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. A formerly unpublished one of Hurston's works, Barracoon, was released in 2018.
One of eight children, Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama. When she was very young, the family moved to a town in central Florida named Eatonville. Eatonville was incorporated in 1886 as the first self-governed, all-black city in America. In her folklore classic Mules and Men, Hurston describes Eatonville as "a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jail house," as well as the home of Joe Clarke's store porch. The porch became a stage as neighbors sat around on milk crates skillfully transforming simple gossip into folktales. Eatonville was a nurturing environment that provided a black child with rich traditions and a pride and joy in being black. The Hurstons built a comfortable home on five acres of lush land dotted with tropical fruit trees. The place was overrun with boisterous, barefoot children, and the young Zora was probably the loudest of them all. Lucy Ann Hurston, a former country school teacher, was delighted with her daughter's spiritedness. As Zora wrote in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road: "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." Her father did not see it that way. "It did not do for Negroes to have too much spirit," he counseled, as related in Zora's autobiography. "The white folks were not going to stand for it."
A carpenter, three-term mayor, and moderator of the South Florida Baptist Association, Zora's father, Reverend John Hurston, was a well-respected man and--according to wisdom gathered on Joe Clarke's porch--the strongest and bravest man in the community. Reverend Hurston's words to his daughter were cautionary: the rest of the world was not like Eatonville. But it was the rest of the world that the child hungered for. As she recounted in her autobiography, one of her favorite pastimes was to sit atop a gatepost hailing down passing cars and impishly asking, "Don't you want me to go a piece of the way with you?"
Hurston was only nine when her mother died. It was a traumatic experience, one that strained the relationship between her and her father. Two weeks after her mother's death she was sent off to school in Jacksonville, Florida; her father quickly remarried. Hurston despised her stepmother and became even more estranged from her father, who reacted by requesting--unsuccessfully--that the school adopt his daughter.
By the age of 14, Hurston was on her own. She held a number of jobs as a domestic before being hired as the personal maid to a cast member of a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. The actors welcomed her into their family, and the 18 months she spent with them would be among her fondest memories.
With a new sense of worldliness, Hurston left the troupe in Baltimore, Maryland, and enrolled into the high school division of Morgan Academy (now Morgan State University). She graduated early and set her sights on the prestigious Howard University. Working as a waitress and as a manicurist in a black-owned, whites-only barbershop, Hurston managed to scrape together the tuition to enter Howard in 1918.
Hurston embraced college life. She excelled in classes she found interesting and failed in those she did not; she worshipped her teachers; and she fell in love. The target of her affection was Herbert Sheen, a fellow student who would go on to medical school. They eventually married in 1927, only to divorce two years later when their careers came between them.
In 1921 Hurston published her first story. "John Redding Goes to Sea" was accepted by Howard's distinguished literary-club magazine. Though the story is considered a naively written and overly dramatic saga, it was the necessary first step for the blossoming young writer. In Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, Robert E. Hemenway wrote, "Hurston was struggling to make literature out of the Eatonville experience. It was her unique subject, and she was encouraged to make it the source of her art."
By 1925 her struggle was beginning to pay off. At an awards dinner sponsored by Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, a National Urban League magazine, Hurston came away with second-place prizes for an Eatonville story and play, and she caught the interest of leading figures in what would be known as the Harlem Renaissance. The connections she made at that dinner opened doors. That year she moved to New York City, began a job as a personal assistant to famed novelist Fannie Hurst, and entered Barnard College on scholarship as its first and only black student.
The time was the Roaring Twenties. Sandwiched between the end of World War I and the Great Depression, the 1920s ushered in a time of cultural change in America. It was the Jazz Age; the Charleston was the dance, and Prohibition was for many only an inconvenience whose remedy was speakeasy social clubs. For black Americans, the 1920s was also an era of extremes. While the Ku Klux Klan was reviving a campaign of terror in the North, South, and Midwest, New York City was in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement marking the emergence of numerous notable black writers. Hemenway wrote that for some, "Harlem became an aphrodisiac, a place where whites could discover their primitive selves." But the Harlem Renaissance was not merely a white fad. It is regarded as a spiritual revolution born in the cultural capital of black America, exploring and celebrating the African-American heritage.
