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.
Zora Neale Hurston claimed throughout her life that she was born in Eatonville, Florida in 1901, the first incorporated all-black city. Modern historians however place her birth probably in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama. Her family would move to the black township of Eatonville, who still claims her to this day, around the first two years of her life.
Hurston's father was a carpenter and preacher who several times held the title of mayor of the black city. After her mother's death in 1904, her father would remarry. Hurston however never got along with her new stepmother, and left home at a young age. She would work with a traveling theater company for several years and by 1917 attend Morgan Academy in Baltimore to finish high school. From there she would enroll in the prestigious black Howard University in Washington DC.
Working her way through college as a manicurist, it is at Howard that Hurston would begin publishing: her first story, "John Redding Goes to Sea," appeared in Howard University's literary magazine Stylus in 1921. She would go on to found the Howard newspaper, The Hilltop. A story accepted by the New York magazine Opportunity in 1925 would earn Hurston much acclaim, winning 2nd place in a literary contest. The magazine's editor Charles S. Johnson and black intellectual thinker and philosopher Alain Locke encouraged Hurston to move to New York, the heart of the then blooming African-American cultural expression now known as the "Harlem Renaissance."
In New York Hurston attended social gatherings with much of the black Harlem Renaissance elite: from Arna Bontemps to Langston Hughes. And she became well known for her tales of black life in Eatonville as well as her much discussed choice of hats and her fondness for public smoking, the latter of which broke with conventional feminine norms.
During these early years Hurston worked as an assistant to writer Fanny Hurst and began taking classes at Barnard College. There, Hurston studied anthropology with famed scholar Franz Boas, becoming the first African-American woman to graduate from the particular institution. Her primary interest was in folklore, and Hurston used her background in Eatonville for both data and academic study. Over the next several years Hurston conducted fieldwork in African-American and African-Caribbean folklore throughout the Diaspora: interviewing storytellers in Florida, Hoodoo doctors in New Orleans, Vodun adherents in Haiti, and others in Jamaica. All of this would leave an unmistakable mark on her writings, and .
Hurston received the esteemed Rosenwald and Guggenheim fellowships as well as private funding to support her research that she also carried out through Columbia University. At least three of her works focus exclusively her research: the black folklore collection Mules and Men published in 1935; an in-depth analysis of Afro-Caribbean Vodun titled Tell My Horse published in 1938; and The Florida Negro completed in the same year, but never published.
One of the first fiction works was Mule Bone, a play done in conjunction with black poet Langston Hughes. Due to a conflict which some deem as business and others as personal, it remained unpublished until 1991 long after the two authors' deaths. Hurston's most famous work would no doubt be the celebrated Their Eyes Were Watching God, which follows the remarkable yet ordinary life of a rural born heroine "Janie." Hurston would go on to publish other fiction works. Her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was one of her last major works. In it, she wrote, "I want a busy life, a just mind, and a timely death."
The author of numerous literary works, Hurston's work reflected a rich understanding of African-American rural life, beliefs and folklore set apart from blatant discussions on race and society. They were works depicting blacks mostly divorced from whites, living their own lives and culture: including dialect, humor and more. Such depictions did not come without criticism.
At a time when much of black America was seeking to redefine itself away from past stereotypes, some of Hurston's characters were taken as offensive. Author Richard Wright would criticize Hurston for perpetuating what he deemed the "minstrel image" and for attempting to escape from the discourse on racial inequities. Civil Rights activists of the 1930s declared her a segregationist, wholly naïve or unfamiliar with the black plight.
By the 1940s Hurston's type of work was considered out of touch or even backwards in the black mainstream literary world. Unable to support herself as a writer, virtually ignored and forgotten, Hurston returned to the South. During the 1950s the once literary giant was forced to take up menial jobs. She never gave up on writing, seeking endlessly to find a publisher. But it was in vain as she found herself turned away again and aging. On January 28, 1960, Hurston died penniless of a stroke in a Florida welfare home. Her body was buried in an unmarked grave. And for a while, her literary works remained buried and as forgotten as her self.
Zora Neale Hurston, Eatonville, 1935
It would not be until the 1970s, with the era of self-discovery the Black Protest Movements and world upheaval had produced, that Hurston's work began to be noticed once more. Their Eyes Were Watching God became a symbol of black feminism and was reprinted and circulated.
Modern literary critics have taken a more nuanced look at Hurston. While some of her stances were unpopular with the black social political movements of the time, Hurston was a product of her research and upbringing. And rather than hide such things or reinvent them, she celebrated her rural black heritage and womanhood in all its richness. Her characters were full of all the humor of the black folktales, but yet held their own unique dignity far apart from the white minstrel images. What was more, though Hurston seemed to shy away from blatant discussions of race, the inescapable race-dominated culture she lived within still peeked through (thought subtly) in her works, as did discussions of class and gender.
Her work Seraph on the Suwanee, focusing on the marriage of a white couple, even gave insight into the lives of non-blacks in her era. Whatever others may have thought of her, and whatever she may have thought of herself, Hurston's works for many reflected a literary goldmine for understanding race and gender politics in the rural black South.
Novelist, anthropologist and folklorist -Zora Neale Hurston's work in a range of fields contributed greatly to the preservation of African-American folk traditions as well as to American literature. In 1973 author Alice Walker would finally place an engraved stone on Hurston's unmarked burial site, signaling in a sense a rebirth and recognition of her lifetime of achievements. It reads: "Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius in the South."
Color Struck (1925) in Opportunity Magazine, play
How It Feels to Be Colored Me (1928)
"Hoodoo in America" (1931) in The Journal of American Folklore
The Gilded Six-Bits (1933)
Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), novel
Mules and Men (1935), non-fiction
Tell My Horse (1937)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), novel
Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), novel
Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), autobiography
Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), novel
Official website: http://www.zoranealehurston.com/
Valerie Boyd. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (2003).
Lucy Anne Hurston. Speak So You can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (2004).