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Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960) was an American folklorist and author during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Of Hurston's four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, she is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.


Early life

Hurston was the fifth of eight children of John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston (née Potts). Her father was a Baptist preacher, tenant farmer, and carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher. Though Hurston claimed as an adult that she was born in Eatonville, Floridamarker in 1901, she was actually born in Notasulga, Alabamamarker in 1891, where her father grew up and her grandfather was the preacher of a Baptist church. Her family moved to Eatonville, the first all-Black town to be incorporated in the United States, when she was three. Her father later became mayor of the town, which Hurston would glorify in her stories as a place black Americans could live as they desired, independent of white society. Hurston spent the remainder of her childhood in Eatonville, and describes the experience of growing up in Eatonville in her 1928 essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me".

In 1904, Hurston's mother died and her father remarried almost immediately. Hurston's father and new stepmother sent her away to boarding school in Jacksonville, Floridamarker, but they eventually stopped paying her tuition and the school expelled her. She later worked as a maid to the lead singer in a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan theatrical company. In 1917, Hurston began attending Morgan Academy, the high school division of Morgan Collegemarker in Baltimore, Marylandmarker. It was at this time, and apparently to qualify for a free high-school education, that the 26-year-old Hurston began claiming 1901 as her date of birth. She graduated from Morgan Academy in 1918.


In 1918, Hurston began undergraduate studies at Howard Universitymarker, where she became one of the earliest initiates of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and co-founded The Hilltop, the University's student newspaper. Hurston left Howard in 1924 and in 1925 was offered a scholarship to Barnard Collegemarker where she was the college's sole black student. Hurston received her B.A. in anthropology in 1927, when she was 36. While she was at Barnard, she conducted ethnographic research with noted anthropologist Franz Boas of Columbia University. She also worked with Ruth Benedict as well as fellow anthropology student Margaret Mead. After graduating from Barnard, Hurston spent two years as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University.


As an adult, Hurston traveled extensively in the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research. In 1927, she married Herbert Sheen, a jazz musician and former classmate at Howard who would later become a physician, but the marriage ended in 1931. In 1939, while Hurston was working for the WPA, she married Albert Price, a 23-year-old fellow WPA employee, and 25 years her junior, but this marriage, too, ended after only months. In later life, in addition to continuing her literary career, Hurston served on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central Universitymarker) in Durham, North Carolina.

In 1948, Hurston was falsely accused of molesting a ten-year-old boy, and although the case was dismissed after Hurston presented evidence that she was in Honduras when the crime supposedly occurred in the U.S., her personal life was seriously disrupted by the scandal.

Hurston spent her last decade as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers. She worked in a library in Cape Canaveral, Floridamarker, and as a substitute teacher and maid in Fort Piercemarker.


During a period of financial and medical difficulties, Hurston was forced to enter St. Lucie County Welfare Home, where she suffered a stroke and died of hypertensive heart disease. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest cemetery in Fort Pierce. In 1973 African-American novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried in Fort Pierce,Florida and decided to mark it as hers.

Literary career


When Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925, the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak, and she soon became one of the writers at its center. Shortly before she entered Barnard, Hurston's short story “Spunk” was selected for The New Negro, a landmark anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays focusing on African and African American art and literature. In 1926, a group of young black writers including Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman, calling themselves the Niggerati, produced a literary magazine called Fire!! that featured many of the young artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.


By the mid-1930s, Hurston had published several short stories and the critically acclaimed Mules and Men (1935), a groundbreaking work of "literary anthropology" documenting African American folklore. In 1930, she also collaborated with Langston Hughes on Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts, a play that was never finished, although it was published posthumously in 1991.

In 1937, Hurston was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct ethnographic research in Jamaicamarker and Haitimarker. Tell My Horse (1938) documents her account of her fieldwork studying African rituals in Jamaica and voudon rituals in Haiti. Hurston also translated her anthropological work into the performing arts, and her folk revue, The Great Day premiered at the John Golden Theatre in New York in 1932.

Hurston's first three novels were also published in the 1930s: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934); Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), written during her fieldwork in Haiti and considered her masterwork; and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939).


In the 1940s, Hurston's work was published in such periodicals as The American Mercury and The Saturday Evening Post. Her last published novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, notable principally for its focus on white characters, was published in 1948.

In 1954, Hurston was assigned by the Pittsburgh Courier to cover the small-town murder trial of Ruby McCollum, the prosperous black wife of the local bolita racketeer, who had killed a racist white doctor. She also contributed to Woman in the Suwanee County Jail, a book by journalist and civil rights advocate William Bradford Huie.

