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Zora Neale Hurston: The First Loud Voice of Black Feminism

by Elizabeth Wahba


Black feminism is a relatively new term in literary and political circles, dating to 1973. Fifty years earlier, Zora Neale Hurston (Zora) was writing on the issues of intersectionality in her fiction novels and stories, and her autobiographical works. I argue that Zora’s racial pride and representative voice for Black women establishes her. Zora highlighted the themes of frustration for Black women while celebrating racial pride. She gave voice to the voiceless, leaving a legacy that encouraged women in the development of Black feminism. Her message was that Black women face trifold subjugation, including racial, gender-based, and social class oppression, the very ideals of Black feminism. An inspiration to many female African American authors of the 20th century, Zora’s ideas molded the works of the first self-labeled Black feminists. I explore this connection, examining Zora’s ideology in her own works, and the work of Alice Walker, an early Black feminist author who writes prolifically on Zora as her largest inspiration. I investigate Katie Cannon’s Black feminist theory and her exploration of Zora in connection with the pillars of Black feminism. I conclude by expressing that Zora wrote at a time when Black women’s struggles were hard to express publicly, and she worked to give herself and those like her a voice, inspiring the later existence of a more cohesive fight to end oppression on all counts for women of color in America.

About the Author

This thesis is the culmination of Elizabeth’s studies at Millersville University as a Secondary Education English major and History minor at the University Honors College. Elizabeth began this thesis after completing Dr. Caleb Corkery’s African American Literature class in Spring 2016, where she was first introduced to Zora Neale Hurston. Her topic, Zora Neale Hurston’s often-overlooked influence on Black feminism, is one that Elizabeth is passionate about not only as a scholar of English literature and history, but as an educator in a high-poverty urban environment with a majority of African American students, and as a woman who lived in the Middle East for several years as a minority for my religion, nationality, and gender. Elizabeth’s experience with intersectional oppression has given me strong empathy and understanding of the minority perspective in our country, especially that of black women, whom Zora endeavored to give voice to in a new way, paving the way for African American women in our country. Elizabeth’s goal for this inquiry was to uncover connections between Zora’s writing in the 1920s and black feminism as it was first defined in 1973, and modern movement. This project introduces new ideas and draws connections for readers of great literature by black women between history and today, and how we can continue to fight with our voices to ensure that intersectional feminists will never be silenced. Elizabeth graduates in May 2017 and will continue to teach high school English in an urban environment, using the knowledge and perspective achieved in this project to influence and expand the minds of her students.

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