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zora neale hurston

Happy Birthday, Zora Neale Hurston, African-American Author

January 07, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
Zora Neale Hurston turned challenges into motivation. In relentlessly striving for something bigger and better, she ultimately made a name for herself among the leading artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston passed away before being fully recognized for her contributions to the literary world, but her multifaceted fictional works containing anthropological insight continue to inspire.

Zora Neale Hurston's Early Days

Hurston was born in Notasulga, Ala., on Jan. 7, 1891. As a small child, she relocated to the first black township, Eatonville, Fla., with her family. Hurston’s “rambunctious spirit” clashed with her father’s traditional sensibilities, but her mother reveled in the energy, encouraging her eight children “to ‘jump at de sun,’” according to the official Zora Neale Hurston Web site. Hurston’s spirit was forever changed, however, after the death of her mother in 1904. “That hour began my wanderings,” she would later write. 

Hurston left Florida before finishing high school, but made her way to Morgan Academy in Baltimore to complete the requirements for a high school degree. She then entered Howard University in Washington D.C., and later studied anthropology at Barnard College in New York. Hurston’s anthropological research took her deeper into Harlem, and then back down south, studying “the folklore and ways of African Americans” in rural communities, according to The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at The New York Public Library.

While studying at Barnard, Hurston lived at 108 West 131st Street in Harlem. She’d arrived there alone with only $1.50, but Hurston’s magnetic personality quickly revealed itself. Biographer Valerie Boyd told The New York Times, “She (Hurston) mostly hung out and went to parties and wrote a few short stories and plays.” But the period was a crucial part of Hurston’s development as a writer, according to The New York Times. In 1932, Hurston moved back to Eatonville to focus more intently on composing novels.

Hurston's Notable Accomplishments

Hurston’s book “Men and Mules” was published in 1935, and gave readers their first authentic peek into the culture and folklore of African Americans in the Southern United States. According to Literary Traveler, when “Men and Mules” was released, “readers who had previously dismissed African American culture as frivolous and juvenile learned that they had a rich and complex literary tradition.”

Hurston was given a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed her to travel, and wrote her second novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in Haiti. The book was published in 1937, but “was shunned by her peers” because it focused “on black culture, not race relations,” according to Literary Traveler.

According to Women Writers, the “appetite for epics by white male writers left no room for the anthropological adventures of an African-American woman” in the 1940s, but in the early 1990s, Hurston’s work reemerged. “Their Eyes Were Watching God” gained a strong following among readers and a place in the literary canon, partly due to the efforts of Hurston fan Alice Walker. Between 1990 and 1995, more than one million copies of the book were sold.

The Rest of the Story

Hurston’s life was not entirely charmed. According to Women Writers, she was “always at odds with literary critics” and had contentious relationships with some of the male writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including “Alain Locke, who once supported Hurston and encouraged her move to New York,” but later “denounced her work for its lack of social criticism.” Later, Hurston’s novel “Mrs. Doctor” was rejected by her publisher, she was accused and acquitted of child molestation, and further alienated the public by defending segregation in 1954. In 1959, Hurston suffered a stroke, and died the next year of heart disease.

Hurston’s controversial views on race relations and segregation were captured in a letter written to her writer friend Countee Cullen in 1943. Hurston also offered her take on “white ‘liberals.’” The letter is featured on the PBS American Masters series.

The Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities is held each year during the last week in January, and features various arts, humanities and cultural programs, museum exhibitions, panels and public discussions, as well as concerts and workshops. The festival is held in Eatonville and the surrounding area in Orange County, Fla.

The Zora Neale Hurston Museum in Eatonville was created in 1990, and includes work by artists of African descent.

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