The Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida. Her birthdate was probably January 7, 1901, but because she herself tried to conceal her age, claiming birthdates from 1898 to 1910, many sources are still tentative concerning her date of birth. She was the daughter of John Hurston, a Baptist preacher, and Lucy Potts Hurston, a schoolteacher. The fifth of eight children, she fondly remembers growing up in an eight-room house with “...two big chinaberry trees shading the front gate.” Zora’s artistic gifts were encouraged at an early age by her mother, but books were considered evil by her father, who frowned upon her reading. Eatonville was a self-governing town, independently owned and operated by African Americans. John Hurston was mayor of Eatonville for three terms and helped codify the town laws. Since Eatonville was an all-black town, Zora spent her first years in an environment free of discrimination and prejudice during a period where such things were commonplace. Furthermore, Eatonville was a prosperous, self-contained town, which gave Hurston a positive view of African-American life independent of the Jim Crow South, a view that was definitely reflected in her works.
When her mother died, Zora, along with an older brother and sister, was placed in a boarding school in Jacksonville. Her father had remarried by then to a woman who clearly did not want any of his previous children. Zora left Jacksonville after a year because her father stopped paying room and board, and she was then passed along to relatives and friends for a few years. During this period of time, Zora worked a variety of odd jobs. She eventually moved back home, but after a month had a vicious fight with her stepmother. Although her father did support her during the fight and refused to have her arrested, Zora left town once again. She became an assistant to a singer in a traveling show, which expanded her horizons and renewed her interest in books and art.
She left the troupe in Baltimore and, with new friends helping her, entered Morgan Academy in 1917 to earn her high school diploma. She then entered Howard University in 1919 and, studying part-time, earned an associate’s degree in 1920. While at Howard, Zora joined the prestigious student literary group and published her first short story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” in the campus magazine Stylus in 1921. Another short story, “Drenched in Light,” was published in Opportunity magazine in 1924. The following year, Hurston won second prize in Opportunity for her short story, “Spunk.” That same year, Hurston went to New York and entered Barnard College on a scholarship as the college’s only black student. She graduated in 1928.
During her time as a student in New York City, a group of young black artists in the 1920s known as the “Harlem Renaissance” was popular, but except for a collaboration with Langston Hughes, Hurston had little to do with this group. Indeed, many of the artists of the group felt that her apolitical work portrayed blacks negatively. During her studies at Barnard, she came to the attention of an anthropology professor, Dr. Franz Boas, who influenced Zora greatly (in her autobiography she refers to him as “Papa Franz”). In 1927, Boas arranged a fellowship so that Zora could collect folklore in the South. Hurston was honored by the vote of confidence in her by Dr. Boas, but her first visit to Eatonville in 1927 was a failure; as she herself later admitted, she failed “because [she] did not have the right approach. The glamour of Barnard College was still upon me.” She later made a second trip that same year with a new sponsor, Ms. Charlotte Osgood Mason. This time she tried harder to pass herself off as one of the locals and had much more success. It is this second trip that forms the basis for the first half of Mules and Men. In 1928, she then traveled to New Orleans for several months in order to collect information on the “hoodoo” culture. Her research and studies were printed in the article “Hoodoo in America” in 1931 in the Journal of American Folklore. Her folklore collection, Mules and Men, was published in 1935 with “Hoodoo in America” being reprinted as the second section. She then traveled to Haiti in 1937 to collect more research on hoodoo, but her experiences there were so unnerving and frightening that she left on her own accord in 1938. Her Haitian experiences are recorded in the book Tell My Horse.
Hurston also wrote some works of fiction in the 1930s, including her most famous work today, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. Sadly, despite glowing reviews, all her books sold poorly. Many of her contemporaries criticized her overemphasis on folklore and lack of social commentary on the struggle of the African American in a segregated society. By 1942 she was teaching part-time at a black college in Florida in order to support herself. Her last published book was Seraph on the Suwanee in 1948 and, although it received positive reviews, it did not change her financial situation. Around the same time, Hurston was arrested and falsely accused of a morals violation. Although the charges were dismissed, she was demoralized and sick, and retreated to Florida. By 1950, she was working as a maid in Miami to make ends meet. She spent the last years of her life working a variety of odd jobs, living with friends, and writing freelance newspaper and magazine articles.
Zora Neale Hurston died on January 28, 1960. After her death, her books enjoyed a popular revival, partly due to the efforts of Alice Walker, who was greatly influenced by Hurston. Today, Hurston remains one of the most influential black writers in America.