BiographiesZora Neale Hurston
American author, anthropologist, and folkorist
born January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama
died January 28, 1960 in Fort Pierce, Florida
55th anniversary of death on January 28, 2015
Author, anthropologist and folkorist Zora Neale Hurston was the most prolific Black woman writer in the USA between 1920 and 1950; the foremother of a generation of African-American women writers, she captured and celebrated the culture of rural Black America in her novels, stories and essays.
Hurston was born in an all-Black community rich in folk-tradition and free of racial prejudice. Her father was a Baptist preacher and mayor of the town, and her mother bore eight children and urged her spirited and precocious daughter to “jump at de sun.” The education she received at the local school from followers of Booker T. Washington stressed self-reliance as well as basic academic skills. After her mother’s death when Zora was nine she felt her childhood was over; at 14 she left home and began life on her own, working, traveling, studying and writing.
In 1925 Hurston arrived in New York, developing contacts with Black writers of the Harlem Renaissance and publishing essays and short fiction. She received a scholarship to study anthropology with Franz Boas at Barnard College and became the school’s first known African-American graduate in 1928. Hurston devoted the next four years to her ethnographic studies, traveling to Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and the Bahamas to collect folktales, songs, games, prayers and sermons, which she published in Mules and Men (1935). She later received Guggenheim fellowships for fieldwork in the Caribbean, reported about in Tell My Horse (1938); Hurston had a unique ability to identify with the way of life she was researching, and she first presented her research in a series of folklore concerts.
Choosing to be a writer rather than a scholar, Hurston became perhaps the most accomplished figure in African-American letters in the 1930´s. Her best fiction was also nourished by her early experiences of rural Black life, as in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which portrays a woman’s search for self-fulfillment. Her work includes an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and the short story “Sweat” (1926), among other fiction and essays. Hurston’s emphasis on celebrating the beauty and wholeness of African-American culture and her refusal to see herself as “tragically colored” led her to conflict with Black (male) writers who focused upon the oppression of Black people.
Although she continued writing, Hurston had disappeared from the public view by the 1950’s and lived her last years in poverty and ill health. After her death from heart disease in the county welfare home, an appeal was made for funds for her burial, and Zora Neale Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave in the Negro Cemetery of Ft. Pierce, Florida.
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Author: Joey Horsley
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This past fall marked the 80th anniversary of the publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s iconic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In honor of the novel and Hurston’s pre-eminence as a trailblazing African-American woman anthropologist and writer from the early 20th century, a display titled Our Eyes Are On Zora, is on view at the Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture’s Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division through this winter. The display was curated by myself in collaboration with Amanda Belantara (a 2016–2017 BNY Mellon Pre-Professional) and installed and designed by Shante' Cozier and James Joughin.
Among the many items exhibited, which come from various divisions at the Schomburg Center, some trace the genesis of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston discusses the idea about the novel’s characters Janie Crawford and “Tea Cake” Woods in correspondence; a newspaper article announces her winning a cash grant in 1936 from the Guggenheim Fund to conduct anthropological research in the Caribbean, which is where Hurston wrote the manuscript version of the novel; and the book was published in 1937, a year after Hurston’s trip to the Caribbean. A rare copy of the first edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God, autographed by Hurston that contains an inscription from Hurson to Arthur Schomburg, is housed in the Center’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division and an image of Hurston’s autograph is on view as part of the display.
Our Eyes Are On Zora is also a celebration of Hurston as evidenced by publications from conferences and festivals held in her honor, scholarship inspired by her work, and the state of Florida. Readers may recall that the novel is set in Eatonville, Florida, which is the nation’s first township founded and incorporated by African-Americans and Hurston lived in Eatonville during her early years. According to scholarship about Their Eyes Were Watching God, the character Jody Starks, the enterprising, but abusive second husband of Janie, was loosely based on Eatonville's mayor Joseph E. Clark.
Prior to the installation of Our Eyes Are on Zora, another celebration of the anniversary of the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God was commemorated at The University of Kansas, who sponsored Black Love: Zora Neale Hurston Symposium in Kansas. The week long series of events included keynote addresses by authors including Pamela Newkirk, N.Y. Nathiri, and Mark Anthony Neal, panel discussions, film screenings, an all day marathon reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God and other activities that examined the theme of Black love in the novel and works by artists in a variety of media.
The symposium coincided with the publication of an insightful short essay by University at Albany professor Janelle Hobson, called Zora Neale Hurston, Diaspora and the Memory of Hurricanes, which places the destruction from the recent hurricanes Havey and Maria and others into the context of the hurricane that occurs in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hobson writers that the hurricane is “apt metaphor for tensions and contentions shaping Black women’s lives and their own Diasporic consciousness."
Discover or re-read Their Eyes Were Watching God and Hurston's other titles at the Schomburg Center and NYPL’s other locations. Listen to Hurston speak on digitized sound recordings from the Library of Congress that were recorded as part of Hurston’s work with the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. Finally, come back to the library to read a copy of the highly anticipated posthumously released book of Hurston’s, Baracoon: The Story of the Last Slave, a non-fiction work that is scheduled to be available in the spring 2018.