|Zora Neale Hurston|
Hurston c. 1940
January 7, 1891|
Notasulga, Alabama, U.S.
January 28, 1960 (aged 69)|
Fort Pierce, Florida, U.S.
|Occupation||Folklorist, anthropologist, ethnographer, novelist, short story writer|
|Literary movement||Harlem Renaissance|
|Notable works||Their Eyes Were Watching God|
(m. 1927; div. 1931)
(m. 1939; div. 1943)
James Howell Pitts
(m. 1944; div. 1944)
Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891 - January 28, 1960) was an influential author of African-American literature and anthropologist, who portrayed racial struggles in the early 20th century American South, and published research on Haitian voodoo. Of Hurston's four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, her most popular is the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, and moved to Eatonville, Florida, with her family in 1894. Eatonville would become the setting for many of her stories and is now the site of the Zora! Festival, held each year in Hurston's honor. In her early career, Hurston conducted anthropological and ethnographic research while attending Barnard College. While in New York she became a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Her short satires, drawing from the African-American experience and racial division, were published in anthologies such as The New Negro and Fire!! After moving back to Florida, Hurston published her literary anthropology on African-American folklore in North Florida, Mules and Men (1935) and her first three novels: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934); Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939). Also published during this time was Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938), documenting her research on rituals in Jamaica and Haiti.
Hurston's works touched on the African-American experience and her struggles as an African-American woman. Her novels went relatively unrecognized by the literary world for decades, but interest revived after author Alice Walker published "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" in the March 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine. Hurston's manuscript Every Tongue Got to Confess (2001), a collection of folktales gathered in the 1920s, was published posthumously after being discovered in the Smithsonian archives. Her nonfiction book Barracoon was published posthumously in 2018.
Hurston was the sixth of eight children of John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston (née Potts). All of her four grandparents had been born into slavery. Her father was a Baptist preacher and sharecropper, who later became a carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher. She was born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, where her father grew up and her grandfather was the preacher of a Baptist church.
When she was three, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida. In 1887 it was one of the first all-black towns incorporated in the United States. Hurston said that Eatonville was "home" to her as she grew up there, and sometimes claimed it as her birthplace. Her father was elected as mayor of the town in 1897 and in 1902 became minister of its largest church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist.
As an adult, Hurston used Eatonville as a backdrop in her stories. It was a place where African Americans could live as they desired, independent of white society. In 1901, some northern schoolteachers visited Eatonville and gave Hurston a number of books that opened her mind to literature. She described it as a kind of "birth". Hurston spent the remainder of her childhood in Eatonville, and described the experience of growing up there in her 1928 essay, "How It Feels To Be Colored Me".
In 1904, Hurston's mother died. Her father remarried to Mattie Moge which was considered scandalous, as it was rumored that he had had relations with Moge before his first wife's death. Hurston's father and stepmother sent her to a Baptist boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida. They eventually stopped paying her tuition and she was dismissed. She later worked as a maid to the lead singer in a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan theatrical company.
In 1917, Hurston began attending Morgan College, the high school division of Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland. At this time, apparently to qualify for a free high-school education (as well, perhaps to reflect her literary birth), the 26-year-old Hurston began claiming 1901 as her year of birth. She graduated from the high school of Morgan State University in 1918.
In 1918, Hurston began her studies at Howard University, where she became one of the earliest initiates of Zeta Phi Beta sorority and co-founded The Hilltop, the university's student newspaper. While there, she took courses in Spanish, English, Greek and public speaking and earned an associate degree in 1920. In 1921, she wrote a short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea", which qualified her to become a member of Alaine Locke's literary club, The Stylus. Hurston left Howard in 1924 and in 1925 was offered a scholarship by Barnard trustee Annie Nathan Meyer to Barnard College of Columbia University, where she was the college's sole black student. Hurston received her B.A. in anthropology in 1928, when she was 37. While she was at Barnard, she conducted ethnographic research with noted anthropologist Franz Boas of Columbia University. She also worked with Ruth Benedict as well as fellow anthropology student Margaret Mead. After graduating from Barnard, Hurston spent two years as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University. Living in Harlem in the 1920s, Hurston befriended the likes of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, among several others. Her apartment, according to some accounts, was a popular spot for social gatherings. Around this time, Hurston experienced a few early literary successes, including placing in short-story and playwriting contests in Opportunity magazine.
