5 Lessons Zora Neale Hurston Can Still Teach Us Today About Defining Our Own Experiences

Today marks what would have been Zora Neale Hurston’s 125th birthday, and so I’ve been thinking about all the valuable lessons this amazing writer taught us. In fact, although she died almost 60 years ago, she’s still teaching us a ton of things. The life lessons from Zora Neale Hurston we can learn are varied, but they all have one important thing in common: you are allowed to define your own experience.

How you’d like to identify, how you’d like to express yourself, or even how you’d like your life to go are choices that we don’t always allow to ourselves and others. Unfortunately, it’s still the case that your race, gender, body type, and other factors are allowed to speak for you. So we could all do with taking a leaf out of Zora Neale Hurston’s book, really.

Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the recommended reads in the 2016 Bustle Reading Challenge, so if you haven’t read it already, it’s high time to do so — to tick off that box in the challenge, but also because Hurston might just show you how to finally treat yourself in the open and non-judgmental way that you deserve.

So, happy birthday ZNH — and thanks for continuing to teach us these five important lessons.

1. Your Past And Present Are Entwined

Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 — and yet the influence of slavery is still apparent in the life of her young protagonist. There is a disturbing tendency today to ask black Americans to “forget” or “get over” the slave trade because it’s no longer relevant — but Hurston’s sensitive writing illustrates that that just isn’t true. We are still very much living in the framework of history.

But what does that mean on a personal level? Surely nobody should be defined by their past? Of course they shouldn’t — but our pasts can often hold the key to understanding, forgiving, and supporting ourselves and others.

2. Age Is Just A Number

When Zora Neale Hurston wanted to go to public school but was too old to be eligible for free classes, she merely changed her birth certificate. Hurston’s changed birth date stayed with her; it was even noted on her gravestone.

Today, arbitrary age limits and goals still hold an awful lot of importance — when really we should only measure our lives by our own metrics. If you’re not on any lists under the age of 30, if you want to get married young, if you’re not instantly ready to have sex the minute you turn 16 — it doesn’t matter. You are the only one who gets to define where you’re at in your life. (And if Zora Neale Hurston would have preferred us to wish her a happy 115th birthday today, then so be it!)

3. There Is No One Way To Belong To A Race

Their Eyes Were Watching God was initially criticised for not being “serious.” In other words, it didn’t fit into the prescribed format for racial uplift literature of the time. But years later, it has gone down as one of the most important novels of all time — proving that a culturally accepted racial experience can never be all-inclusive.

Belonging to a cultural identity can be a wonderfully empowering feeling — but on the other hand, if you don’t feel it reflects you accurately, then it can be incredibly isolating. You are not obliged to define yourself and your racial experience through anyone else’s eyes.

4. You Don’t Have To Pigeonhole Yourself

Hurston was creative in many ways: she was a storyteller; she was a curator; she was as talented at reading as she was at writing. Her novels are genre-defying; she didn’t have to have a “thing.”

And nor do you. You can be a musician who also makes furniture; you can be a merchant banker who writes poetry; you can be a house spouse with an incredible brain for numbers. You do you, OK?

5. Your Voice Is Valid

The socially accepted voice of America still very much belongs to white people. Standard English, which is really just one particular dialect of one culture, is referred to as “proper” or “normal” English. Hurston wrote her novels in the voice of her culture; for her, that was the most truthful way to express herself.

You don’t have to bend your voice to match the people in power. Your voice is valid.

Image: Wikipedia; Wifflegif; Giphy