SOUTHERN LIGHTS: I'll Take the Forgotten Figure over the Football Coach

Article excerpt

What do Zora Neale Hurston and Lane Kiffin have in common?

Not much.

One was a remarkably talented poet, author, anthropologist and activist; the other, a football coach. One was African-American; the other, Caucasian.

One was born in Alabama but moved away as a child. The other presumably will move to Tuscaloosa.

One has been unjustly forgotten. The other?

Well ...

Not long ago, I got an email from a friend. He wanted to know the identity of the woman being pictured that day on the home page of the search engine Google.

My wife asked the same question. She found the answer by clicking on the picture.

It was Hurston. Google was honoring her on Jan. 7, her 123rd birthday.

I was surprised and pleasantly so. Hurston was a torch of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. She was friends with Langston Hughes and influenced Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison and many others.

Yet today, few people remember her. Moreover, it's unusual for an artistic female African-American to receive any national recognition.

There is a postage stamp with Hurston's image on it, and she has been featured in a couple of TV documentaries, but given the body of her work, there hasn't been much. I hope the Google honor is a start -- not only for Hurston but also for all unjustly neglected American achievers.

Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga. One biography says her parents were former slaves. At age 3, she moved with her family to Florida, which she regarded as her home state for the rest of her life.

The Hurstons lived in Eatonville, an all-black community, where her father was elected mayor. He stirred up a scandal by marrying another woman as soon as Hurston's mother died.

Hurston was sent away to a boarding school in Jacksonville, but her family stopped paying tuition and Hurston was kicked out.

Working as a maid, Hurston saved money and attended a high school in Baltimore. Later she went to Howard University and won a scholarship to Barnard College of Columbia University in New York, where she was the sole African-American student. She earned a B.A. degree in anthropology there in 1928.

It was unusual for a black woman to hold such a lofty degree in the 1920s, but Hurston was an unusually talented person. At Columbia, she worked with the famed anthropologist Franz Boas, as well as with fellow student Margaret Meade.

At the same time, she launched a literary career and soon steamed to the top of the potent brew that was later called the Harlem Renaissance. Over the years, her essays, short stories, poems and novels, including 1937's superb "Their Eyes Were Watching God," won critical acclaim.

To my mind, her adventures in folklore were equally compelling. Employed in the 1930s by the WPA, Hurston served as a sort of Ruby Pickens Tartt to Alan Lomax and other folklorists, leading them to raw, country blues singers in Florida.

Moreover, her book, "Mules and Men," published in 1935 and recounting the lives and beliefs of African-Americans of the Deep South, is a classic in the field of folklore.

In the late 1940s, she lived in Honduras, hoping to find ancient ruins. She returned to the United States, where she was accused falsely in 1948 of molesting a 10-year-old boy. Her innocence was beyond doubt -- she was in Honduras when the alleged molestation occurred -- but the accusation still clouded her career.

In her later years, she wrote a bit for newspapers and magazines. To make ends meet, she took jobs as a substitute teacher and even worked again as a maid.

Suffering a stroke, she died of hypertensive heart disease in a welfare home in Fort Pierce, Fla. …

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