In 1927, Hurston married Herbert Sheen, a jazz musician and a former teacher at Howard who later became a physician. Their marriage ended in 1931. In 1935, Hurston was involved with Percy Punter, a graduate student at Columbia University, who would eventually inspire Teacake in Their Eyes Were Watching God. In 1939, while Hurston was working for the WPA, she married Albert Price. The marriage ended after seven months. They divorced in 1943 and the following year Hurston married James Howell Pitts of Cleveland. That marriage, too, lasted less than a year. She lived in a cottage in Eau Gallie, Florida, twice: once in 1929 and again in 1951. During the 1930s, Hurston was a resident of Westfield, New Jersey, where Langston Hughes was among her neighbors. In 1934 she established a school of dramatic arts "based on pure Negro expression" at Bethune-Cookman University (at the time, Bethune-Cookman College), a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Florida.
In later life, in addition to continuing her literary career, Hurston served on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in Durham, North Carolina.
In 1956 Hurston received the Bethune-Cookman College Award for Education and Human Relations in recognition of her achievements. The English Department at Bethune-Cookman College remains dedicated to preserving her cultural legacy.
Hurston traveled extensively in the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research. Based on her work in the South, sponsored from 1928 to 1932 by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy philanthropist, Hurston wrote Mules and Men in 1935. She was doing research in lumber camps and commented on the practice of white men in power taking black women as sexual concubines, including having them bear children. This later was referred to as "paramour rights," based in the men's power under racial and related to practices during slavery times. The book also includes much folklore. She used this material as well in fictional treatment developed for her novels such as Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934).
In 1938, Hurston worked for the Federal Writer's project (FWP). Hired for her experience as a writer and folklorist she gathered information to add to Florida's historical and cultural collection.
From October 1947 to February 1948, she lived in Honduras, at the north coastal town of Puerto Cortés. She had some hopes of locating either Mayan ruins or vestiges of an as yet undiscovered civilization. While in Puerto Cortés, she wrote much of Seraph on the Suwanee, set in Florida. Hurston expressed interest in the polyethnic nature of the population in the region (many, such as the Miskito Zambu and Garifuna, were of partial African ancestry and had developed creole cultures).
During her last decade, Hurston worked as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers. In the fall of 1952 she was contacted by Sam Nunn, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, to go to Florida to cover the murder trial of Ruby McCollum. McCollum was charged with murdering a white doctor and politician, who McCollum said had forced her to have sex and bear his child. Hurston recalled what she had seen of white male sexual dominance in the lumber camps in North Florida, and discussed it with Nunn. They both thought the case might be about such "paramour rights," and wanted to "expose it to a national audience."
Upon reaching Live Oak, Hurston was surprised not only by the gag order the judge in the trial placed on the defense, but by her inability to get residents in town to talk about the case; both blacks and whites were silent. She believed that might have been related to Dr. Adams' alleged involvement as well in Sam McCollum's gambling operation. Her articles were published by the newspaper during the trial. Ruby McCollum was convicted by an all-white, all-male jury, and sentenced to death. Hurston had a special assignment to write a serialized account, The Life Story of Ruby McCollum, over three months in 1953 in the newspaper. Her part was ended abruptly when she and Nunn disagreed about her pay, and she left.
Unable to pay independently to return for the appeal and second trial, she contacted journalist William Bradford Huie, with whom she had worked at The American Mercury, to try to interest him in the case. He covered the appeal and second trial, and also developed material from a background investigation. Hurston shared her material with him from the first trial, but he acknowledged her only briefly in his book, Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail (1956), which became a bestseller. Hurston celebrated that "McCollum's testimony in her own defense marked the first time that a woman of African-American descent was allowed to testify as to the paternity of her child by a white man. Hurston firmly believed that Ruby McCollum's testimony sounded the death toll of 'paramour rights' in the Segregationist South."
She moved to Fort Pierce. Taking jobs where she could find them, she worked occasionally as a substitute teacher. At age 60, Hurston had to fight "to make ends meet" with the help of public assistance. At one point she worked as a maid on Miami Beach's Rivo Alto Island
During a period of financial and medical difficulties, Hurston was forced to enter St. Lucie County Welfare Home, where she suffered a stroke. She died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960, and was buried at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her remains were in an unmarked grave until 1973. Novelist Alice Walker and fellow Hurston scholar Charlotte D. Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried and decided to mark it as hers. Walker had it marked with a gray marker stating ZORA NEALE HURSTON / A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH / NOVELIST FOLKLORIST / ANTHROPOLOGIST / 1901-1960. The line "a genius of the south" is from Jean Toomer's poem Georgia Dusk, which appears in his book Cane. Hurston was actually born in 1891, not 1901.
