Zora Neale Hurston was a proclaimed novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist whose artistic contribution in the Harlem renaissance was outstandingly evident. She was the fifth-born child to John Hurston, a Baptist preacher and a carpenter, and Lucy Potts Hurston, a schoolteacher. Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 7, 1891.
The family relocated to “Eatonville, Florida, which was the first all-Black town to be incorporated in the United States, while she was still a toddler” (Ellis, 2009, p.20). They were eight children in the family. As Hurston later glorifies in her literary works, the town was the first to offer African Americans the chance to live freely and independent of the Whites, as they desired.
This assertion is depicted in most of her fictional works, as it is the setting for most of her stories. Her father later on became the mayor of the town. Despite the fact that the actual birth year of Zora Neale Hurston was in 1891, 1901 became the year of her birth throughout her life.
There was a significant happening in her life that year, which is argued as the reason behind her decision. In 1901, some schoolteachers from the north visited her hometown, and she was lucky to get some books that sparked her interest in literature (Baym, 2003, p.11).
In-Depth Look into the Life of Zora Neale Hurston
In an essay she wrote in 1928 titled “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, Hurston describes her childhood in Eatonville as easy considering that she grew surrounded by the people who supported her, and the discrimination that was taking place elsewhere was not a reality in her hometown.
This, however, changed in 1904 when her mother died and the father remarried soon afterwards to a young lady named Matte Moge (Ellis, 2009, p.22). There were rumors that Zora Neale’s father Mr. Hurston had an affair with Moge even before the wife died.
Zora had a rough time living with the father and step- mother and later she was sent to a boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida. Mr. Hurston stopped paying his daughter’s school fees, and after a while, the school had to send her home. She worked as a barmaid for a while before joining the Gilbert & Sullivan travelling troupe where she worked as a maid to the lead artist (Jones, 2009, p. 12).
Her desire to accomplish her education led her to cut ten years off her actual age in order to qualify for the free public schooling. She then joined the high school division of the Morgan College in Baltimore, Maryland. From that time henceforth, she started claiming 1901 to be her year of birth. Hurston graduated from Morgan Academy in the year 1918.
Hurston joined Howard University in 1918 where she co-founded the University students’ newspaper named “The Hilltop” and later on graduated from the University with an Associate’s degree. While in Howard, Hurston took Spanish, English, Greek, and some courses in public speaking. After successfully applying by writing an essay, Hurston got the chance to join Alaine Locke’s literary club named ‘The Stylus’.
Hurston left Howard “later on in 1924 and the following year she got a scholarship to join the white dominated Barnard College” (Hemenway, 1977, p.45). She studied anthropology, and it is here where she met Franz Boas of Columbia University as she assisted him in conducting ethnographic studies.
She graduated in 1927 aged thirty-six with a B.A in anthropology. Hurston lived for extra two years in Columbia after graduating from Barnard (Ellis, 2009, p.20).
As an adult, Hurston married a former schoolmate at Howard named Herbert Sheen. Sheen was a jazz musician and later on became a physician. The marriage, however, did not last long as they separated four years later. Hurston remarried again at the age of thirty-nine while she was working at WPA, this time to a colleague at WPA who happened to be twenty-three years younger than she was (Hemmenway 1977, p.13).
The marriage did not last a year. In the 1930s, Hurston lived in Westfield, New Jersey, where she was a neighbor to the famous Black poet, Langston Hughes. Hurston wrote numerous short stories, folklore books, plays, novels and essays throughout her life.
In 1934, Hurston established a school of dramatic arts that was based on “pure negro expression” at Bethune- Cookman College now Bethune Cookman University. The English department in the University is consequently committed to preserving her legacy. In her life, Hurston travelled a lot both within the United States and outside (Boyd, 2003, p. 47).
For inside, during her anthropology research, she travelled to the Caribbean and South American and the works that came, as a result, are ‘Mules and Men’ in 1935 which was a folklore classic and the materials she later used to write the novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine which was published in 1934. Later in her life, Hurston worked in the North Carolina College for Negroes, which is now North Carolina Central University College.
In 1948, Hurston was a victim of a character assassination conspiracy. She was falsely accused of molesting a young boy, but she was later cleared when the claims were found as falsehood. The scandal negatively affected her social life afterwards.
