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Zora Neale Hurston

By Kali Henderson

Zora Neale Hurston was a celebrated folklorist and anthropologist whose writings have experienced a resurgence since her death. Her documentation of the black experience in the early twentieth century was a significant contribution to American history and folklore. She recorded the heavily metaphoric stories she heard in her childhood and throughout her travels in the regional dialect spoken by those she encountered.  These stories and the experiences of her travels influenced the body of work for which she became known.

Born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, Zora Neale Hurston was one of eight children born to John Hurston and Lucy Potts Hurston. When Zora was just a toddler, her parents moved their family to Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was the first all black town to be incorporated in the U.S. and is still in existence today. In this town, Hurston was exposed to black achievement and sheltered from the violence and oppression present in so many cities and towns across the South. Hurston’s father was a preacher, carpenter, and Eatonville mayor for 3 terms and helped to form many of the laws of the town. Lucy Hurston was a housewife, of which John was intensely proud. The Hurstons lived a confortable life in a thriving, all black town.

From this sheltered upbringing emerged a young woman who was forced into the outside world by the death of her mother in 1904. She was sent to live with family in Jacksonville, FL. This led to her first job as a lady’s maid for a singer touring with a Gilbert and Sullivan revue. After her father remarried, Zora returned to Eatonville briefly. She left her family home permanently after a physical altercation with her stepmother. She had not been able to finish high school so, in 1917, in Baltimore, she registered to finish her high school courses at Morgan College. She was 26 years old at the time but reported that she was 16 to qualify for housing and other assistance. Throughout the rest of her life she used 1901 as her birthdate.

Over the next six years, Hurston worked a series of jobs as a waitress and manicurist in Washington, DC.  She obtained an associate degree from Howard University and pledged the Zeta Phi Beta sorority. Hurston also began writing for the school’s literary magazine, Stylus. Her first published writings are the short stories “John Redding Goes to Sea” and “Drenched in Light.”  She continued to write in the short story form. One of her most famous short works, “Spunk,” won a second-place award in the literary magazine, Opportunity.

Zora Neale Hurston 2

“But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow damned up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” (Hurston, 1928).

After completing her studies at Barnard College, Hurston received a fellowship to study with the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas. Under the guidance of Boas, Hurston began to formalize her interest in “Negro folklore.” During this period, she embarked upon fieldwork that would be the basis for her collection of Negro folklore, Mules and Men, published in 1935. Initially, she found it difficult to get people to tell her their folk tales because of her academic approach. Facilitated by a wealthy patron, Mrs. R. Osgood Mason, Zora resumed her fieldwork with better results.

While living in New York City, she also became a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance and contributed to the acclaimed publication Fire! along with other greats such as Langston Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Countee  Cullen. Although there was only one issue of this literary magazine, it was acclaimed by some and derided by others. Fire! contained writings that were provocative and discussed issues such as homosexuality and prostitution. Many black critics felt that these topics propagated the existing stereotypes of blacks at the time. The critics argued that black writers should highlight more positive images of the “Negro” to offset the negative images that were so prevalent.

The 30’s and 40’s were the highlight of Hurston’s career. In 1931, she ended her brief marriage to Herbert Sheen. She collaborated on plays with prominent writers like Langston Hughes and continued to write short stories.  One of her most famous pieces, “How It Feels to be Colored Me,” was featured in The World Tomorrow

Zora received a Guggenheim fellowship to travel to Haiti and Jamaica to study the Yoruba-based religious practice known as Vodou. While in Haiti for this research in 1937, Hurston produced her best-known work of fiction, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The central character, Janie Crawford, is in search of love and a bit of adventure. In a time when women stayed close to home and accepted their lot in life, Janie married twice and left her small town and family behind. After the death of her second husband, she took a lover and left the comfort of her home and town to explore. Ultimately, Janie had to make the difficult decision to kill her lover to protect herself from attack after a rabid dog had bitten him.  Although she loses her love, she learned to live on her own terms.  It has been speculated that the main character is loosely based on Hurston. The book was published upon her return to the U.S. in September of that same year.  

In 1939, Hurston received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Morgan State College and the Distinguished Alumni Award from Howard University. She continued to conduct ethnographic studies of blacks communities, traveling throughout the American South and into Central America. She published anthropological work on Voodoo in New Orleans and the black communities in Honduras. 

In the winter of 1950, Hurston returned to Florida to live. Although her writing didn’t support her financially, she continued writing on a variety of political and social issues as well as writing for theatre. She received some harsh criticism from the black community for her commentary on the Brown vs. Board of Education case.  Her stance was that the decision to integrate schools told black educators that they were not good enough to teach black students.

Since she never received sufficient remuneration for her writing, she worked a variety of jobs in her later years including maid, librarian, and substitute teacher in addition to contributing to several national magazines. Her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was published in 1941. One of her great fears was that she would die without money or recognition. In 1945, she wrote a letter to W.E.B. Dubois imploring him to organize resources so that notable blacks would not suffer the fate of unmarked graves and fade from history. This foretold her fate.  

In 1959, Zora suffered a stroke. Due to her lack of financial resources, she moved into the St. Lucie County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida, to receive care.  One year later, in 1960, she died from heart disease and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest. In 1973, a young Alice Walker found her grave and purchased a modest headstone for it. Two years later, Walker published  “ In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in the magazine Ms. Her actions prompted renewed interest in Hurston’s writing. Their Eyes Were Watching God continues to be read in classrooms across the country and the world.

Hurston was very reticent about her personal life.  She was of the generation where women – and African American women especially – could not afford scandal around sexual and romantic relationships outside of marriage.  She was close to a number of women in the course of her life.  How intimate and romantic these relationships were remains open to speculation.

Main Sources

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1942. Dust Tracks on a Road. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

About Zora Neale Hurston. Retrieved October 1, 2013 from http://zoranealehurston.com/about/.