Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, folklorist and author from the American south. Hurston is credited with having written over thirty short-stories, four novels, two books of collected folklore, and one autobiography as well as numerous articles, essays, and plays. She is best known for her novel Their Eyes were Watching God.
Zora was born on January 7, 1891 in Alabama. Her family relocated to Eatonville, Florida, an all-Black town, when she was three years old. Zora’s father, John Hurston, was a carpenter, a farmer, and a minister, but he eventually became the Mayor of Eatonville. She later described it as being “a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse.”
Hurston’s mother Lucy Ann died when Zora was thirteen years old. Her father remarried, but Zora and her stepmother did not get along, and Zora was sent to a boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida. When she was expelled after her father stopped sending payments, Hurston sustained herself by working as a maid for a performer in a Gilbert and Sullivan theater group. Traveling with the performers, Zora made her way up the East coast to Baltimore, Maryland.
Zora was 26 at this time and wished to complete her high school education. She lied about her age, telling the school authorities that she was 16 so that she could resume classes for free. Zora graduated from The Morgan Academy of Baltimore, Maryland in 1918, and promptly enrolled in Howard University in Washington, D.C.. She became one of the first members of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, and was the co-founder of a student newspaper called The Hilltop.
After having several short stories published, Hurston transferred from Howard to Barnard College in 1925 when she was offered a full scholarship. She graduated with a B.A. in 1928, and studied at Columbia University as a graduate student of Anthropology for two years. Her sharp wit and focus ensured that she was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed her to travel to Haiti and collect information about the traditional beliefs, folklore, and customs of the African diaspora.
While she lived in the Northeastern United States, Zora made contact with Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and subsequently became a major force in The Harlem Renaissance. Hurston, Hughes, and Wallace Thurman created a magazine that featured the literature and art of the movement, called Fire!!.
Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine was published in 1934. A collection of folklore and anthropological profiling of the southern black community, Mules and Men, was published in 1935. Zora Neale Hurston’s best known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937.
Even while she was creating fiction and non-fiction that profiled her culture, there were many critics of Hurston’s writing style. Many of her peers thought that she was writing for white audiences, and dumbing down her black characters by writing much of her dialogue in southern black dialect. Zora replied to these criticisms: “I think that you will discover that my viewpoint is that I do not consider Negroes as special oddities among humanity. I see us as a people, subject to the same desires and emotions as others…That is the way I see Negroes, and that is the way I write about them…”
Beyond her literary style, Zora’s independent political views also served to distance her from her peers. During the new movement of the civil rights struggle, most African-Americans were supporting the Democratic party, yet Hurston continued to support the Republican Party. She also disagreed with forced integration, opposing the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. The School Board of Topeka, Kansas in 1954. Having grown up in an all-black town, Zora maintained a somewhat elitist viewpoint and did not want forced integration to interfere with the happily segregated community that had impacted her so strongly.
Despite being recognized in 1956 with the Bethune-Cookman College Award for Education and Human Relations, Hurston never managed to receive financial security. She worked until she had too much physical difficulty, and finding herself destitute, Hurston moved to the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida. She died from a stroke while in residence there on January 28, 1960 at 69 years old. Her neighbors collected funds for her small funeral, and she was buried in an unmarked grave, as they did not raise enough money to purchase a headstone.
In 1973, Alice Walker searched out the unmarked grave and paid for a tombstone that now reads: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.” The article that Walker wrote in Ms. magazine about her quest to acknowledge her literary hero caused a revival of interest in Hurston’s writing. Hurston is still considered a symbol of the town of Eatonville, Florida, who holds a festival each year during the last week of January in Zora Neale Hurston’s honor.
— Zora Neale Hurston