Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960) was an African American writer.

Born in Alabama, she moved with her family to Florida in 1894, when she was 3 years old. In 1904, her mother passed away, when Zora was 13. In the following year, her father married another woman and sent Zora to a boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida. After a few months, he stopped paying the boarding fees, and Zora was expelled.

She was 14 years old, and started life alone, on the streets, working at precarious, short-term jobs, sometimes as a maid or as a nanny. At 16, Zora started working as a maid for the singer of the theatre company Gilbert & Sullivan, a traveling theatre company. In 1917, at the age of 26, after much wandering, she finally managed to resume her formal education, attending Morgan College, the high school division of Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1918, at the age of 27, she graduated from Morgan State University High School.

That same year, Hurston started attending Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, DC. In 1925, she received a scholarship to Barnard College at Columbia University, a women’s college, where she was the only black student. While at Barnard, she conducted ethnographic research with the well-known anthropologist Franz Boas, and later studied with him as a graduate student. Zora graduated in anthropology in 1928, at the age of 37.

When Zora first arrived in New York City, in 1925, the Harlem Renaissance was at its height, and she soon became a central figure in (and one of the most prominent critics of) that movement. She started publishing short stories and, in 1926, together with Langston Hughes, she founded the literary magazine Fire!!.

In 1927, she married Herbert Sheen, a jazz musician and former teacher at Howard. Their marriage ended in 1931. In 1935, she became involved with Percy Punter, a graduate student at Columbia University – and the great love of her life. However, their relationship was very conflicted, and he insisted that she should give up her career. One day, feeling that she would have to end the relationship if she didn’t want to lose herself, Zora broke up with Percy, left for Haiti on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and immersed herself in work. In that same period, in the span of seven weeks, she wrote what would become her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

In 1939, she married Albert Price, but the marriage ended after seven months. The following year, Hurston married James Howell Pitts, and that marriage also lasted less than a year.

Early in her academic career, while still a student at Barnard College and Columbia University, Hurston started to conduct anthropological and ethnographic research on the topics of African-American and Caribbean folklore. As a result of her research, she intended to publish a collection of folk tales, but the manuscript was not published at the time. Later, a copy of this manuscript was found in the archives of anthropologist William Duncan Strong, a friend of Franz Boas, and the book was then published posthumously, as Every Tongue Got to Confess (2001).

As part of her research, Zora interviewed Cudjoe Kazzola Lewis, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States. Based on this interview, she wrote Barracoon, in 1931, a book that was published posthumously, in 2018.

In her research, Zora travelled extensively in the Caribbean and the southern United States, and immersed herself in local cultural practices. In 1935, she published Mules and Men, a work of “literary anthropology” documenting African American folklore in the fields in northern Florida. Zora was fascinated by African American traditions, especially folktales and music, and published short stories, essays, and plays, in anthologies and magazines such as The New Negro and Fire!!.

The last half of the 1940’s marks the end of her literary career. In 1948, Zora was falsely accused of molesting a 10-year-old boy – a scandal that almost led her to suicide. As her passport proved, she was in Honduras at the time of the alleged crime.

Zora tried in vain to publish her latest book, Herod the Great, which she had completed in 1956. To survive, she worked as a temporary teacher at a local school in Florida, and as a freelance journalist. As the sources of work began to wane, she was led to work as a maid in Miami.

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is Hurston’s most widely read novel nowadays, but, at the time of its publication, it was not well received by critics. Alain Locke suggested that Zora’s book represented an oversimplification of black life, and Ralph Ellison (author of Invisible Man, 1952) described her novel as a form of ‘burlesque’, a caricature of African American culture, rooted in the white racist tradition in the South of the United States. Richard Wright (author of Native Son, 1940) wrote that her book was aimed at “a white audience whose chauvinistic taste she knows how to satisfy”.

Zora was politically conservative and also supported controversial positions. In 1951, for example, Hurston argued that the New Deal’s economic support had created detrimental African American dependence on the government. Zora also opposed the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (a historic 1954 US Supreme Court decision, in which the Court ruled that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional).

The last years of Zora’s life were a period of many financial difficulties and health problems. She was completely forgotten by the public, and her books were out of circulation. She suffered a stroke, and died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960, at the age of 69.

“It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world.”- Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men, 1935

After Hurston died, her papers were sent to be burned. A policeman and friend, Patrick DuVal, who happened to pass by her house at the moment, stopped and put out the fire, and saved an invaluable collection of literary documents for posterity, which was handed over to the University of Florida.

Only in the 1970’s, the interest in Hurston’s work started to be revived – particularly in 1975, when Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple, 1982) published the article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”, in the March issue of Ms. magazine. Walker reported that she found in Zora something she had not yet found in the African American authors of the same period: joy, and the celebration of the beauty, uniqueness and integrity of African American culture.

Commenting on Their Eyes Were Watching God, Walker wrote: “There is enough self-love in that one book — love of community, culture, traditions — to restore a world. Or create a new one.” (I Love Myself When I Am Laughing and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean & Impressive, 1979)

Books

  • Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934)
  • Mules and Men (1935)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
  • Tell My Horse (1938)
  • Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939)
  • Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)
  • Seraph on the Suwanee (1948)
  • I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, edited by Alice Walker (1979)
  • The Sanctified Church (1981)
  • Spunk: Selected Stories (1985)
  • Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life (play written with Langston Hughes in 1931, published posthumously in 1991)
  • The Complete Stories (1995)
  • Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States (2001)
  • Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, editado por Carla Kaplan (2003)
  • Collected Plays (2008)
  • Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” (2018)
  • Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Stories from the Harlem Renaissance (2020)

About her

  • Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, by Valerie Boyd (2003)
  • Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, by Robert Hemenway (1977)
  • Critical Companion to Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work, by Sharon Lynette Jones (2009)
  • Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, by Lucy Anne  Hurston (2004)
  • Zora Neale Hurston : A Biography of the Spirit, by Deborah G. Plant (2007)
  • Zora Neale Hurston’s Final Decade, by Virginia Lynn Moylan (2011)
  • Reconstructing Womanhood:The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, by Hazel V. Carb (1987)
  • “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”, by Alice Walker, Ms. (March 1975), pp. 74–79, 84–89
  • Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, edited by Carla Kaplan (2003)
  • Zora Neale Hurston, editado por Harold Bloom (1986)
  • “Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performances of Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham”, by Anthea Kraut,Theatre Journal 55 (2003), pp. 433–50
  • Frau und Identität in der schwarzamerikanischen Frauenliteratur. Eine Analyse von Zora Neale Hurstons ›Their Eyes Were Watching God‹ und Alice Walkers ›The Color Purple‹, de Marianne Claußen (1990)
  • Zora Neale Hurston. Recordings, manuscripts, and ephemera in the Archive of Folk Culture and other divisions of the Library of Congress, de Laura K. Crawley (1992)
  • Zora Neale Hurston. The breath of her voice, de Ayana I. Karanja (1999)
  • “Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)”, by Samuel Pyeatt Menefe, In Women and Tradition: A Neglected Group of Folklorists, edited by Hilda Ellis Davidson and Carmen Blacker, 2000, pp. 157–72
  • “Possessing the Self: Caribbean Identities in Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse”, by Annette Trefler, African American Review, 34.2, 2000, pp. 299–312

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