Zora Neale Hurston, Genius of the Harlem Renaissance
Twentieth century African-American author Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. But her perseverance and love of her culture made for a much richer life than many people know.
Near the turn of the century, Hurston was born the spirited daughter of former slaves. Her parents had gone on to become a schoolteacher and a Baptist preacher. Her father's sermons were likely what sparked the girl's fascination with storytelling, which she'd later use not only in her works, but also in the construction of her public persona.
Over the course of her life, Hurston offered contradictory dates of birth. And in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, she inaccurately claimed Eatonville, Florida, as her birthplace, when in truth she was born in Notasulga, Alabama, probably on January 7, 1891. But Eatonville was her home from about age 3 to 13, and a major influence on her work. One of the first places in the United States to be incorporated as an all-black town, it was also home to a vibrant and proud African-American community that protected the young Hurston from the cruel racial prejudices found elsewhere in the United States. Years later, Hurston would cherish this place and the self-confidence it instilled in her works. She once described it as "A city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jailhouse."
Despite a seemingly ideal hometown, Hurston knew hardship. At 13, she lost her mother, and was booted out of boarding school when her father and new step-mom failed to foot the tuition bill. Down but not out, Hurston found work as a maid, serving an actress in a traveling theatrical company that gave her a taste of the world beyond Florida. In Baltimore, she lopped a decade off her age (a subtraction she maintained the rest of her days) to qualify for free public schooling that would allow her to complete her long-delayed high school education. From there, she worked her way through college, studied anthropology and folklore, and had her earliest works published in her school's paper. By 1920, the 29-year-old earned an associate degree from Howard University in Washington D.C. Five years later, she made the fateful move to New York City, where she eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from Barnard College after studying with the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas. There, she also became a seminal and controversial icon of the Harlem Renaissance.
It's said that Hurston—with her brazen wit, affable humor, and charm—waltzed into the Harlem scene, easily befriending actress Ethel Waters, and poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Professor and fellow folklorist Sterling Brown once remarked of her appeal, "When Zora was there, she was the party."
Electrified by the thriving literary movement that strove to define the contemporary African-American experience, Hurston penned the personal essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," where she boldly declared:
"I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. 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."
She and Hughes teamed up in 1930 to create a play for African-American actors that wouldn't use racial stereotypes. Regrettably, creative differences led to a falling out between the two that sunk The Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life In Three Acts before the Eatonville-set fable managed to be produced. But Hurston rebounded with her musical The Great Day, which premiered on Broadway January 10, 1932. Next, came her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in 1934. The following year saw the release of a meticulously curated collection of African American oral folklore. Mules and Men became the greatest success she'd see in her lifetime, and yet it earned Hurston only $943.75.
Her next book, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written during her anthropological expedition to Haiti to study voodoo. Reflecting its divorced author's life, it followed a forty-something African American woman's journey through three marriages and self-acceptance. While the mainstream press praised Hurston's anthropological eye and her writing "with her head as with her heart," she faced a backlash from some of her Harlem Renaissance peers.
As the movement evolved, Harlem Renaissance writers had been debating how African-Americans should present their people and culture in their art. Should they devotedly fight against the negative stereotypes long established by Caucasian writers? Should their work be penned as progressive propaganda intended to expose the racism of modern America as a means to provoke change? Or should African-Americans create without the constraints of a political or creative ideology? Hurston sided with the last group, and saw her novel criticized for its embrace of the vernacular of the black South, its exploration of female sexuality, and its absence of an overt political agenda. Literary critic Ralph Ellison called Their Eyes Were Watching God a "blight of calculated burlesque," while essayist Richard Wright jeered, "Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction." But fiction wasn't all she wrote.
In 1938, Hurston published the anthropological study Tell My Horse; her aforementioned autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, came six years later. But following the release of her final novel Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston's career fell into decline. Through the 1950s, she occasionally managed to secure some work as a journalist, scraping by with stints as a substitute teacher and sometimes maid. Despite a prolific output that included four novels, two folklore collections, an autobiography, and a wealth of short stories, essays, articles and plays, Hurston died penniless and alone in a welfare home on January 28, 1960; her body—dressed in a pink dressing gown and fuzzy slippers—was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce.
It was an especially cruel fate because she'd once appealed to activist W.E.B. Du Bois to create "a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead" to assure that they'd never be discarded. Her rejected proposal read in part: "Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness. We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored."
This confident and rebellious creator's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance seemed certain to have doomed her to the realm of the forgotten. But in 1975, Alice Walker, who would go on to write the heralded novel The Color Purple, penned a legacy-shifting essay for Ms. magazine called "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." The essay encouraged a new generation of readers to rediscover Hurston’s work. Their Eyes Were Watching God found a new life, and began popping up on school reading curriculums and earning reprintings in other languages, as did her other books. Mule Bone was finally published and staged in 1991. Historians scoured archives and uncovered a never-published manuscript of folklore Hurston had collected. Titled Every Tongue Got To Confess, it was published posthumously in 2001.
Not only were Hurston's works at long last given their due—so was she. In honor of the author who'd inspired her and countless others, Walker traveled to Florida to put a proper tombstone on Hurston's grave. It reads: "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South. Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist."
This story originally ran in 2016.