I’ve known of Zora Neale Hurston for years. Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God appears on many school reading lists, and during my tenure at the library, I frequently looked for it for students. Yet I knew almost nothing about her and had never read anything written by her.
So when it came time to research her life and work as part of my preparation for the true crime course – an article by her is included in the anthology I’m using – I was struck as by a revelation. How had I managed for so long to remain incurious and ignorant in regard to this truly remarkable woman?
Although born in Alabama, Zora Neal Hurston grew up primarily in Florida – Eatonville, Florida, to be exact. Incorporated in August of 1887, Eatonville was one of the first all-black towns in the United States. Hurston’s mother died when she was nine; she never got on too well with her father, the Reverend John Hurston. By the age of fourteen, she had freed herself from the family home, working various jobs and eventually joining a traveling theater troupe.
Hurston was hungry for education. Leaving the theater troupe in Baltimore, she enrolled in the Morgan Academy, the high school division of what eventually became Morgan State University. In 1918, she began her studies at Howard University in Washington D.C. Always she struggled, working at any job that would help sustain her financially. While at Howard, she had begun to write, and never stopped writing. Eventually she made it to New York, where she became an assistant to novelist Fanny Hurst. Offered a scholarship to Barnard College, she eagerly accepted, ultimately earning a B.A. degree in anthropology. This she achieved in 1928, at age 37. During her time at Barnard, she was the sole black student on campus.
Hurston was able to do some graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University, where her mentor was the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas. It was he who encouraged her to make a study of the folkloric heritage of the Southern black community which had nurtured her as a child. She had already become a member of that glittering New York scene known as the Harlem Renaissance, but it seems she knew fate was beckoning her. She gladly took up the task of becoming the chronicler of her own people. It proved the making of her as an artist.
I was glad when somebody told me, “You may go and collect Negro folklore.” In a way it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism. From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.
Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men
At the end of her life, having returned once and for all to the Florida of her childhood, Zora Neale Hurston died in penury and alone in 1960. In 1973, a young writer sought out Hurston’s final resting place in Fort Pierce and found it, not without some difficulty, in a weed choked segregated cemetery. There, she and a fellow scholar placed a grave marker: “The marker was modest but its message was not.”
That young writer was Alice Walker. Having bestowed this recognition on an artist she revered, Walker was instrumental in sparking a renewed interest in the work of Zora Neale Hurston. (Ten years after accomplishing this righteous mission, Walker’s novel The Color Purple was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.)
For more on Zora Neale Hurston, visit the Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive, located at the University of Central Florida’s Center for Humanities and Digital Research.
Hurston seems to have been a person who accepted no limitation on her aspirations, knew her own gifts, and would not take no for answer. A Genius of the South – and a genius of America.
Zora Neale Hurston managed to avoid many of the restraints placed upon women, blacks, and specifically black artists by American society during the first half of the twentieth century. And she did so with a vengeance by becoming the most published black female author in her time and arguably the most important collector of African-American folklore ever. Hurston was a complex artist whose persona ranged from charming and outrageous to fragile and inconsistent, but she always remained a driven and brilliant talent.
Contemporary Black Biography