethinker. Of her childhood, she later wrote: “My head was full of misty fumes of doubt… Neither could I understand the passionate declarations of love for a being that nobody could see. Your family, your puppy and the new bull-calf, yes. But a spirit away off who found fault with everybody all the time, that was more than I could fathom” (source).

An extended excerpt from Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, makes the point even clearer. In a long, beautiful passage, one that predates the work of Carl Sagan and other famous scientific popularizers, she writes of her own feeling of interconnection with the cosmos, and her knowledge that the atoms of her body will outlast death and go on to take new forms:

Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws. The ever-sleepless sea in its bed, crying out “how long?” to Time; million-formed and never motionless flame; the contemplation of these two aspects alone, affords me sufficient food for ten spans of my expected lifetime. It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me. Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels. The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn, is glory enough for me. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.

Other posts in this series:

The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
Photo Sunday: Dark Sunrise
Weekend Coffee: March 28
Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Leum

    I read Their Eyes Were Watching God I few years ago. Very good book. Not, as you might think from the title, a particularly religion-focused book.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    I agree with your feelings on the quote. It’s very poetic and farsighted. The idea of being “one with the cosmos,” of knowing that you are literally made of molecules that have existed for time immemorial, is a surprisingly comforting thought.

  • Leum

    Ebonmuse: if you’re open to suggestions for this series, may I recommend singer/songwriter/political commentator Phil Ochs?

  • Scott

    Wow, truly an amazing quote.

  • Ebonmuse

    I haven’t heard of Phil Ochs, but there are plenty of freethinkers worth discussing. :)

  • Scotlyn

    Thanks for this post. I loved “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” but read it a great many years ago and have forgotten much – this reminds me that Ms Hurston is worth going back to re-discover. Lovely quote. Her writing is superb – “million-formed and never motionless flame…” Makes my hair stand on end!

  • terrence

    THIS is why DA is one of the best sites ever- it points us (me) to people I never heard of. Typing this at the library, now it’s off to the card catalog to see if they have any Hurston….thanks Ebon, you whippersnapper. Never heard of Phil Ochs, indeed.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    I am a huge Zora Neale fan, so this post is wonderful to see. She was a complex and sometimes frustrating person but always brilliant and endlessly fascinating. I wish she could have lived to see the recognition that she now has. Can you tell I wrote papers about her in college?

    And I second terrence — you need to check out Phil Ochs, Ebon, stat. (listen to your elders, sonny boy!)

    I suggest the song “When I’m Gone,” which is achingly sad because he ended up committing suicide at such a young age. But it beautifully expresses how this life should be lived to the fullest, since it’s the only one we’ve got.

    Then cheer yourself up with “Love me, I’m a Liberal,” which is freaking hilarious. (and was equally hilariously updated for the 90s by Mojo Nixon and Jello Biafra.)

  • Leum

    Ingrid, I’ve always felt the truly tragic song was “Cross My Heart.” Just thinking of “So I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give. Cross my heart, and I hope to live” brings tears to my eyes.

  • Richard

    This quote reminds me of Ebon’s incredible essay on bands of iron and the history of life from a few months ago. I’m an atheist but I’m also quite a spiritual person – by which I mean I have a lot of faith, but it’s faith in people and in the universe – and I’ve struggled to reconcile those two things, but when I read words like these I really feel like I can do it.

    I wonder if anyone knows of any other writers who have articulated this sort of… atheist spiritual meaningfulness… wow, I’m really tripping over my words here… I mean, can anyone suggest any pieces of writing that describe all the beautiful ways there are to overcome fear of death without resorting to religion? I’d really appreciate it.

  • Herb

    “When I’m Gone” by Phil Ochs ought to be like the atheist national anthem. It’s just perfect.

  • terrence

    Richard, look on the right of this page to Greta Christins’s Blog and see “Comforting Thoughts About Death that Have Nothing to do With God”- it’s GREAT,

  • Ebonmuse

    I suggest the song “When I’m Gone,” which is achingly sad because he ended up committing suicide at such a young age. But it beautifully expresses how this life should be lived to the fullest, since it’s the only one we’ve got.

    I know this song! The Unitarian Universalist church that my fiancee and I attend on occasion plays it at the end of every service. I’ve always loved it, and now I know who wrote it. Thanks, Ingrid!

  • Danikajaye

    One of my favourite – I suppose “religion themed”- songs at the moment is “Laughing With” by Regina Spektor. I love the melody and her voice but when I first listened to it I had mixed feeling because I wasn’t sure what she was getting at in terms of her thoughts on religion. I’ve settled on thinking the lyrics are more observational. I would be interested to hear people opinions. You can see the lyrics here