In recent decades, this American folklorist, novelist, and short story writer has received belated acclaim as a chronicler of African American culture. But she was also a major player in the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and literary movement in the 1920s centered in Harlem, New York.
Born in 1891 (or 1901; Zora played loose with the dates), she was raised by a firebrand of a mother in Eatonville, Florida. After high school she attended Howard University in Atlanta, but soon moved on to Harlem in the early 1920s to become part of the burgeoning scene. The Harlem Renaissance was characterized by nonconformity to white literary standards and a celebration of blackness, particularly the discovery by educated, urban blacks of the vigor, beauty, and honesty of Harlem ghetto life. The leading writers in the movement, aside from Zora, were Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Countree Cullen, and Richard Wright. “In effect,” writes Benet’s Readers Encyclopedia, “the Renaissance group consisted of intellectuals in search of an identity; they stood some distance from their own people, yet felt alienated from mainstream American society.”
In New York, Zora won a scholarship to Barnard College and later went on to obtain a graduate degree from Columbia, where she studied under the famous anthropologist Franz Boas. Franz encouraged her to study the folklore of the diaspora of African Americans, and that suggestion became her life’s passion.
Her first collection of folk stories, Mules and Men, came from tales she collected in Alabama and Florida between 1929 and 1931. Its publication was greeted with great enthusiasm by the academic press, but in a theme that would repeat itself throughout her life, she was criticized bitterly by some Black reviewers for painting “too rosy” a picture of African American life and failing to include the degradation and shame of daily existence. (Zora’s championing of Black culture would get her into deeper trouble toward the end of her life, when she blasted the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision as an affront to the value of Black institutions.)
Her most noted novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), is a poignant tale of a Black woman’s sexual and spiritual yearnings. Her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road was published in 1942, and she also produced a series of short ethnographic films of rural Black existence. The films currently reside in a University of California library and are occasionally exhibited; more information about these films, which are now documented in digital form, can be found on this Columbia University web page: wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/ pioneer/zora-neale-hurston-2/
Opinionated and single-minded, Hurston was married twice, but both marriages ended in divorce when she refused to give up traveling and collecting folk stories to be a stay-at-home wife. She fell into poverty in the 1950s as book sales fell off, and she died alone and penniless in Fort Pierce, Florida, in 1960. She was buried in a segregated cemetery in a grave that remained unmarked until 1973, when writer Alice Walker erected a stone marker at its site reading: “Zora Neale Hurston, 1901–1960, A Genius of the South, Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist.” Ironically, in the last twenty-five years, sales of Hurston’s works have soared because of the well-publicized interest of others like Alice Walker and Oprah Winfrey, bringing great acclaim to her and great riches to her estate, both of which she was denied during her lifetime.
I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold down that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.
Zora Neale Hurston, from How It Feels to Be Me