The last decade of her life was marked by hardships as she worked as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers, and later at the Am Technical Library at the Patrick Air Force Base. She later on moved to Fort Pierce where she allegedly worked as a part-time teacher and maid (Ellis, 2009, p. 15).
Hurston’s last years were marked by both financial and health difficulties. She was consequently admitted at the St. Lucie County Welfare Home where she died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960 aged sixty-nine years.
Contributions were conducted to give her a decent burial, but the money raised was not enough; consequently, she ended up being buried in an “unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce” (Kaplan, 2003, p.89).
Five years later, Alice Walker, a young African American woman later who acknowledged Hurston as her source of inspiration and a literary scholar, Charlotte Hunt found the grave and marked it in her remembrance (Boyd, 2003, p.12).
Zora Neale Hurston’s and the Harlem Renaissance
It was during the 1920’s when Hurston began to participate actively in activities that could be regarded as part of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance is considered the most famous period in the African American culture. It is recorded as having been between the years 1916 and 1940 (Jones, 2009, p. 23). It is during this period when the Negro movement and the age of the black stars developed.
During this period, “black artists broke away from the literary and other artistic movements that were shaped by whites in pursuit of a uniquely black culture that sought to bring a sense of pride to the black race” (Kraut, 2003, p. 87). Literary works, music, and fine arts were among the sweeping artistic expressions of the period.
By the time Hurston arrived in New York, the Harlem Renaissance had climaxed and she easily integrated into the system. Her charm and talent enabled her to become one of the writers at the center of the Renaissance after only a short while.
Before she entered Barnard College, “she wrote a short story titled ‘spunk’ that was selected for the landmark Anthology ‘The New Negro’ that was a significant publication during the renaissance” (Boyd, 2003, p. 15). As a young writer, Hurston contributed actively to the movement through her writings highlighting the issues of the Negroes.
Her stories about Eatonville were acknowledged as significant forces that shaped the ideals that were being pushed by the Harlem Renaissance. In the year 1926, “together with other young black writers and poets such as Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman who called themselves Niggerati, they produced a literary magazine called ‘Fire’ which featured almost all popular black artists of the Harlem Renaissance” (Kraut, 2003, p. 78).
The Harlem Renaissance was a peculiarly creativity bolstering period for young Black artistes as they sought pride in their work. In addition, during this period, Hurston wrote most of her works that sought to uplift the Black pride and a sense of fight for the rights of the African Americans (Jones, 2009, p. 40).
Together with Langston Hughes, Hurston in 1930 worked on “Mule: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts”. The play, which reveals the problems that shape the lives of African Americans, was not finished up until 1991 when it was posthumously published.
In 1937, Hurston got the coveted “Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled to conduct ethnographic research in both Haiti and Jamaica…her text ‘Tell My Horse’ documents her findings about the rituals of Africans in Jamaica and the Voudon rituals practiced by the Africans in Haiti” (Walker, 1975, p.87).
She later interpreted these findings to an artistic viewpoint whereby she came up with plays and short stories and novels such as ‘There Eyes Were Watching God’ (1937) and ‘Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939). These works are considered as crucial works that characterize the Harlem Renaissance (Hemmenway 1977, p.14).
Hurston’s literary works were largely influenced by the fact that she was a folklorist. For instance, she used dialects that were characteristic of the speech patterns of the periods that she documented. This, in a way, led her work to slide into some form of obscurity in that the dialects were related to a racist tradition.
This revelation explains why, despite her many years in artistic work, she did not get enough money to sustain herself. Critics such as Richard Wright termed one of her works, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ as not being addressed to the African American audience as she claimed but rather to the Whites (Jones, 2009, p. 64).
Hurston later became an opponent to most of her peers in the Harlem renaissance considering her rigid views about civil rights during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Hurston’s views mainly depicted her Eatonville perspective and, as a result, she faced criticism for not considering the bigger picture (Abcarian & Klotz, 2003, p. 67).
At that point in time, most of the African American artists had adopted the theme of racism as a major issue of concern to address in their works (Walker, 1975, p.89). Many of her peers who were close to her earlier started analyzing her works as well as her person life, which they considered as marred with controversies. Even Langston Hughes who was at a time among her closest peers started criticizing her (Kraut, 2003, p. 53).
