Black History Month Focus on Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston

Black American author, Zora Neale Hurston, believed in the individual’s power to succeed despite all obstacles. Hers is an African American story worth celebrating.

Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at the sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground. –Zora Neale Hurston

African American writer, novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 7, 1891. However, there is some question about this fact. Hurston, the daughter of a Baptist minister/carpenter father, and a school teacher mother, asserted time and time again that she was actually born in the all-Black town of Eatonville, Florida in the year of 1901.

Early Years of Zora Neale Hurston

Eatonville, Florida was the town where Hurston grew up, where her father was mayor, and the place she always regarded as home. Coming of age in such an environment provided Hurston with an upbringing which informed her worldview and, subsequently, her literary art. For in Eatonville, as Hurston would later write, there were “three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins…two schools, and no jailhouse.” Hurston regarded the world as a place of opportunity and did not view being a black American as an affliction or something to be overcome.

Hurston’s idyllic life came to a halting end when her mother died. Hurston was only thirteen. Unable to get along with her father and his new wife (and after being expelled from school), Hurston struck out on her own, eventually attending the Morgan Academy in Baltimore Maryland by claiming to be ten years younger than her true age of twenty-six. She left that school before graduation and took up studies at the Howard Academy before beginning classes at Howard University in 1918. There, Hurston joined the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and co-founded the University’s student newspaper (the Hilltop). Hurston supported herself as a waitress in a ‘whites only’ nightclub and as a manicurist, but found her thirst and creativity could not be sated and sought greener pastures.

Zora Neale Hurston’s New York Life

Hurston ventured to New York City. The year was 1925 and Hurston found herself swept up in the exciting climate of black writers, dancers, musicians and other creative types. This was the time that would later come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston became acquainted with the likes of authors Claude McKay and Langston Hughes. She would collaborate with Hughes on several projects, but years later, their working relationship would deteriorate and dissolve due to political and artistic differences. The 1920s was also the time when Hurston began to seriously write fiction and publish numerous articles.

While in New York, Hurston studied at Barnard College on scholarship- a scholarship presented to her by Annie Nathan Meyer, the founder of the college. Here, Hurston would immerse herself in anthropology and indulge her love for African American folklore. She graduated from Barnard in 1927 and the world opened up for her.

Zora Neale Hurston, Novelist of the South and the Diaspora

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.- Zora Neale Hurston

After graduation, Zora Neale Hurston worked as an ethnologist, yet still found time to write. By the mid 1930s she had published several short stories and magazine articles. Hurston also managed to complete and publish a collection of African American folklore tales (Mules and Men) as well as her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine in 1934. But it was not until the 1937 publication of her signature novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, that Hurston enjoyed the first taste of fame and public controversy.

While some critics found the book difficult to read, others expressed concern that the novel’s tone and subject conflicted with the era’s widely accepted racial modes of story telling. Still others regarded Hurston’s style as being ‘too black,’ and even her publisher worried that she would not be able to sell to white audiences. Black audiences claimed her work was compromised by white benefactors and sponsors, and rejected her narrative for being exploitive and chauvinistic.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Literary Style

On the contrary, Hurston’s works drew mightily on the reality of the black South as she knew it. She wrote about life in rural areas which mirrored her own life in Eatonville. Hurston was, at the heart of it all, a black scholar and ethnologist who researched the folklore of her African American heritage and filled her stories with that flavor. She travelled to Haiti, Jamaica, and the British West Indies, taking pictures and chronicling voodoo practices, songs, dances, and rituals. She included a wealth of these references in her writings.

Hurston wrote the way she heard people speak and imbued her stories with the authenticity and vitality of the human spirit. Hurston refused to depict her African American characters as humiliated or as defeated victims of the world. She instead presented stories that portrayed black life in all its triumph, consternation, and routine struggles. Hurston wrote about the condition of African America the way she experienced it: As a human challenge to be met head on.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Final Years

Hurston published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, in 1942, and was profiled in Who’s Who in America, Current Biography and Twentieth Century Authors that same year

Still, Hurston never got rich from her writing and never earned a royalty larger than $940.

Her final book was published in 1948. Throughout the 1950’s, Hurston published several articles for various literary journals and magazines, but only sporadically. She worked for a time on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham, and writing on occasion for Warner Brothers motion pictures. She was even on the staff at the Library of Congress.

Suffering from ill health, and finding less opportunity to write and publish, Hurston returned to Florida where she spent the remaining years of her life. By the time she suffered her first stroke, most of her writings had gone out of print. In 1960, Hurston suffered a fatal stroke, and died in poverty.

It’s been written that friends and neighbors had to take up a collection for her burial and that her grave remained unmarked for years—until the novelist Alice Walker purchased a headstone in 1973. On it, she had the following words inscribed: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”

Works by Zora Neale Hurston:

Jonah’s Gourd Wine (novel), 1934; Mules and Men (folklore), 1935; Their Eyes Were Watching God (novel), 1937; Tell My Horse (Caribbean travel book), 1938; Moses: Man of the Mountain (novel), 1939; Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography), 1942; Seraph on the Swanee, 1948