Zora Neale Hurston 1891-1960
American novelist, folklorist, short story writer, autobiographer, essayist, dramatist, librettist, and anthropologist.
Hurston is considered among the foremost writers of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of unprecedented achievement in African-American art and literature during the 1920s and 1930s. Although her drama and fiction, which depicts the common black folk of her native Southern Florida, was largely unconcerned with racial injustices of the time, Hurston’s long-neglected works have undergone substantial critical reevaluation, particularly since the advent of the black protest novel and the rise to prominence during the 1950s of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. In addition to publishing novels and plays, three nonfiction works and numerous short stories and essays, Hurston is acknowledged as an influential collector and reteller of black American folklore. Lillie P. Howard stated: “[Hurston’s] works are important because they affirm blackness (while not denying whiteness) in a black-denying society. They present characters who are not all lovable but who are undeniably and realistically human. They record the history, the life, of a place and time which are remarkably like other places and times, though perhaps a bit more honest in the rendering.”
Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the United States and the setting for most of her writing. At the age of fourteen, she left home to work as a maid with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan theatrical troupe. In 1923, Hurston entered Howard University, a black college in Washington, D.C., where she published short stories in Stylus, the university literary magazine, and attracted the attention of noted sociologist Charles S. Johnson. With Johnson’s encouragement, Hurston moved to New York City in 1925 and subsequently secured a scholarship to Barnard College. While at Barnard, and later at Columbia University, Hurston studied anthropology under Franz Boas, a renowned anthropologist of the era. During this period, Hurston continued to publish short stories and began establishing friendships with many important black writers. In 1927, together with Langston Hughes and other artists, Hurston founded Fire!, a short-lived literary magazine devoted to African-American culture. Hurston’s collaboration with Hughes continued on the drama Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life (1991), the source of which was the Hurston short story “The Bone of Contention.” Apparently displeased with Hughes’s additions to the story, Hurston later maintained that she was the sole author of Mule Bone and attempted to copyright the work in her name only in October of 1930, thus alienating Hughes. In the 1930s and 1940s Hurston’s reputation steadily grew, based upon the success of her novels and folklore collections. By 1948, after the publication of Seraph on the Suwanee and its dismal reception by critics and audiences, however, Hurston’s career went into steady decline. Bordering on destitution throughout the 1950s, she suffered a stroke in October of 1959, and died at the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home on January 28, 1960.
Hurston’s first published play,Color Struck: A Play in Four Scenes (1925) concerns a black woman’s obsession with skin color. Jealous and embittered by what she perceives as John’s preference for light-skinned blacks, Emmaline leaves him. Some twenty years later, John locates Emma and asks her to marry him. As she considers his proposal, she notices his well-meaning attention to her ailing, light-skinned daughter. Enraged, she condemns him for his supposed colorism. The disappointed John departs. Shortly thereafter Emma’s neglected daughter dies. The First One: A Play in One Act (1927) visits the biblical theme of Noah’s curse on his wayward son Ham: “His skin shall be black. … He shall serve his brothers and they shall rule over him.” Hurston uses the theme ironically in the play; Ham’s skin is changed to black and he is forced into exile, but he maintains his sense of pleasure in life. The 1931 black musical revue Fast and Furious contains several sketches by Hurston, which depart from the norms of the minstrel show in that they endeavor to present blacks without the trappings of stage stereotypes. This trend continued in The Great Day (1932). Representative of Hurston’s solo musical revues, The Great Day reflects her efforts to portray an authentic black voice on the American stage, and contains portions of what Hurston would later publish in the folktale-inspired stories of her Mules and Men (1935). The musical drama Polk County: A Comedy of Negro Life on a Sawmill Camp (1944) concerns a mulatto woman, Leafy Lee, as she travels south from New York in an effort to master blues music. Once she enters a Florida camp, Leafy Lee wins the friendship of Big Sweet who becomes a protector and teacher to her and marries the guitar-playing, My Honey. Mule Bone, set in Eatonville, Florida, recounts the rivalry of Jim Weston and Dave Carter over a woman, Daisy Taylor. Their conflict reaches a climax as both men claim to have killed a turkey for Taylor. A fight ensues, and Weston attacks Carter with a mule bone. The subsequent trial sees Jim Weston exiled from town, only to be joined by a now-reconciled Carter, who has since learned that the woman they were pursuing requires that he get a job.
Throughout her career, Hurston struggled to see her dramatic works realized on the stage. Despite achieving some recognition during her lifetime, including several prizes afforded by the periodical Opportunity, Hurston’s plays were largely neglected by producers and critics. Since her death, Hurston’s reputation and popularity have significantly grown, as evidenced by the reissuing of several of her works, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, in the late 1980s. By the 1990s the process of rediscovering Hurston’s work has led to a more substantial regard for her plays, particularly her collaborative drama Mule Bone. Still, most critical studies of Hurston have focused extensively on her private life, such as her well-publicized falling out with the co-author of Mule Bone, Langston Hughes. Nevertheless, as critical interest in her dramas increases, assessments of the cultural and thematic importance of her dramatic work have begun to appear. By the end of the twentieth century, most critics concur that what exists are only preliminary investigations of the plays, works that demand further, substantive analysis. Overall, Hurston’s dramas, like her fiction, are deemed significant for the insights they provide into the human condition. In a dedication to I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, Alice Walker summarized Hurston’s achievements: “We love Zora Neale Hurston for her work, first, and then again (as she and all Eatonville would say) we love her for herself. For the humor and courage with which she encountered a life she infrequently designed, for her absolute disinterest in becoming either white or bourgeois, and for her devoted appreciation of her own culture, which is an inspiration to us all.”
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