Public obscurity

Hurston's work slid into obscurity for decades, for a number of cultural and political reasons.

Many readers objected to the representation of African American dialect in Hurston's novels, given the racially charged history of dialect fiction in American literature. Her stylistic choices in terms of dialogue were influenced by her academic experiences. Thinking like a folklorist, Hurston strove to represent speech patterns of the period which she documented through ethnographic research. For example, a character in Jonah's Gourd Vine expresses herself thusly:

"Dat's a big ole resurrection lie, Ned. Uh slew-foot, drag-leg lie at dat, and Ah dare yuh tuh hit me too. You know Ahm uh fightin' dawg and mah hide is worth money. Hit me if you dare! Ah'll wash yo' tub uh 'gator guts and dat quick."

Several of Hurston's literary contemporaries criticized Hurston's use of dialect as a caricature of African American culture rooted in a racist tradition. More recently, many critics have praised Hurston's skillful use of idiomatic speech. In particular, a number of writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance were critical of Hurston's later writings, on the basis that they did not agree with or further the position of the overall movement. One particular criticism came from Richard Wright in his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God:

... The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race.

During the 1930s and 1940s when her work was published, the pre-eminent African American author was Richard Wright. Unlike Hurston, Wright wrote in explicitly political terms, as someone who had become disenchanted with communism, using the struggle of African Americans for respect and economic advancement as both the setting and the motivation for his work. Other popular African American authors of the time, such as Ralph Ellison, were also aligned with Wright's vision.Hurston's work, which did not engage these political issues, did not fit in with this struggle.

Posthumous recognition

An article, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston", by Alice Walker was published in the March 1975 issue of Ms. magazine. This article revived interest in her work. The reemergence of Hurston's work coincided with the emergence of authors such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Walker herself, whose works are centered on African American experiences and include, but do not necessarily focus upon, racial struggle.

Biographies of Hurston include Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography by Robert Hemenway, Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd, and Speak So You Can Speak Again by Hurston's niece, Lucy Anne Hurston. Her hometown of Eatonville, Floridamarker celebrates her life in an annual festival.

Hurston's housemarker in Fort Pierce is a National Historic Landmark.
Fort Pierce celebrates Hurston annually through various events such as Hattitudes, birthday parties, and a several-day festival at the end of April known as Zora Fest. Her life and legacy are also celebrated every year in Eatonville, the town that inspired her, at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Zora Neale Hurston on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.


John McWhorter has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative." She was a Republican who was generally sympathetic to the Old Right and a fan of Booker T. Washington's self-help politics. She disagreed with the philosophies (including Communism and the New Deal) supported by many of her colleagues in the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes, who was in the 1930s a supporter of the Soviet Unionmarker and praised it in several of his poems. Despite much common ground with the Old Right in domestic and foreign policy, Hurston was not a social conservative. Her writings show skepticism toward traditional religion and affinity for feminist individualism. In this respect, her views were similar to two libertarian novelists who were her contemporaries, Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson.

In 1952, Hurston supported the presidential campaign of Senator Robert A. Taft. Like Taft, Hurston was against FDR's New Deal policies. She also shared his opposition to the Roosevelt/Truman interventionist foreign policy. In the original draft of her autobiography,Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston compared the United States government to a “fence” in stolen goods and to a Mafia-like protection racket. Hurston thought it ironic that the same “people who claim that it is a noble thing to die for freedom and democracy ... wax frothy if anyone points out the inconsistency of their morals. ... We, too, consider machine gun bullets good laxatives for heathens who get constipated with toxic ideas about a country of their own.” Roosevelt “can call names across an ocean” for his four freedoms, but he did not have “the courage to speak even softly at home.” When Truman dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, she called him “the Butcher of Asia.”

Hurston opposed the Supreme Courtmarker ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954. She felt that if separate schools were truly equal (and she believed that they were rapidly becoming so) educating black students in physical proximity to white students would not result in better education. In addition, she worried about the demise of black schools and black teachers as a way to pass on cultural tradition to future generations of African-Americans. She voiced this opposition in a letter, "Court Order Can't Make the Races Mix", that was published in the Orlando Sentinel in August 1955. Hurston had not reversed her long-time opposition to segregation. Rather, she feared that the Court's ruling could become a precedent for an all-powerful federal government to undermine individual liberty on a broad range of issues in the future.


