[A fabulous photograph of Zora Neale Hurston in Eatonville, Florida. Found at https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/33048 ]
In celebration of the start of Black History Month here in the United States, today’s HHBlog post is dedicated to the poet, fiction writer, anthropologist, and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891 and spent the majority of her early life in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated Black township in the United States. Raised by her mother Lucy Potts Hurston and her father John Hurston until Lucy’s untimely death when Zora was thirteen years old, Zora Neale Hurston remembered her childhood as a relatively peaceful time where she was surrounded by Black success, inspiration, and support. After her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage, Zora struggled through school. Eventually Zora ended up, at age twenty-six, in Baltimore with no complete high school education. She enrolled in public school, claiming to be sixteen years old in order to receive her education for free; from this moment onward, her publicly-stated age was always to be ten years younger than her real age.
After living for a time in Baltimore, Zora made her way to Harlem, New York and became an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, becoming friends with the likes of Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, and Sterling Brown. In 1928, she graduated from Barnard College (the women’s college attached to Columbia University). Throughout the 1930s and 1940s she wrote several short stories, novels (Jonah’s Gourd Vine published in 1934), and folklore collections (Mules and Men published in 1935). Perhaps her most famous work was 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God – a must-read novel for anyone and everyone, in our opinion here at the Blog. It was not until the publication of her autobiography in 1942, however, that she gained more prominent recognition. Even then, though, she received little compensation for her writing, as demonstrated by the fact that when she passed away in 1960 from a stroke, her neighbours in Florida had to cobble together money for her funeral. From 1960 until 1973, her grave remained unmarked – something that Zora had foretold in a letter she wrote to W.E.B. Du Bois regarding how often Black people’s graves went unmarked in the United States. It was not until 1973 when Alice Walker, a then-young Black author, made a pilgrimage to the segregated Florida cemetery Garden of Heavenly Rest that Zora’s grave received a tombstone, reading “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”
In honour of Zora Neale Hurston and all the Black women artists, writers, and cultural workers who came before and after her, we ask our readers to seek out, listen to, or watch the work of Black artists who dedicated themselves to displaying Black joy, complexity, and nuance in a world that affords little space for complicated understandings of Blackness.
If you haven’t read anything by her, check out this wonderful reading by Alice Walker of an excerpt from Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows:The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Lisa Drew Books, 2004.
Boyd, Valerie. “About Zora Neal Hurston.” Accessed February 3, 2017. http://www.zoranealehurston.com/about/index.html