Her literary works, which once portrayed the black culture as superior and influenced many people in were regarded as irrelevant for a while. As a result, her literary appeal waned over time. In the year 1950, Hurston wrote a controversial article that attacked the right to vote of blacks in the south (Jones, 2009, p. 54). In this article, Hurston claimed that votes were being bought and that the process was not fair in any way.
Later on in 1954, Hurston sunk deep into controversies when she wrote ‘Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Ks’. In this essay, she railed the segregation ruling claiming that black children did not need to go to the same schools as white children in order to receive education (Abcarian & Klotz, 2003, p. 25).
This angered many of the civil rights activists. The civil rights activists branded Hurston a traitor due to her deeds, which included also writing for the “American Legion Magazine”, which was regarded as extremely right winged. She even campaigned for Senator Robert Taft of Ohio during the GOP presidential nominations of 1952 (Visweswaran, 1994, p. 34).
Zora Neale Hurston’s posthumous recognition
Alice Walker’s efforts to mark the grave of Hurston, and the subsequent publication of the article ‘In Search of Zora Neale Hurston’ in the ‘Ms’ magazine, in 1975, marked the beginning of the overwhelming posthumous recognition that Zora Neale Hurston received years after her death. Walker’s article revived an interest in Hurston’s works among the literary scholars and fans in the period (Kaplan, 2003, p.20).
Later on, Robert Hemenway wrote Hurston’s biography titled “Zora Neale Hurston: A literary Biography”. Other Biographies of Hurston include “Wrapped in Rainbows” written by Valerie Boyd, “Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit” by Debora G. Plant, and “Speak So You Can Speak Again” written by her niece, Lucy Anne Hurston.
Some of her unfinished and unpublished works were later published posthumously. These include her 1930 work with Langston Hughes; ‘Mule: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts’ which was posthumously published in 1991 as well as ‘Every Tongue Got to Confess’ published in 2001.
The later is a book, which records the “field materials the Hurston gathered when she was conducting her research in the 1920’s which aided in writing her book ‘Mules and Men’” (Jones, 2009, p. 28).
Zora Neale Hurston’s house in Fort Pierce later on became a National Historic landmark in her commemoration. It is, however, notable that “there have been efforts to restore it, and that the house is still privately owned and closed to the public “(Kaplan, 2003, p.89). There have been recent efforts to open house to the public.
In Eatonville, there is The Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, which was constructed in her memory. It is in the town where Hurston developed her interest in the arts and, therefore, she is honored as among the great people of the town (Baym, 2003, p.41).
Eatonville is a twenty-acre historic district, which is the setting for most of Hurston’s fictional works. In the Museum, there is the Zora Neale Hurston Trail, which correlates about sixteen historic sites with Hurston’s literary works.
In a bid to provide accommodation to visiting African American artists during the time of segregation, Dr. Wells, a black physician, constructed The Orlando Well’s Built museum. African Americans who visited Orlando to either do shopping or watch performances at the nearby South Street Casino ended up residing at the facility (Jones, 2009, p. 23).
During her numerous tours, Hurston spent some time in the facility and met other African American celebrities in the Hotel. The Hotel was declared a national Museum in artifacts and literary works produced by black artists of the time are displayed and documented respectively. As a result, the literary works of Zora Neale Hurston are displayed at the Museum.
A number of annual events are organized to honor Hurston in both Eatonville and Fort Pierce. These include events such as Hattitudes, the Zora Fest in Fort Pierce, the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts, and humanities held in Eatonville.
The events celebrate her life, achievements, and legacy annually. Despite the fact that only a few of Hurston’s life artifacts remain in the community, her life lives in the pages of her stories and other literary works from generation to the next.
Abcarian, R., & Klotz, M. (2003). Literature: The Human Experience (9th ed.). New York: Bedford/St. Martins.
Baym, N. (Ed.). (2003). The Norton Anthology of American Literature (6th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Boyd, V. (2003). Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner.
Ellis, C. (2009) Zora Hurston and the Strange Case of Ruby McCollum. Lutz, FL: Gadfly Publishing.
Hemenway, E. (1977). Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana, Ill: University Of Illinois Press.
Jones, S. (2009). Critical Companion to Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File.
Kaplan, C. (Ed.). (2003). Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York: Random House.
Kraut, A. (2003). Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performances of Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham. The Theatre Journal, 55(3), 53-89.
Visweswaran, K. (1994). Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Walker, A. (1975). In Search of Zora Neale Hurston. Ms. Magazine, 74, 84-89.