Joining the likes of Jean Toomer, Alain Locke, Countie Cullen, and her friend Langston Hughes, Hurston became one of the "New Negroes." They were the young black intellectuals who demanded equal billing for African-American culture in American history. But many thought Hurston to hold a special status. As a product of a community with a thriving black folk life and as a talented young writer who would celebrate that culture through her art, she is said to have personified the movement and was dubbed the "Queen of the Renaissance."
Hurston's celebrity status grew easily. In a room full of people, she reportedly could draw an audience to her like a magnet. She used storytelling techniques that the masters on Joe Clarke's porch would have been proud of and brought to life the tragicomic Eatonville stories that became known as "Zora stories." But her popularity drew some criticism too. A writer for the Washington Post noted, "Among her faults, her peers felt, [was] a dependence on whites for approval." The Washington Post writer went on to quote Langston Hughes: "To many of her white friends, no doubt, she was the perfect 'darkie' in the nice meaning they give the term--that is, naive, childlike, sweet, humorous and highly colored Negro.... But, Miss Hurston was clever too."
In 1928 Hurston answered her critics in an essay entitled "How It Feels to be Colored Me." In it she wrote: "I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul.... I do not belong to that sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal.... No, I do not weep at the world--I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."
After receiving a B.A. from Barnard, Hurston began graduate work at Columbia University under the tutelage of Franz Boas, the foremost anthropologist in America. She continued writing and seeing her short stories published in literary magazines, but her interest was shifting to anthropology. Boas was encouraging: he saw Hurston as a natural candidate to help fill the void in the study of African-American culture.
Hurston's first folklore collecting trip to America's South was unfruitful, but it was only a false start to a decade of field work that would prove rewarding. The trip also directed the budding anthropologist to a largely unexplored and exciting subject: voodoo. Funded by Guggenheim fellowships and by her long-term relationship with a wealthy New York City patron, Hurston spent the next decade researching black folklore in the South and tracking conjure lore--a quest that took her from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Jamaica, and finally Haiti, where she photographed an apparent zombie.
The secret of Hurston's success as a collector was her genuine respect and growing belief in the voodoo religion. As an initiate in the field, Hurston was included in sophisticated rites that would have been off limits to most anthropologists. In 1938 she painstakingly documented her experiences in Jamaica and Haiti in Tell My Horse. In the book's foreword, novelist and poet Ishmael Reed noted, "Her greatest accomplishment is in revealing the profound beauty and appeal of a faith older than Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, a faith that has survived in spite of its horrendously bad reputation and the persecution of its followers."
Two other books resulted from Hurston's days on the road. Her work of folklore, Mules and Men, focuses on her excursions to the South and is regarded as the best and most important book of its kind. Its pages are filled with what many consider the integral ingredients of America's black culture: stories, or "big old lies," songs, superstitions, and even "formulae of Hoodoo Doctors."
But Hurston's masterpiece and the book she is most identified with is her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the jewel that Hurston cut from her Eatonville experience. It is the story of a young black woman, Janie, following her through three very different relationships and her transformation into a self-sufficient, whole human being. In the novel Janie learns that there are "two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find about livin' fuh theyselves." It is a novel of affirmation. Writer Alice Walker is quoted on its cover: "There is no book more important to me than this one."
While the 1930s and 1940s brought Hurston her greatest professional successes, they didn't come without a price. In 1931 a bitter breakdown of Hurston's friendship with Langston Hughes occurred. Their relationship was the victim of a series of misunderstandings over the authorship of a play. The two had been collaborating on what they believed to be the first true Negro comedy. Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life was finally dusted off and produced on Broadway in 1991--and immediately caused controversy. The play was another Eatonville story; the setting was Joe Clarke's store porch; and the dialect was authentic.
To many blacks who worried about their perception in today's society, the play's use of Southern black dialect was embarrassing and even offensive. In its defense, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., wrote in the New York Times, "By using the vernacular tradition as the basis of their play--indeed, as the basis of a new theory of black drama--Hurston and Hughes sought to create a work that would undo a century of racist representations of black people." Though Mule Bone was not a typical Broadway hit, it is said to have earned its place in American history.
