Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings seem destined to have grown close. Both women wrote about the landscape and communities of their beloved Florida, and they each achieved fame in the 1930s when Hurston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and Rawlings won the Pulitzer Prize. What’s more, they greatly admired each other’s work.

Photo by Alan Anderson, courtesy of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Papers, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.
Photo by Alan Anderson, courtesy of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Papers, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

And yet, theirs was a deeply controversial relationship. Simple acts of camaraderie – sharing a meal, trading ideas, visiting each other – came up against deeply ingrained prejudices, rigid social norms, and even the full weight of the law.

Hurston (the daughter of a former slave) met Rawlings (whose husband owned a white-only hotel) at a time when the Ku Klux Klan operated in parts of Florida and the ‘Jim Crow’ racial segregation laws were harshly enforced by the state.

Despite these almost insuperable barriers, when Rawlings gave a guest lecture to Hurston’s students at the all-black Florida Normal and Industrial College, she was so taken with her host that she invited Hurston to tea the next day at her husband’s white-only hotel.

Fear, prejudice, and conformity ran deep, however. Rawlings quickly regretted her invitation, telling her husband that she had ‘done something terrible’. They arranged for the bell-boy to whisk Hurston up to their private apartment to get her out of sight of their white guests. Their precautions proved unnecessary because Hurston, predicting that her presence might prove sensitive, entered through the kitchen and up the back stairs.

Remarkably, such squalid moral compromises did nothing to hinder their enjoyment of each other’s company. ‘I’ve never had so much fun,’ Rawlings told her husband, and Hurston described Rawlings as a ‘sister’.

Zora Neale Hurston Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph
Zora Neale Hurston
Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

Although their mutual admiration was assured, the ethical dilemmas didn’t stop there. When Hurston visited Rawlings’s country residence, for instance, they talked, laughed, and got tipsy together on her porch. But, when it became clear that Hurston was in no fit state to drive, Rawlings sent her friend to sleep out in the black servants’ quarters although there were plenty of spare bedrooms in the main house.

Hurston – who grew up in an all-black town, possibly the granddaughter of a white slave owner – was adept at navigating the ‘Jim Crow’ laws, and did not seem to hold Rawlings’s racial cowardice against her.

But Rawlings subjected herself to tough questions about her behaviour and, on a second overnight visit, she insisted that this time Hurston stay with her in the house. ‘I had to hurdle an awfully wide ditch!’ she admitted. ‘I was amazed to find that my own prejudices were so deep’.

From then on, Rawlings fought against racial segregation whereas Hurston fought to write about subjects other than race. Yet the world they inhabited was not yet ready to hear them. Rawlings’s reputation dwindled when her editor failed to recognise the quality of her later experimental stories, and Hurston died a pauper, buried in an unmarked grave.

This headstone was purchased by Alice Walker after she found Hurston's unmarked grave in an overgrown and snake infested cemetery. Walker later published an essay about it in Ms magazine, leading to something of a renaissance in Hurston's reputation. Photograph by Alan Anderson.
This headstone was purchased by Alice Walker after she found Hurston’s unmarked grave in an overgrown and snake infested cemetery. Walker later published an essay about it in Ms magazine, leading to something of a renaissance in Hurston’s reputation. Photograph by Alan Anderson.

Activity

Rawlings once threw a private party for Hurston. This month, we will host a Something Rhymed party. We’ll invite a few locally-based writers and supporters of the blog, and we’ll ask each of them to bring along one of their female writer friends. Find out how it goes when we blog about it in the coming weeks.

#SomethingRhymed

We’re keen to promote positive representations of women’s friendship, so with this in mind we’ve just launched our #SomethingRhymed hashtag on Twitter with this tweet: Women’s relationships are too often seen as bitchy & backstabbing. Tell us about a time when a female friend supported you.

We’d love to hear about your positive experiences of female friendship too. If you’re not on Twitter, but would still like to add your voice to the conversation, please do leave a message in the Comments section below.