Zora Neale Hurston
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Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960), was an African-American novelist, memoirist, and folklorist. Born in Notasulga, Alabama, she was the fifth of eight children. Her mother was a teacher; her father a builder and preacher. Her family moved to Eatonville, Florida in 1894, where her father became mayor.
With her determined intelligence and humor, she quickly became a big name in the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s. She had a dual career as a writer (producing novels, short stories, plays, and essays) and as an anthropologist.
Early life and education
Growing up in Eatonville, an all-black, self-sufficient small town in central Florida, had a lasting impact on Zora as she came of age. Her mother died when she was only 13, which was devastating. Her father remarried and she didn’t get along with her stepmother, causing a rift and forcing her to have to learn to fend for herself. Some of her later stories took place in towns that resembled Eatonville. She described it as a town where Black people could live and work as they pleased — a very different scenario from other parts of the South.
Zora left Eatonville at age 14 for a rather itinerant life. She joined a traveling theater company, and earned money by working as a maid in the homes of white people. One of her employers saw her talent and made it possible for her to attend high school in Baltimore. Though she was already 26 at the time, she claimed to be 16, and apparently it worked.
Zora as a student at Howard University
Shortly thereafter, in 1918, Zora began her college studies at Howard University in nearby Washington, D.C. There she studied philosophy and black culture with Alain Locke, who was one of her first major influences. While at Howard, Zora began writing and publishing her first short stories, drawing on her upbringing in Eatonville.
Zora was a natural storyteller. As she grew up, she had listened to the stories of the townspeople. Her love of story would lead her not only to create her own, but to collect stories from the oral traditions of the African-American South and the Black cultures of the Caribbean in her capacity as an anthropologist.
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Quotes from “How it Feels to Be Colored Me”
Zora began her life in New York City in 1925, plunging into the fertile period of black art, literature, and culture now referred to as the Harlem Renaissance (at the time, it was more commonly called The New Negro Movement). Boisterous and outgoing, she met and befriended other talented black writers, including Langston Hughes and Dorothy West. She became an assistant to one of the most hugely successful writers of the era, Fannie Hurst, who was Jewish. The two developed a deep, if sometimes complicated friendship. Zora’s reputation, of course, has far eclipsed Hurst’s.
Zora was an outspoken, outstanding figure in the movement. She displayed great style, loved to laugh, and had great pride in the Black race. Her work reflected her values, though beneath her joyous exterior, there was constant struggle — bad relationships, and never enough money.
Becoming an anthropologist
Zora was the first black student at Barnard College, the women’s college connected with Columbia. There she studied with the noted anthropologist Franz Boas, who recognized her talent for storytelling and abiding interest in black cultures of the American South and Caribbean.
Zora’s writing and anthropological pursuits became intertwined as Boas urged her to pursue more research, something that she loved. A wealthy New Yorker named Charlotte Osgood Mason became Zora’s benefactress for a number of years, allowing her to travel through Florida and the Caribbean to collect stories to place among oral traditions.
In 1936, Zora received a Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed her to delve even more deeply into her research. She traveled to Jamaica and Haiti, with the grant, collecting stories and collecting material on African rituals and voodoo. Her research resulted in two nonfiction collections about the culture and language of the peoples she researched — Mules and Men and Tell My Horse.
Zora Neale Hurston page on Amazon
Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God
Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) was Zora’s first published novel. She drew upon her own experiences, setting it in a Florida town, with two protagonists who may have been inspired by her own parents. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is her best known work. It was produced in just several weeks while traveling in Haiti. It has become something of a feminist classic, with the heroine of the story searching for independence, identity, and happiness over the course of 25 years and several relationships. This story is actually not unlike Zora’s own, though it could be argued that she never found true happiness.
Zora’s best-known work:
Their Eyes Were Watching God
A declining reputation
Even during her lifetime Zora’s reputation began to decline. Though her books sold fairly well, and had many admirers, they had their equal share of controversy. Some writers objected to her use of dialect. Other contemporaries were troubled by her political conservatism.
By 1950, she returned to her home state of Florida, but was unable to earn a living through writing. She worked as a teacher, librarian, and finally, she returned full circle to working as maid. Beset by financial and health trouble, she lived her last years in poverty and obscurity. In 1960, Zora Neale Hurston died of a stroke at age 69 while living in a nursing home. She was buried in an unmarked grave.
Reviving a legacy
It wasn’t until long after her death that her work was rediscovered and finally appreciated for its integrity and depth. The author Alice Walker played a great part in reviving Hurston’s reputation. In 1973, she placed a marker at the spot where Zora is believed to be buried. On the stone is written, “Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South.”
Zora’s books are now studied and appreciated far more than during her lifetime, having become staples of American literature and women’s studies courses. Their Eyes Were Watching God is widely considered a classic, and a masterpiece of that era.
Zora’s famous essay, Crazy for This Democracy
More about Zora Neale Hurston on this site
- Dear Literary Ladies: Do I have enough wisdom to be a good writer?
- ZNH Quotes and Life Lessons
- What White Publishers Won’t Print
- Crazy for This Democracy
- Fannie Hurst & Zora Neale Hurston — a Literary Friendship
- ZNH Interview (1934)
- 5 Quotes from “How it Feels to Be Colored Me”
- Books, Publishing, & Publishers
- ZNH’s “Sweat”: An Ecofeminist Master Class in Dialect and Symbolism
- Quotes from Their Eyes Were Watching God
- Jonah’s Gourd Vine
- Their Eyes Were Watching God
- Mules and Men
- Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica
- Spunk: Three Tales
- Moses, Man of the Mountain
- Every Tongue Got to Confess
Autobiographies and Biographies
- Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston
- I Love Myself : When I am Laughing … by Zora Neale Hurston
- Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd
- Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography by Robert E. Hemenway
- Zora Neale Hurston’s Finale Decade by Virginia Lynn Moylan
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