In 1948, living in New York City and in her late fifties, Hurston was arrested on charges of molesting a young boy. The case was thrown out of court but not before the black press ran it as a front-page scandal. Hurston's spirit was scarred by the false accusation, but she persevered, continuing to work with her characteristic zeal. In 1950 she moved to Fort Pierce, Florida, and took on a series of jobs, among them a librarian, maid, and substitute teacher. She also wrote political essays for the Saturday Evening Post and American Legion Magazine. Impoverished--a now familiar circumstance--overweight, and weak, she nevertheless was pursuing her publisher about a book in progress. In 1959 she suffered a stroke and was forced to move into a welfare home.
The author of seven books and more than fifty articles and short stories, a playwright and traveler, and an anthropologist and folklorist, the "Queen of the Renaissance" died quietly in the welfare home on January 28, 1960. In 1973 Alice Walker made a pilgrimage to Fort Pierce and placed a tombstone on the site she guessed to be Hurston's unmarked grave. The stone was inscribed: "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South."
Decades after her passing, scholars, students, and new generations of readers continue to discover Hurston and her work. In 2008, Dr. Aron Myers debuted his documentary "The Life and Times of Zora Neale Hurston," which was presented by actress Vanessa Williams. Also in 2008, PBS aired the documentary "Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun" as part of their American Masters series. In 2012, Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was broadcast as a radio play, marking the 75th anniversary of the work's publication. In celebration of the author's roots, the ZORA! Festival takes place annually in Eatonville, Florida, the last week in January.
In 2018, HarperCollins released Hurston's first book: Barracoon. The book had never been accepted by publishers in the past. It told the true story of the last surviving black person brought to America on a slave ship.
Born January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, AL; died of heart disease, January 28, 1960, in Fort Pierce, FL; daughter of John (a carpenter, reverend, and mayor) and Lucy Ann (a teacher and seamstress; maiden name, Potts) Hurston; married Herbert Sheen (a doctor), May 19, 1927 (divorced, 1931); married Albert Price III, June 27, 1939 (divorced, 1943). Education: Attended Howard University Prep School, 1918-19; Howard University, A.A., 1924; Barnard College, B.A., 1928; graduate study at Columbia University. Memberships: American Folklore Society, American Anthropological Society, American Ethnological Society, Zeta Phi Beta.
Published first story, 1921; assistant to writer Fannie Hurst, 1925-26; collected folklore in the South, 1927-31; taught drama at Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona, FL, 1933-34; collected conjure lore in Jamaica, Haiti, and Bermuda, 1936-38; collected folklore in Florida for the Works Progress Administration, 1938-39; drama instructor at North Carolina College for Negroes at Durham (now North Carolina Central University), 1939; story consultant for Paramount Studios, Hollywood, CA, 1941-42; conducted folklore fieldwork in Honduras, 1947-48; employed as a maid in Rivo Island, FL, 1950; free-lance writer, 1950-56; librarian at Patrick Air Force Base, FL, 1956-57; substitute teacher at Lincoln Park Academy, Fort Pierce, FL, 1958-59.
Guggenheim Fellowship, 1936 and 1938; Litt.D. from Morgan State College, 1939; Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Race Relations, 1943; Howard University's Distinguished Alumni Award, 1943; Bethune-Cookman College Award for Education and Human Relations.
- Jonah's Gourd Vine (novel), Lippincott, 1934, reprinted, Harper & Row, 1990.
- Mules and Men (folklore), Lippincott, 1935, reprinted, Harper & Row, 1990.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God (novel), Lippincott, 1937, reprinted, University of Illinois Press, 1978, reprinted, Harper & Row, 1990.
- Tell My Horse (voodoo research), Lippincott, 1938, reprinted, Turtle Island Foundation, 1981, reprinted, Harper & Row, 1990.
- Moses, Man of the Mountain (novel), Lippincott, 1939, reprinted, University of Illinois Press, 1984.
- Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography), Lippincott, 1942, reprinted, HarperCollins, 1991.
- Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life (play), HarperCollins, 1991.
- Barracoon, HarperCollins, 2018.
- Hemenway, Robert E., Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, University of Illinois Press, 1977.
- Hurston, Zora Neale, Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography), Lippincott, 1942.
- Ms., March 1978.
- Miami Herald, August 22, 1976.
- New York Times, June 2, 1978; February 10, 1991.
- Washington Post, April 16, 1978; May 21, 1978.
- "A Work by Zora Neale Hurston Will Finally Be Published," May 1, 2018, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/01/books/zora-neale-hurston-new-book.html (August 21, 2018).