Zora Hurston’s Unrelenting Quest For Mastery
Robert Greene's book Mastery explores the process of becoming a master in any field. Greene examines the lives of great historical figures such as Charles Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well as contemporary figures such as Paul Graham and Freddie Roach, distilling the traits and universal ingredients that made them masters.
Greene argues that mastery is not about being born with a special talent, but about following a specific path and developing the right habits and mindset.
One of the three stages he examines in the book is called “Apprenticeship.” It’s the stage, according to Greene, where one learns the basics of their craft and develops a strong foundation. This, he says, involves finding a mentor, studying the work of the masters, and practicing diligently.
One of the figures that Greene highlights under this apprenticeship theme is Zora Neale Hurston. A pioneering writer, anthropologist, and folklorist known for her contributions to Black history and American literature, Hurston’s life journey is marked by resilience, creativity, and a deep commitment to preserving and celebrating the culture and voices of Black communities.
I first became acquainted with Hurston over fifteen years ago by way of a book called “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston" by Valerie Boyd. This biography offers a detailed exploration of Hurston's life, including her literary achievements and contributions to the Harlem Renaissance.
Born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, widely regarded as the first all-Black incorporated town in the United States. Hurston’s unique upbringing in this community deeply influenced her perspective and writing.
Says Greene in his book Mastery:
“She had two great passions in those years. First, she loved books and reading. She read everything she could get her hands on, but she was particularly drawn to books on mythology—Greek, Roman, and Norse. She identified with the strongest characters—Hercules, Odysseus, Odin.
Second, she would spend much of her time listening to the stories of locals as they gathered on porches and gossiped or related folk tales, many of them dating back to the years of slavery. She loved their manner”
Despite facing financial challenges, Hurston pursued her education with determination. She attended Howard University and later Barnard College, where she studied anthropology under the renowned Franz Boas. Her academic pursuits allowed her to combine her love for storytelling with a rigorous study of culture and folklore.
Hurston's literary career took off during the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement of the 1920s that celebrated Black art and literature. She became known for her vivid and authentic portrayals of African American life in the rural South. Her most famous work, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (1937), is considered a classic of American literature.
In addition to her writing, Hurston conducted groundbreaking anthropological research. She traveled extensively throughout the American South and the Caribbean, collecting folklore, oral histories, and cultural artifacts from Black communities. Her work in anthropology contributed to a better understanding of African American culture and spirituality.
“Over the years, Hurston had made a study of powerful, important people—Black and White—and how to impress them. Now in New York, she used this skill to great effect, charming several wealthy white patrons of the arts”
Zora Neale Hurston's significance to Black history flowed from her ability to capture the diverse experiences and voices within Black communities. She celebrated the richness of Black culture, challenging stereotypes and showcasing the resilience and strength of Black individuals. Her writing and research helped preserve and validate the cultural heritage of Black Americans.
As explained by Robert Greene in his book Mastery:
“Zora Neale Hurston’s story reveals in its barest form the reality of the Apprenticeship Phase—no one is really going to help you or give you direction. In fact, the odds are against you. If you desire an apprenticeship, if you want to learn and set yourself up for mastery, you have to do it yourself, and with great energy.
When you enter this phase, you generally begin at the lowest position. Your access to knowledge and people is limited by your status. If you are not careful, you will accept this status and become defined by it, particularly if you come from a disadvantaged background.
Instead, like Hurston, you must struggle against any limitations and continually work to expand your horizons. (In each learning situation you will submit to reality, but that reality does not mean you must stay in one place.)
Reading books and materials that go beyond what is required is always a good starting point. Being exposed to ideas in the wide world, you will tend to develop a hunger for more and more knowledge; you will find it harder to remain satisfied in any narrow corner, which is precisely the point.”
Zora Neale Hurston's legacy continues to inspire writers, scholars, and readers today. Her dedication to preserving African American culture and her ability to capture the complexities of Black life make her a revered figure in both Black history and American literature.
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