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Who is Zora Neale Hurston?

Zora Neale Hurston was a literary powerhouse of the Harlem Renaissance, whose vibrant storytelling and anthropological work celebrated African American culture. Her novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" remains a profound exploration of womanhood and identity. Discover how Hurston's legacy continues to inspire and challenge readers to reflect on the richness of human experience. What will her stories awaken in you?
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) is one of the most celebrated writers of the Harlem Renaissance. As a writer, she posthumously became recognized not just as a female or an African American writer, but simply as a fantastic writer who has well earned her place in the Literary Canon. Her most famous work is the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she was prolific, composing several other novels, plays, her autobiography, and numerous short stories and essays.

Alice Walker, Tony Morrison and Maya Angelou all cite Zora Neale Hurston as an extraordinary influence on their careers. In fact, Walker so loved Hurston that she went through significant effort to find her unmarked grave and purchase a headstone for it. Hurston is certainly well worth the admiration of these other writers because her work represents significant scholarship, and strong understanding of anthropology. It continues to resonate with the modern reader.

Zora Neale Hurston studied voodoo culture in Haiti.
Zora Neale Hurston studied voodoo culture in Haiti.

The early life of Zora Neale Hurston was spent in Eatonville, Florida, an all black township. Hurston was actually likely born in Alabama, but her family moved to Florida when she was about three. Her father was a minister and her mother taught school, while raising eight children. Hurston recalls her early years in Eatonville as good ones, as her experience as a black child growing up in the South is markedly different than many others because the town was not subject to significant discrimination by whites. In fact she saw achievement all around her, allowing her to feel that she could reach for her dreams.

Life changed dramatically for Zora Neale Hurston when her mother passed away. Hurston was only 13, and became persona non grata when her father quickly remarried a woman who disliked her. Hurston began working various jobs, ultimately joining a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan troupe, first as a maid and then as a singer. Yet, she craved education, which had been cut short by her mother’s death. In order to return to high school, she claimed to be ten years younger than her actual age, and began attending Morgan Academy, where she received her high school diploma. She then attended Howard University before finishing her undergrad work at Barnard University in anthropology in 1927.

Prior to finishing her college degree, Hurston became one of the key members of the Harlem Renaissance, and an associate of Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. The three published the literary magazine Fire!!. Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine was published in 1934. Mules and Men followed in 1935, and was a collection of African American folklore. This was followed in 1937 with what many consider to be her masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Because Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist and writer, she continued to pursue anthropological work, traveling in Haiti in 1937 to study the practice of Voodoo. Her studies there led to her next work of fiction, Moses, Man of the Mountain. Several more works, including plays, essays and an autobiography followed. As a writer, Hurston often chose to write in African American dialect, which somewhat contributed to her works being considered obscure.

While Hurston’s career peaked in the 1940s, her last years were spent in Florida, working in relative obscurity. She wrote as a freelance writer, and worked as a substitute teacher. She died with little money (her books had seldom netted her much in profit), and was buried in an unmarked grave. Full critical attention on her significant contributions to literature was not paid to her until 1975, when Alice Walker published the article In Search of Zora Neale Hurston. Since then, Walker and others have done much to reestablish Hurston’s work as perhaps some of the most important 20th century American literature written, and an extraordinary voice in African American literature.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is Zora Neale Hurston and why is she significant?

Zora Neale Hurston was an influential African American writer and anthropologist, known for her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance and for her portrayal of racial struggles in the early 20th-century American South. She is significant for her novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God," which is considered a classic of African American literature. Hurston's work celebrated the African American experience and culture, challenging the norms of her time.

What are some of Zora Neale Hurston's most notable works?

Among Zora Neale Hurston's most notable works is her 1937 novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God," which is widely read and acclaimed for its strong narrative voice and rich portrayal of a black woman's search for identity. Other significant works include "Mules and Men," a collection of African American folklore, and "Tell My Horse," an anthropological study of Caribbean Voodoo practices. Her autobiography, "Dust Tracks on a Road," provides insight into her life and times.

How did Zora Neale Hurston contribute to anthropology?

Zora Neale Hurston contributed to anthropology by conducting ethnographic research that captured the folklore, songs, and oral histories of African American and Caribbean cultures. Her work was pioneering, as she was one of the first African American women to study anthropology. Hurston's approach to cultural studies was immersive; she lived within the communities she studied, which allowed her to provide a unique, insider perspective on their traditions and beliefs.

What impact did Zora Neale Hurston have on the Harlem Renaissance?

Zora Neale Hurston had a profound impact on the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual and cultural revival of African American art and literature during the 1920s and 1930s. Her vibrant portrayals of black life and her mastery of African American vernacular were integral to the movement. Hurston's literary works provided a voice to African Americans and helped to redefine how the broader society viewed African American culture and experiences.

How has Zora Neale Hurston's legacy been recognized in recent years?

Zora Neale Hurston's legacy has been increasingly recognized in recent years, with a resurgence of interest in her work. Literary scholars and a broader audience have celebrated her contributions to literature and anthropology. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Hurston on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. Additionally, her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, honors her memory with an annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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    • Zora Neale Hurston studied voodoo culture in Haiti.
      By: Phimchanok
      Zora Neale Hurston studied voodoo culture in Haiti.