Zora Neale Hurston was an American writer, folklorist, anthropologist and key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. The author of short stories, plays and essays, Zora’s canonical work was Their Eyes Were Watching God which was published in 1937. In addition to her fiction, Zora was pioneer in anthropology; she was the only trained anthropologist of African-American life and culture during the 1930s. After her death, her work was reappraised by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker who acknowledged that she paved the way for female African-American writers to define their own experiences in literature.

Born in 1891 in Alabama to John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston, Zora was the fifth of eight children. When she was three years old, the Hurston family moved Eatonville, Florida which was one of the first self-governing black towns. The area would feature heavily in Zora’s work, most prominently in her essay How it Feels to be Coloured Me, as a place where African-Americans could live independent from the structures of white American society.

In 1904, Zora’s mother died and she was sent away to a Baptist boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida. After her father and stepmother stopped paying school fees, Zora was expelled but went on to study at Morgan College in Baltimore before going on to Howard University in 1918. Following her studies at Howard, Zora was awarded a scholarship to Barnard College at Columbia University where she studied Anthropology and graduated in 1928 before going on to study at graduate level. Whilst at Columbia she studied alongside cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead.

When Zora moved to New York to study, the Harlem Renaissance was already gaining momentum with writers such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay coming to prominence.  Named after an eponymous anthology by Alain Locke and mainly centred in the New York neighbourhood it’s named after, the Harlem Renaissance was a major intellectual awakening in African-American visual arts, music, scholarship and literature. The movement was characterised by racial pride and was in part-influenced by the radical ‘New Negro’ movement which demanded civil and political rights for African Americans.

Just before Zora began at Barnard, her short story Spunk was published in The New Negro, a seminal anthology of fiction and essays which focused on African American art and literature. In 1926, Zora and a collection of other young writers including Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman produced a literary magazine called Fire!! which showcased the art of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1929, Zora returned to Florida and wrote Mules and Men six years later. Mules and Men was a groundbreaking work which documented African-American folklore and following its publication, Zora also published Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Moses, Man and Mountain. In 1937, Zora was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct anthropological research in Jamaica and Haiti on voodoo practices.

Their Eyes Were Watching God was written by Zora during her field trip to Haiti and is now regarded as a classic African-American feminist text. Published in 1937 and written in African-American dialect, it is a novel centred around Janie Crawford, a middle-aged black woman who returns to Florida after a long absence and retells her life through an extended flashback. Whilst focusing on the romantic relationships which Janie has throughout her life, the novel is primarily concerned with the experiences and identities of African-American women. Their Eyes Were Watching God rejects assimilating White America’s cultural standards, but instead celebrated African-American communities. There were mixed responses to the novel upon publication and the leading African-American writers, such as Richard Wright, were particularly critical, believing it to be akin to a minstrel show put on for white audiences.

Zora continued writing in the 1940s and 50s with her last published novel being Seraph on the Suwannee. Her only novel concerned with white characters, it follows white working-class woman Arvay, who lives in a small town in Florida and explores the confines of her marriage. The novel was badly received and the publication in 1948 was overshadowed when Zora was accused of sexual molestation. Although the case was thrown out, and Zora’s innocence upheld, the story was reported in the press.

Zora died in January 1960 at age 69 after suffering a stroke. She worked as a cleaner and a maid in her final years. As she received little royalties from her writing her neighbours in Fort Pierce, Florida took up a collection for her funeral but could not afford a headstone. Zora’s grave remained unmarked until 1973.

However, Zora’s literary status was rehabilitated by Alice Walker beginning in a 1975 essay in Ms Magazine In Search of Zora Hurston. The piece highlighted the invisibility of black women’s experiences in literature but also introduced a new wave of readers to her life and work. Alice Walker also placed a headstone upon Zora’s grave with the epitaph ‘Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South’.

©The Heroine Collective 2016 – Present, All Rights Reserved.  Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include: A Society of One, The New Yorker, 17.02.97 // BBC Radio 4: Woman’s Hour, 10.07.13 // Seraph on the Suwanee: Hurston’s ‘White Novel’ // www.zoranealehurston.com // The Harlem Renaissance, PBS // Archelogy of a classic: Celebrating Zora Neale Thurston, 17.12.12.
Sara Sherwood

Written by Sara Sherwood

Sara works in theatre and lives in London. She spends the majority of her time thinking about celebrity culture and the wives of 19th century politicians.

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