Zora Neale Hurston’s “Arrogant” Style of Leadership

Tiffany D. Pogue, PhD
3 min readJul 9, 2023

As a Black professional woman, I often lament the lack of resources on Black leadership strategies that are culturally grounded and community centered. That’s why I’ve decided to begin this series. It will eventually serve as a foundation for a forthcoming text, but for now I hope that it motivates and informs other women like me.

Public domain photograph of Zora Neale Hurston

Much of what we know of Zora Neale Hurston prioritizes her roles in shaping Black literature and folklore in the early twentieth century. Despite this, one can often find hidden in the pages of the various biographies written about her and her own works, a philosophy of leadership that might provide insights into culturally-relevant professionalism and more.

Of her literary career we know Hurston to be a complicated woman who sometimes presented herself as a submissive receiving financial benefits from a white patron to a confident author who cheered her own awards raucously according to some. We know that despite criticisms of her subject matter, Hurston wrote about the most natural of Black folks using their language, their ideas, and their aesthetics to weave worlds of wonder and promise. We can find insights into how Hurston served as a sort of disruptive influencer that centered her ideas about how the world should be from her words and from those of others.

And, isn’t that leadership — To disrupt the status quo to point to new (or older) funds of knowledge and wisdom with which to shape the world that we experience?

It’s no secret that I believe women in general, and Black in particular, are socialized to prioritize the needs of others above their own needs. Zora Neale Hurston was not cut from that cloth and thus stands as an example of how professional women can begin to move through their worlds with greater agency and confidence. For example, Alice Walker said of Hurston, “We do not love her for her lack of modesty….” How different is this from those myriad forces that would convince us of the safety in playing small?

In a chapter called “Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman Half in Shadow,” author Mary Helen Washington opens with three distinct images of Hurston expressed by some of her contemporaries. Fannie Hurst described Hurston as “handsome and light yellow.” Theodore Pratt described her as “squat and black as coal.” While Alzeda Hacker said her friend was “reddish light brown.” (How can all of these things be true? Well, I have spiritual explanation for that I’ll write about in the full forthcoming chapter.). Rather than spend time trying to unravel why these people saw Hurston in such seemingly different ways, I think our curiosity is best spent on learning the lesson. Hurston was who she needed to be.

For Langston Hughes she was a friend and a foe.

To R. Osgood Mason she was full of compliments (that came at a cost).

Frank Boaz had her as a student and as a connector/informer.

In each relationship, Hurston knew to employ the parts of herself that were most beneficial. She had the arsenal of tools that she had, because she embraced her whole self — without shame.

There is a lesson there for those of us seeking professional success and leadership opportunities, if we only choose to listen.

For further reading see:

Walker, A. (Ed.) (1979). I love myself when I am laughing and then again when I am looking mean and impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. NY: The Feminist Press.

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Tiffany D. Pogue, PhD

Tiffany D. Pogueis an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education whose research interests include Black Educational History, Philosophy, & Literacy Tradition.