After Hurston died her papers were ordered to be burned. A law officer and friend, Patrick DuVal, passing by the house where she had lived, stopped and put out the fire, thus saving an invaluable collection of literary documents for posterity. The nucleus of this collection was given to the University of Florida libraries in 1961 by Mrs. Marjorie Silver, friend and neighbor of Hurston. Other materials were donated in 1970 and 1971 by Frances Grover, daughter of E. O. Grover, a Rollins College professor and long-time friend of Hurston's. In 1979 Stetson Kennedy of Jacksonville, who knew Hurston through his work with the Federal Writers Project, added additional papers. [(Zora Neale Hurston Papers, University of Florida Smathers Libraries, August 2008)]
When Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925, the Harlem Renaissance was at its zenith, and she soon became one of the writers at its center. Shortly before she entered Barnard, Hurston's short story "Spunk" was selected for The New Negro, a landmark anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays focusing on African and African-American art and literature. In 1926, a group of young black writers including Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman, calling themselves the Niggerati, produced a literary magazine called Fire!! that featured many of the young artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1927 Hurston interviewed Cudjoe Kazzola Lewis, of Africatown, Alabama, who was the last known survivor of the Transatlantic slave trade. The next year she published the article "Cudjoe's Own Story of the Last African Slaver" (1928). According to her biographer Robert E. Hemenway, this piece largely plagiarized the work of Emma Roche, although Hurston added information about daily life in Lewis' home village of Bantè. In 1928 Hurston returned with additional resources; she conducted more interviews, took photographs, and recorded the only known film footage of an African who had been trafficked to the United States through the slave trade. Based on this material, she wrote a manuscript, Barracoon, which Hemenway described as "a highly dramatic, semifictionalized narrative intended for the popular reader." After this round of interviews, Hurston's literary patron, philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason, learned of Lewis and began to send him money for his support. Lewis was also interviewed by journalists for local and national publications. Hurston's manuscript Barracoon was eventually published posthumously on May 8, 2018. "Barracoon", or barracks in Spanish, is where captured Africans were temporarily imprisoned before being shipped abroad.
By the mid-1930s, Hurston had published several short stories and the critically acclaimed Mules and Men (1935), a groundbreaking work of "literary anthropology" documenting African-American folklore from timber camps in North Florida. In 1930, she collaborated with Langston Hughes on Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts, a play that they never staged. It was published posthumously and staged on Broadway in 1991.
Hurston translated her anthropological work into the performing arts, and her folk revue, The Great Day, which featured authentic African song and dance, premiered at the John Golden Theatre in New York in January 1932. There was only one performance of The Great Day, despite the positive reviews. The Broadway debut left Hurston in $600 worth of debt. No producers wanted to move forward with a full run of the show.
During the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston produced two other musical revues, From Sun to Sun, which was a revised adaptation of The Great Day, and Singing Steel. Hurston had a strong belief that folk should be dramatized.
Hurston's first three novels were published in the 1930s: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934); Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), written during her fieldwork in Haiti and considered her masterwork; and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939).
In 1937, Hurston was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct ethnographic research in Jamaica and Haiti. Tell My Horse (1938) documents her account of her fieldwork studying spiritual and cultural rituals in Jamaica and vodoun in Haiti.
In the 1940s, Hurston's work was published in such periodicals as The American Mercury and The Saturday Evening Post. Her last published novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, notable principally for its focus on white characters, was published in 1948. It explores images of "white trash" women. Jackson (2000) argues that Hurston's meditation on abjection, waste, and the construction of class and gender identities among poor whites reflects the eugenics discourses of the 1920s.
In 1952, Hurston was assigned by the Pittsburgh Courier to cover the small-town murder trial of Ruby McCollum, the prosperous black wife of the local bolita racketeer, who had killed a racist white doctor. She also contributed to Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail (1956), a book by journalist and civil rights advocate William Bradford Huie.
Hurston's manuscript Every Tongue Got to Confess (2001), a collection of folktales gathered in the 1920s, was published posthumously after being discovered in the Smithsonian archives.
In 2008, The Library of America selected excerpts from Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail (1956), to which Hurston had contributed, for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American true crime writing.
Hurston's work slid into obscurity for decades, for both cultural and political reasons.
Many readers objected to the representation of African-American dialect in Hurston's novels, given the racially charged history of dialect fiction in American literature. Her stylistic choices in dialogue were influenced by her academic experiences. Thinking like a folklorist, Hurston strove to represent speech patterns of the period which she documented through ethnographic research. For example, a character in Jonah's Gourd Vine expresses herself like this:
Dat's a big ole resurrection lie, Ned. Uh slew-foot, drag-leg lie at dat, and Ah dare yuh tuh hit me too. You know Ahm uh fightin' dawg and mah hide is worth money. Hit me if you dare! Ah'll wash yo' tub uh 'gator guts and dat quick.
