Born this day in 1891: Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), acclaimed novelist and an anthropologist, known for her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance and African American and Caribbean folklore
Hurston was born in Alabama, but grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated African American town in the United States. She earned an associate’s degree at Howard University in 1924, then entered Barnard College on a scholarship in 1925. There she studied under anthropologist Franz Boas, graduating in 1928. She spent two more years studying anthropology at Columbia University at the graduate level. She also began writing plays and stories at this time, becoming a leading literary figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
Between 1927 and 1931 she collected folklore in the South and the Caribbean under a private grant. In 1936 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for further study in the Caribbean. Her study of folklore, including her study of and initiation into voodoo, informed much of her writing during the 1930s and 1940s.
Hurston’s most acclaimed novel is There Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Like much of her work, it was noted for its unsentimental portrayal of African Americans, strong female characters, use of dialect, and unapologetic embracing of African American culture. Her other major works include Mules and Men (1935), Tell My Horse (1938), Moses: Man of the Mountain (1939), and her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942).
Hurston was often a controversial figure, criticized for her individualism and lack of adherence to anyone’s orthodoxy about how she should relate to race. In the late 1940s the publishing world began to sour on her work, and a stroke in 1959 left her in ill health. She died in poverty and relative obscurity in 1960. Alice Walker, among many prominent writers who cite Hurston as a key influence, resurrected interest in Hurston with a 1975 article in Ms., “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” Hurston’s rediscovery has won her new acclaim and deeper understanding of her work and has placed her among the most important literary figures of the 20th century.
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