Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960) was an American folklorist,anthropologist, and author during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Of Hurston’s four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, she is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Hurston was the fifth of eight children of John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston (née Potts). Her father was a Baptist preacher, tenant farmer, and carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher. She was born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 7, 1891, where her father grew up and her grandfather was the preacher of a Baptist church. Her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first all-Black town to be incorporated in the United States, when she was three. Hurston said she always felt that Eatonville was “home” to her and sometimes claimed it as her birthplace Her father later became mayor of the town, which Hurston would glorify in her stories as a place where African Americans could live as they desired, independent of white society. In 1901, some northern schoolteachers visited Eatonville and gave Hurston a number of books that opened her mind to literature, and this may be why she sometimes describes her “birth” as taking place in that year. Hurston spent the remainder of her childhood in Eatonville, and describes the experience of growing up in Eatonville in her 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”.
By the mid-1930s, Hurston had published several short stories and the critically acclaimed Mules and Men (1935), a groundbreaking work of “literary anthropology” documenting African American folklore. In 1930, she also collaborated with Langston Hughes on Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts, a play that was never finished, although it was published posthumously in 1991.
In 1937, Hurston was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct ethnographic research in Jamaica and Haiti. Tell My Horse(1938) documents her account of her fieldwork studying African rituals in Jamaica and voudon rituals in Haiti. Hurston also translated her anthropological work into the performing arts, and her folk revue, The Great Day premiered at the John Golden Theatre in New York in 1932.
Hurston’s first three novels were also published in the 1930s: Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934); Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), written during her fieldwork in Haiti and considered her masterwork; and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939).
When Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925, the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak, and she soon became one of the writers at its center. Shortly before she entered Barnard, Hurston’s short story “Spunk” was selected for The New Negro, a landmark anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays focusing on African and African American art and literature. In 1926, a group of young black writers including Hurston,Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman, calling themselves the Niggerati, produced a literary magazine called Fire!! that featured many of the young artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1929, Hurston moved to Eau Gallie in Florida where she wrote, “Mules and Men” which was later published in 1935.
Hurston’s work slid into obscurity for decades, for a number of cultural and political reasons.
Many readers objected to the representation of African American dialect in Hurston’s novels, given the racially charged history of dialect fiction in American literature. Her stylistic choices in terms of dialogue were influenced by her academic experiences. Thinking like a folklorist, Hurston strove to represent speech patterns of the period which she documented through ethnographic research. For example, a character in Jonah’s Gourd Vine expresses herself in this manner:
“Dat’s a big ole resurrection lie, Ned. Uh slew-foot, drag-leg lie at dat, and Ah dare yuh tuh hit me too. You know Ahm uh fightin’ dawg and mah hide is worth money. Hit me if you dare! Ah’ll wash yo’ tub uh ‘gator guts and dat quick.”
Several of Hurston’s literary contemporaries criticized Hurston’s use of dialect as a caricature of African American culture rooted in a racist tradition. More recently, many critics have praised Hurston’s skillful use of idiomatic speech. In particular, a number of writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance were critical of Hurston’s later writings, on the basis that they did not agree with or further the position of the overall movement. One particular criticism came from Richard Wright in his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God:
… The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is “quaint,” the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the “superior” race.
An article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”, by Alice Walker, published in the March 1975 issue of Ms. magazine, revived interest in her work. The reemergence of Hurston’s work coincided with the emergence of authors such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Walker herself, whose works are centered on African American experiences and include, but do not necessarily focus upon, racial struggle.
Biographies of Hurston include Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography by Robert Hemenway, Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd, Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit by Deborah G. Plant, and Speak So You Can Speak Again by Hurston’s niece, Lucy Anne Hurston. Her hometown of Eatonville, Florida celebrates her life in an annual festival.
In 2001, “Every Tongue Got to Confess” was published posthumously. The book was a collection of field materials Hurston had gathered in the late 1920s to create her book “Mules and Men”. Originally titled “Folktales from the Gulf States”, filmmaker Kristy Andersen had discovered the previously unknown collection of folk tales while researching the Smithsonian archives when they were placed in computer catalogs in 1997.
Hurston’s house in Fort Pierce is a National Historic Landmark.
Fort Pierce celebrates Hurston annually through various events such as Hattitudes, birthday parties, and a several-day festival at the end of April known as Zora Fest. Her life and legacy are also celebrated every year in Eatonville, the town that inspired her, at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Zora Neale Hurston on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.