ZORA NEALE HURSTON

ZORA NEALE HURSTON

1901-1960

Zora Neale Hurston, one of the cel¬ ebrated writers of the Harlem Renais¬ sance (see no. 36), grew up in a family of eight children in Eatonville, Florida.

She lost her mother when she was nine, and was raised by her father, who later became the mayor of Eatonville. Determined to follow her mother’s advise and jump at the sun, Hurston left home as a teenager and was self- supporting by the age of 14.

Working as a costumer and a maid for a Gilbert and Sullivan traveling show, Hurston moved to Baltimore, where she attended Morgan Academy, graduating in 1918. Following her passion to Howard University, Hurston found the mentors that could fuel her interest in the folklore and history of African- Americans.

Alain Locke took a great interest in her work and helped her develop the style that would become famous in her short sto¬ ries, novels and works of folklore.Hurston’s short story “John Redding Goes to Sea” was picked up by Stylus in 1921, and three years later her second story, “Drenched in Light,” was published in the National Urban League’s Opportunity.

Her work was well-received, and in 1925 Hurston accepted a scholarship to attend Barnard College in New York, where she studied anthropology. While there, Langston Hughes (see no. 64), another bril¬ liant writer of the Renaissance, collaborated with her on a magazine called Fire!, designed to, as Hughes said, “bum up a lot of the old, dead, conventional Negro-white ideas of the past….” Unfortunately, and ironically, their entire inventory was destroyed by fire. They teamed up again in 1930 to write the play Mule Bone.

Though Hurston came under the same criticism as Paul Laurence Dunbar (see no. 37) for presenting stereotypical images, her work has more recently been seen as a creative body detailing the struggle of a people in transition. She was a great observ¬ er, a woman who could translate for a broad 20th century audience, black and white, the folk history that created black America.

Among Hurston’s important works are the short story “Spunk” (1925), published in Alain Locke’s The New Negro, and her folk- loric pieces, including Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), Mules and Men (1935), Tell My Horse (1938), Man of the Mountain (1939), her very popular novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and her autobiograph¬ ical work, Dust Tracks on the Road (1942).

She lost much of her audience in the 1940s, as protest literature became more popular. She was falsely accused of sexual¬ ly molesting a child, and retreated, taking jobs as a maid, a librarian, and a substitute teacher.

Hurston died in poverty but there was lit¬ tle tragedy in her life. As stated by biogra¬ pher Robert E. Hemenway: “She personally believed in an integrated society, but she spent her career trying to preserve and cele¬ brate black cultural practices.”