Several of Hurston's literary contemporaries criticized her use of dialect as a caricature of African-American culture rooted in a racist tradition. These writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance were critical of Hurston's later work, which in their view did not further the movement. One criticism came from Richard Wright in his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God:
The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race.
During the 1930s and 1940s when her work was published, the pre-eminent African-American author was Richard Wright. Unlike Hurston, Wright wrote in explicitly political terms, as someone who had become disenchanted with communism, using the struggle of African Americans for respect and economic advancement as both the setting and the motivation for his work. Other popular African-American authors of the time, such as Ralph Ellison, dealt with the same concerns as Wright.
Hurston, who was a conservative, was on the other side of the disputes over the promise left-wing politics held for African-Americans. In 1951, for example, Hurston argued that New Deal economic support created a harmful dependency by African Americans on the government, and that this dependency ceded too much power to politicians.
Despite increasing difficulties, Hurston maintained her independence and a determined optimism. She wrote in a 1957 letter:
But ... I have made phenomenal growth as a creative artist. ... I am not materialistic... If I do happen to die without money, somebody will bury me, though I do not wish it to be that way.
John McWhorter has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative" while David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito have argued that she can better be characterized as a libertarian. She was a Republican who was generally sympathetic to the foreign policy non-interventionism of the Old Right and a fan of Booker T. Washington's self-help politics. She disagreed with the philosophies (including Communism and the New Deal) supported by many of her colleagues in the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes, who was in the 1930s a supporter of the Soviet Union and praised it in several of his poems. Despite much common ground with the Old Right in domestic and foreign policy, Hurston was not a social conservative. Her writings show an affinity for feminist individualism. In this respect, her views were similar to two libertarian novelists who were her contemporaries: Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson. Although her personal quotes show a disbelief of religion, Hurston did not negate spiritual matters as evidenced from her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road.
Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws. The ever-sleepless sea in its bed, crying out "how long?" to Time; million-formed and never motionless flame; the contemplation of these two aspects alone, affords me sufficient food for ten spans of my expected lifetime. It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me. Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels. The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn, is glory enough for me. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.
In 1952, Hurston supported the presidential campaign of Senator Robert A. Taft. Like Taft, Hurston was against Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies. She also shared his opposition to Roosevelt and Truman's interventionist foreign policy. In the original draft of her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston compared the United States government to a "fence" in stolen goods and to a Mafia-like protection racket. Hurston thought it ironic that the same "people who claim that it is a noble thing to die for freedom and democracy ... wax frothy if anyone points out the inconsistency of their morals ... We, too, consider machine gun bullets good laxatives for heathens who get constipated with toxic ideas about a country of their own." She was scathing about those who sought "freedoms" for those abroad but denied it to people in their home countries: Roosevelt "can call names across an ocean" for his Four Freedoms, but he did not have "the courage to speak even softly at home." When Truman dropped the atomic bombs on Japan she called him "the Butcher of Asia."
Hurston opposed the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954. She felt that if separate schools were truly equal (and she believed that they were rapidly becoming so), educating black students in physical proximity to white students would not result in better education. In addition, she worried about the demise of black schools and black teachers as a way to pass on cultural tradition to future generations of African Americans. She voiced this opposition in a letter, "Court Order Can't Make the Races Mix", that was published in the Orlando Sentinel in August 1955. Hurston had not reversed her long-time opposition to segregation. Rather, she feared that the Court's ruling could become a precedent for an all-powerful federal government to undermine individual liberty on a broad range of issues in the future. Hurston also opposed preferential treatment for African-Americans, saying:
If I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.
Darwin Turner, an English professor and specialist in African-American literature, faulted Hurston in 1971 for opposing integration and for opposing programs to guarantee blacks the right to work. Even though criticized, Hurston appeared to oppose integration based on pride and her sense of independence. She would not "bow low before the white man," and claimed "adequate Negro schools" already existed in 1955.
Other authors criticized Hurston for her sensationalist representation of voodoo. In The Crisis magazine in 1943, Harold Preece criticized Hurston for her perpetuation of "Negro primitivism" in order to advance her own literary career. The Journal of Negro History complained that her work on voodoo was an indictment of African-American ignorance and superstition.
Jeffrey Anderson states that Hurston's research methods were questionable, and that she fabricated material for her works on voodoo. He observed that she admitted inventing dialogue for her book Mules and Men in a letter to Ruth Benedict and described fabricating the Mules and Men story of rival voodoo doctors as a child in her later autobiography. Anderson believes that many of Hurston's other claims in her voodoo writings are dubious as well.
Several authors have contended that Hurston engaged in significant plagiarism in at least three works, claiming that article "Cudjo's own story of the last African slaver" was only 25% original, the rest being plagiarized, and that she also plagiarized much of her work on voodoo.
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