May 2016

Zora Neale Hurston


Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

For the author whom many critics consider one of America’s most significant African-American woman writers, the quiet Durham cabin was far removed from the New York apartment that hosted parties of Harlem Renaissance. But it was home.

Zora Neale Hurston is best remembered for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the story of a young woman’s search for identity. But her 30-year career included three other novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography and numerous short stories, essays and plays.

In 1939, at the height of her literary acclaim, she joined the faculty of North Carolina Central University – then called the North Carolina College for Negroes – with a charge from President James E. Shepard to organize a theater program and produce African-American plays.

Building connections with faculty and students at the then-segregated University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hurston collaborated with UNC-CH drama professor Paul Green, playwright of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize-winning In Abraham’s Bosom.

Her brief North Carolina experience marked only one chapter in the story of a lively, gregarious intellectual who was also an anthropologist and folklorist, dedicated to telling the story of the African-American culture.

Born in 1891, the daughter of former slaves, Hurston grew up as one of eight children in Eatonville, Fla., one of the first all-black incorporated towns in the United States. She remembered the town fondly, identifying it as her “home” and a place where African-Americans could affirm their culture independent of white society. For Hurston, the community gave her strength in a country where blacks were suppressed.

“I am not tragically colored,” she wrote later. “I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it.”

Her father, a community leader, was elected mayor of the town and later became pastor of its largest church. Hurston later contrasted her father’s serious and conventional approach to life with her mother’s “jump at de sun” idealism.

“We might not land on the sun, but at least we could get off the ground,” she explained.

The ways of the self-described wandering spirit came to the fore after the death of her mother when she was 13.

“I made up my mind to keep my feelings to myself since they did not seem to matter to anyone else but me,” she wrote in her autobiography.

Work in a traveling theater troupe led Hurston to Baltimore, where the 26-year-old dreamer finished high school, and subsequently enrolled in Barnard College.

During the 1920s, Hurston befriended Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, including singer Ethel Waters and poet Langston Hughes, collaborating with the latter on the play Mule Bone. Several years after graduating from Barnard, she had completed several short stories, including Sweat, a story with themes of female empowerment, as well as novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine and black folklore collection Mules And Men.

From that point onward, acclaim followed her works. After publishing masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937, she wrote Tell My Horse, a study of voodoo practices in 1938, and Moses, Man of the Mountain in 1939. She published Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography, in 1942, earning her unprecedented praise.

Despite accolades from the literary community, Hurston struggled to find financial success as a writer. The largest royalty she ever earned was $943.75.

In 1959, Hurston entered the St. Lucie County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Fla. She died the following year of hypertensive heart disease. Her grave was unmarked until 1970, when it was discovered and designated with a marker by writer Alice Walker.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer,” Hurston had written.

In the decades following her death, Hurston’s work enjoyed a revival as she was discovered by a new generation of critics. In 2005, Time magazine chose Their Eyes Were Watching God as one of the 100 best English-language novels published since the magazine was founded in 1923.
Creditline: Evan Schmidt