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Zora Neale Hurston

Author of Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Carl Van Vechten portrait of Zora Neale Hurston

Carl Van Vechten portrait of Zora Neale Hurston

Fotosearch / Archive Photos / Getty Images (also at Library of Congress)

Zora Neale Hurston Facts:

Known for: such books as Their Eyes Were Watching God
Dates: January 7, 1891? 1901? - January 28, 1960

Zora Neale Hurston Biography:

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, probably in 1891. She usually gave 1901 as her birth year, but also gave 1898 and 1903.  Census records suggest 1891 is the more accurate date.

Zora Neale Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, while she was very young. She grew up in Eatonville, in the first incorporated all-black town in the United States. Her mother was Lucy Ann Potts Hurston, who had taught school before marrying, and after marriage, had eight children with her husband, the Reverend John Hurston, a Baptist minister, who also served three times as mayor of Eatonville. Lucy Hurston died with Zora was about thirteen (again, her varied birth dates make this somewhat uncertain). Her father remarried, and the siblings were separated, moving in with different relatives.

Hurston went to Baltimore, Maryland, to attend Morgan Academy (now a university). After graduation she attended Howard University while working as a manicurist, and she also began to write, publishing a story in the magazine of the school's literary society. In 1925 she went to New York City, drawn by the circle of creative black artists (now known as the Harlem Renaissance), and she began writing fiction.

Annie Nathan Meyer, founder of Barnard College, found a scholarship for Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston began her study of anthropology at Barnard under Franz Boaz, studying also with Ruth Benedict and Gladys Reichard. With the help of Boaz and Elsie Clews Parsons, Hurston was able to win a six-month grant she used to collect African American folklore.

While studying at Barnard College, Hurston also worked as a secretary (an amanuensis) for Fannie Hurst, a novelist. (Hurst, a Jewish woman, later -- in 1933 -- wrote Imitation of Life, about a black woman passing as white. Claudette Colbert starred in the 1934 film version of the story. "Passing" was a theme of many of the Harlem Renaissance women writers.)

After college, when Hurston began working as an ethnologist, she combined fiction and her knowledge of culture. Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason financially supported Hurston's ethnology work on the condition that Hurston not publish anything. It was only after Hurston cut herself off from Mrs. Mason's financial patronage that she began publishing her poetry and fiction.

Zora Neale Hurston's best-known work was published in 1937: Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel which was controversial because it didn't fit easily into stereotypes of black stories. She was criticized within the black community for taking funds from whites to support her writing; she wrote about themes "too black" to appeal to many whites.

Hurston's popularity waned. Her last book was published in 1948. She worked for a time on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham, she wrote for Warner Brothers motion pictures, and for some time worked on staff at the Library of Congress.

Eventually, Hurston went back to Florida. She never married and had no childen. In 1960 she died there in poverty, her work nearly forgotten and thus lost to most readers.

In the 1970s, during the "second wave" of feminism, Alice Walker helped revive interest in Zora Neale Hurston's writings, bringing them back to public attention. Today Hurston's novels and poetry are studied in literature classes and in women's studies and black studies courses. They have become again popular with the general reading public.

More About Hurston:

  • Howard, Lillie P. Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston: The Common Bond, Contributions in Afro-American and African Series #163 (1993)
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  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Pamela Bordelon, editor. Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston from the Federal Writers Project (1999)
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  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Alice Walker, editor. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing...and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979)
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  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. (2000 edition)
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