  • Color Struck (1925) in Opportunity Magazine
  • Sweat (1926)
  • How It Feels to Be Colored Me (1928)
  • Hoodoo in America (1931) in The Journal of American Folklore
  • The Gilded Six-Bits (1933)
  • Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934)
  • Mules and Men (1935)
  • Tell My Horse (1937)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
  • Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939)
  • Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)
  • Seraph on the Suwanee (1948)
  • I Love Myself When I Am Laughing...and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (edited by Alice Walker; introduction by Mary Helen Washington) (1979)
  • Sanctified Church (1981)
  • Spunk: Selected Stories (1985)
  • Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life (play, with Langston Hughes; edited with introductions by George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the complete story of the Mule bone controversy.) (1991)
  • The Complete Stories (introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke) (1995)
  • Barracoon (1999)
  • Collected Plays (introduction by Jean Lee Cole and Charles Mitchell) (2008)

Published as

  • Novels & Stories: Jonah's Gourd Vine, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Seraph on the Suwanee, Selected Stories (Cheryl A. Wall, ed.) (Library of America, 1995) ISBN 978-0-94045083-7

  • Folklore, Memoirs, & Other Writings: Mules and Men, Tell My Horse, Dust Tracks on a Road, Selected Articles (Cheryl A. Wall, ed.) (Library of America, 1995) ISBN 978-0-94045084-4

Film and television

In 1989 PBS aired a drama based on Hurston's life titled My Name is Zora.

The 2004 film Brother to Brother, set in part during the Harlem Renaissance, featured Hurston (portrayed by Aunjanue Ellis).

Their Eyes Were Watching God was adapted for a 2005 film of the same title by Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions, with a teleplay by Suzan-Lori Parks. The film starred Halle Berry as Janie Starks.

On April 9, 2008 PBS broadcast a 90 minute documentary Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, written and produced by filmmaker Kristy Andersen, as part of their American Masters series.

See also


  1. Zora Neale Hurston, Zora Neale Hurston official website, maintained by the Zora Neale Hurston Estate and Harper Collins.
  2. Zora Neale Hurston, Women in History.
  3. Shivonne Foster, Following Footsteps: Zora Neale Hurston, The Hilltop, November 20, 2007.
  4. Cheryl A. Wall [1], The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford University Press, 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.
  5. A Century of Barnard Anthropology, The Early Period
  6. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, Hurston, Zora Neale, 18 Feb. 2009.
  7. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, Hurston, Zora Neale, 18 Feb. 2009.
  8. Richard A. Long, "New Negro, The", The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford University Press, 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. [2]
  9. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, Hurston, Zora Neale, 18 February 2009.
  10. Richard Wright, "Between Laughter and Tears", The New Masses, October 5, 1937.
  11. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  12. John McWhorter, “Thus Spake Zora" City Journal, Summer 2009.
  13. David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, “Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Zora Neale Hurston on War, Race, the State, and Liberty Independent Review 12, Spring 2008).
  14. Zora Neale Hurston, "Court Order Can't Make the Races Mix", Orlando Sentinel, August 11, 1955.
  15. Reproduction of Hurston's Letter
  16. My Name is Zora, Internet Movie Database.
  17. Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun.


  • Abcarian, Richard and Marvin Klotz. "Zora Neale Hurston." In Literature: The Human Experience, 9th edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006: 1562-3.
  • Baym, Nina (ed.) ,"Zora Neale Hurston." In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th edition, Vol. D. New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 2003: 1506-1507.
  • Beito, David T. “Zora Neale Hurston," American Enterprise 6 (September/October 1995), 61-3.
  • Beito, David T. and Beito, Linda Royster, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Zora Neale Hurston on War, Race, the State, and Liberty. Independent Review 12 (Spring 2008).
  • Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 1977. ISBN 0-252-00807-3.
  • Ellis, C. Arthur Zora Hurston And The Strange Case Of Ruby McCollum, 1st edition. Lutz, FL: Gadfly Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-0982094006.
  • Hemenway, Robert E. "Zora Neale Hurston." In The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 5th edition, Vol. D. Paul Lauter and Richard Yarborough (eds.). New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006: 1577-1578.
  • Kraut, Anthea, "Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performances of Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham," Theatre Journal 55 (2003): 433–50.
  • Menefee, Samuel Pyeatt, "Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)." In Women and Tradition: A Neglected Group of Folklorists Hilda Ellis Davidson and Carmen Blacker (eds.). Durham, NC, Carolina Academic Press, 2000: 157-72.
  • Tucker, Cynthia. "Zora! Celebrated Storyteller Would Have Laughed at Controversy Over Her Origins. She Was Born In Notasulga, Alabama but Eatonville Fla., Claims Her As Its Own", Atlanta Journal and Constitution, January 22, 1995.
  • Visweswaran, Kamala. Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8166-2336-8
  • Walker, Alice. "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston", Ms. Magazine, (March 1975): 74-79, 84-89.

Further reading

External links

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