The Ghost of Zora Neale Hurston


Arts & Culture

© Jennifer May Reiland


“Zora!” Alice Walker howled in the cemetery. “I hope you don’t think I’m going to stand out here all day, with these snakes watching me and these ants having a field day.” It was August 1973. Zora Neale Hurston, who was then thirteen years dead, was a mudslinging protofeminist novelist-folklorist-playwright-ethnographer, not to be crossed, and she had climbed to minor literary stardom in the thirties with her accounts of the Southern African American experience, specifically black Southern womanhood. She was, in the words of her friend Langston Hughes, “the most amusing” among New York’s “Niggerati.” She hailed herself as their queen. But Hurston was complicated. “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves,” she once wrote. “It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you.” She declined to recall a single memory of racial prejudice in her autobiography. Her sycophantic attitude toward her white patrons, Red-baiting, and eventual criticism of Brown v. Board of Education had rotted her name. “She was quite capable of saying, writing, or doing things different from what one might have wished,” Walker admitted. But she forgave Hurston. As Hurston herself declared, “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?”

And so: nearly a decade before Walker published The Color Purple, a sister masterpiece to Their Eyes Were Watching God, the contributing editor at Ms. magazine stood in weeds up to her waist in Florida while sand and bugs poured into her shoes, looking for Hurston. Walker had flown from Jackson, Mississippi, to Orlando and driven to nearby Eatonville, the prideful all-black town where Hurston was raised, but not, as Walker learned from an octogenarian former classmate—Mathilda Moseley, teller of “woman-is-smarter-than-man” tales in Hurston’s Mules and Men—where she was put under.

Walker’s quest took her to Fort Pierce, on the Atlantic Coast, to the dead end of Seventeenth Street, to the Garden of Heavenly Rest.

“In fact, I’m going to call you just one or two more times,” Walker swore. Hurston was somewhere in the crummy segregated burial ground; trouble was, her grave was unmarked. “Zo-ra!” Walker roared. And, as if Hurston had shoved her, Walker stumbled into a sunken rectangle in the heart of the yard: presumably Zora.

At the local monument maker, Walker clocked a queenly headstone called Ebony Mist. It reminded her of Hurston when she was learning witchcraft at temples in Louisiana, and though Walker dearly wanted it, the issue of lucre obliged her to settle for a modest one—“pale and ordinary, not at all like Zora”—which she had cut with A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH.

I studied cultural anthropology at Orlando’s liberal-arts college, where Hurston was a bona fide heroine. She herself had done her anthropology studies at Columbia University, where she along with Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead were protégées of Franz Boas, the giant who institutionalized the vital participant-observation method. Papa Boas sent Hurston to Harlem with phrenology calipers to measure the skulls of pedestrians and give lie to the notion of Negro inferiority. She never finished her Ph.D., and turned instead to literature. When she came back down to Florida to do fieldwork, she essentially went AWOL on Boas, though she still shipped him oranges.

One summer, in what was mainly a ruse to dwell with a boyfriend in his parents’ beach house, I fulfilled my chemistry requirement at the local community college. We drove by Hurston countless times—we stopped to coo over manatees in waters minutes from her resting place. But until I, too, tried to look her up in Eatonville, I’d had no clue Hurston was so close by.

When I visited last October, the cemetery’s grass was buzzed down, but the Garden of Heavenly Rest remained dumpy. I offered Hurston a pair of ripe grapefruits. People often leave her balls of citrus, which figured into her fiction. People often leave purple things, too, in recognition, I think, of the Walker connection. The plot was flush with cash, dominos, a rhinestone statement necklace, a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of sparkly red nail polish, and two bottles of Guinness.

Whether this corpse in this sandy earth belonged to Hurston is still uncertain. What’s more, the gravestone is wrong: it reads “1901–1960.” Zora had fibbed on her age and was born a full decade earlier, in 1891. She returned to Fort Pierce at the end of her life, in 1957. Her options had evaporated and she had scraped by, twice divorced, as a chambermaid, office clerk, substitute teacher, a journalist on a murder trial, and, if one of Walker’s sources had it right, a horoscope columnist. She was at work on an uncontracted biography of Herod the Great—a project fourteen years in the pipe—when she had a stroke and passed away in a county welfare home on January 28.

After my visit, I itched to read Hurston again. Her first published story was a ghost story, and when I spotted it collected among Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women, 1872–1926—branded “feminist, turn-of-the-century American supernatural literature”—#MeToo was stirring and the timing seemed right. But I accidentally shipped the book to my parents’ address in Florida, then had the parcel rerouted to New York City. Once I had it in hand, I put off cracking it open.

Earlier this month, I packed Restless Spirits when I left for Paris during the cyclone bomb. Lo: the plane flew without luggage; my bag did not surface for weeks. As a result, I began leafing the 1996 anthology of twenty-two ghost stories by Hurston, Kate Chopin, Hildegarde Hawthorne, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, and others on the first anniversary of the Women’s March, which, in Paris, was pissed on by bitter weather and not well-advertised. Near the Eiffel Tower, a crowd of approximately a hundred people carried banners such as ENCORE FÉMINISTES and exhorted American expats to vote absentee in the midterms.

Reading this literature has been no comfort—your spine won’t shiver but your hands will wring. It ran in popular magazines such as Harper’s, Vogue, and The Atlantic over a fifty-year period during which, as the book’s editor remarks, the industrial revolution bent ideologies about the nature and role of being female to more brutal degrees. The short stories are organized into themes: matrimony, motherhood, sexuality, madness, widowhood, and spinsterhood. In them, fearful, enraged, desirous, pained, and restless American women have been made so by a culture we can still recognize today. The editor notes in her introduction that the supernatural was a safe way for the authors to confront their dissatisfaction via allegory. When they wrote about their world, she asks, is it any wonder that the ghosts they conjured, and those who saw, heard, and were able to listen to them were chiefly women?

In fact, “Spunk” (1925), Hurston’s Eatonville-set story about possession, supplies the anthology’s rare male ghost. In it, a gutless hubby manages to comes back to kill his wife Lena’s lover, who had killed him first. Only Lena survives the love triangle. It is pure woman-on-top Hurston, as she lived and breathed: the force who tripped Alice Walker in the cemetery when she dared to shout, “Are you out there?”


Chantel Tattoli is a freelance journalist. She’s contributed to the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Orion, and is at work on a cultural biography of Copenhagen’s statue of the Little Mermaid. 

Jennifer May Reiland, who contributed the art to this piece, has shown her work in New York and elsewhere, including at Romeo Gallery, the Fondation des États-Unis, and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Pantin.