African-American author Zora Neale Hurston was largely unappreciated and underrated during her lifetime, but, in recent years, a revival of her work has brought her the respect she failed to receive when she was still alive.
While most biographers agree that she was born on January 7, the year is in debate, some listing it as 1891, others as 1901 or 1903. Hurston was somewhat elusive about that aspect of her beginnings, but the location of her birth was Notasulga, Alabama and she was raised in Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville had the distinction of being the first incorporated African-American town in the United States, so young Zora was not plagued by the same racism and discrimination usually experienced by blacks during those days..
Eatonville was self-governing and there were thriving businesses and schools there, so she was brought up to believe she was equal with whites, which may have been the reason she may not have identified as well with her contemporaries who did not grow up in the same ideal conditions as she had.
Zora first attended college at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, where she supported herself as a manicurist, but was unable to finish due to financial difficulties. A scholarship to Barnard College enabled her to receive a B.A. in anthropology in 1927 and she studied under the renowned Ruth Benedict
Zora wrote poetry and fiction while at Howard and had a piece published by The New Yorker magazine in 1925, prompting her to go to New York, which was at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, when African-American art, literature and music flourished. Well known writers in this movement included Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps, Angelina Weld Grimke and Richard Wright . She regularly attended gatherings where writers, musicians and intellectuals shared their work. She was also an assistant for the white novelist Fanny Hurst, famous for being the author of Imitation of Life.
Some of Hurston’s works, including plays, short stories and novels, are How It Feels to Be Colored Me, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Mule Bone,The Gilded Six-Bits, Mules and Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moses- Man of the Mountain, SanctifiedChurch and more. She was simultaneously praised and criticized because her stories did not always fit into the standard, neat little package expected of black writers. Some in the African-American community were appalled by her use of Negro dialect, which they felt was demeaning, although the reasons for Zora doing so were to present the language she heard spoken in the rural black areas she knew. When she dared to write a novel Seraph on the Suwanee from the standpoint of poor white characters, it was rejected by both blacks and whites’ Pretty much, it was a matter of Zora doing her own thing and having her streak of independence, which should have been welcomed, disregarded by those too narrow minded to see the value of her work.
Zora further alienated herself because she did not particularly agree with what she believed to be the extreme liberalism of her peers, politically-speaking. When she penned a written protest regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw segregation in public schools, the larger African-American community was vehement and considered her to be somewhat of a “traitor”. Perhaps it was her unique upbringing in a town where discrimination was not the norm that made it so difficult for her to identify with her contemporaries.
Zora’s popularity as a writer faded and her latter years were not the happiest, as her financial fortunes dwindled and she disappeared into anonymity. She died in 1960 in a welfare home and was buried in an unmarked grave, alone and forgotten.
If not for Pulitzer-Prize-winning African- American writer Alice Walker, few would even know who Zora Neale Hurston is now. Walker wrote an article for Ms. Magazine about Hurston in 1973 and it encouraged a renewed interest in Zora’s works, which continues to this day. Oprah Winfrey went on to produce a made-for-television movie based upon Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God in 2005.
Zora Neale Hurston laid the groundwork for later successful African-American female writers, such as Walker and Toni Morrison and has, at last, attained the credibility she is due.