Zora Neale Hurston: Rescued from Obscurity
Just over three years ago, I completed my collection of Zora Neale Hurston’s books. Like many, I began my journey with Hurston’s work by reading Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school. My high school ordered copies that arrived complete with Hurston’s biography and a foreword by Alice Walker.
“I realized that unless I came out with everything I had supporting her, there was every chance that she would slip back into obscurity.”
– Alice Walker about Zora Neale Hurston
At 15, I was well aware of Alice Walker. I had seen and begun to read The Color Purple. Walker was a writer who would help me understand and assign significance to my identity as a Black woman. So when Alice Walker spoke, I listened. It turns out that this is how much of the world discovered- or rediscovered- Hurston’s work. After all, Zora Neale Hurston may have been an anthropologist, ethnographer, writer, and prominent fixture of the Harlem Renaissance, but she died impoverished in relative obscurity. The State of Florida even buried her in an unmarked grave. Her body of work disappeared from newspapers and bookstores. By the time Alice Walker determined to reintroduce her as the noteworthy literary figure she is, all of her work was out of print.
Born to a preacher and a school teacher, Zora Neale Hurston hailed from a large, Southern family. They relocated from Alabama to Eatonville, Florida when she was three years old. It was one of the first incorporated all-Black towns in the United States, and Hurston would always refer to it as home. In fact, her father became the mayor when she was a small child, and their family was relatively well known. She would set many of her stories in Eatonville, including much of Their Eyes Were Watching God, her most famous work. Decades after its publishing, the city would honor her with a museum recognizing her life and accomplishments.
In 1901, when Hurston was about ten or eleven years old, she began her love affair with writing. Her father would send her away to high school later on, where she would continue to develop as a writer. When her family faced financial difficulty, they could no longer pay for her education. Unable to finish high school, she worked as a maid until she found the opportunity. At 26, she would lie on a high school application to receive free education and name 1901 as the year of her birth. In later years, she would continue citing this year as the time of her literary “birth.”
Two Careers | One Passion
In 1918, Zora Neale Hurston went to Howard University, where she would earn an Associate Degree. She continued her studies at Barnard and Columbia, where she would complete a Bachelor’s and continue on for Graduate studies. While there, she studied with notable anthropologists, Franz Boaz, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead.
While pursuing her studies in anthropology, she befriended Langston Hughes and other figures who would later rise to fame in the Harlem Renaissance. She also began publishing during this time. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Hurston made a name for herself in two fields. She worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration), traveled extensively in the Caribbean and South America, conducted research, and collected stories and folklore. Much of her anthropological work became source material for pieces she would later publish, such as Mules and Men and Tell My Horse. She even wrote her first three novels while conducting research in Haiti.
Despite a few decades of relative success, Hurston’s career began to decline. Grants and patronage funded much of her research and travel. By the 1950s, she was almost exclusively published in periodicals. In 1952, she reported on the Ruby McCollum case for the Pittsburgh Courier. Mrs. McCollum was a Black woman accused of murdering a town’s local doctor. The case attracted a great deal of notoriety, including the IRS and local gossip. In response, the judge barred press from the trial. Hurston lacked the financial ability to continue reporting on the case and shared her notes with famed journalist and novelist, William Bradford Huie, who would turn the story into a bestselling novel.
Even before then, her work did not elicit the same critical and public reception it currently enjoys. In the 1930s, Richard Wright, a more explicitly political writer, enjoyed more fame and critical favor. He was famously critical of Their Eyes Were Watching God, denouncing it as a thoughtless attempt at white acceptance. He wasn’t alone in his criticism, either. Given the history of blackface and dialect mockery, audiences of color were sensitive to works of fiction written so extensively in AAVE (African American Vernacular English.)
Concerns about her political investment in Black communities penetrated public consciousness as her personal politics seemed at odds with many of her peers in the Harlem Renaissance. Unlike Wright and Hughes, Hurston was a Republican who disagreed with many Communist and social programs that they supported. Further criticism extending beyond her racial and personal politics to her academic integrity also hurt her career. Even after her death, many authors and anthropologists have accused Hurston of plagiarism, sensationalism, and engaging in harmful stereotypes to further her career.
“We are in her debt.”
– Alice Walker about Zora Neale Hurston
In 1975, Ms. Magazine published an Alice Walker article entitled, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” Hurston had died in obscurity fifteen years prior, and the world had, more or less, forgotten her. Her work lingered in university collections for decades after the Harlem Renaissance. Despite her place as the most published woman of the Harlem Renaissance, no one really discussed her. In fact, Alice Walker studied under Langston Hughes in college, and she would later say she wished she could ask him why he didn’t tell her about Zora Neale Hurston. Hughes had even published a collection of short stories that included work by both Hurston and Walker. Years later, a neighbor would share a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God with Walker, which ignited a passion to revive popular interest in Hurston’s writing. In 1973, Walker bought a headstone for Hurston’s previously unmarked grave. It reads,
“Zora Neale Hurston, “A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH,” 1901-1960 ”
She reenvisioned Hurston, not as a self-hating conservative, but as someone “wildly in love with Black people”. She shared Hurston’s genius with the world and refused to allow us to turn our backs on one of the 20th century’s greatest talents. Her unique experience, her ear for our cadence, and her love of Blackness and independence enriched her work with a fiercely honest and determined depiction of Black people unrivaled by her peers and critics.