Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) is best known for her 1937 novel ”Their Eyes Were Watching God,” but she wrote more than 50 short stories, plays, and essays. Let’s take a close look at the life of the beloved, fearless, Southern writer.

Home

Though she was born in Alabama, Hurston often thought of the town of Eatonville, Florida as her true home and sometimes claimed it as her birthplace. Her family moved to Eatonville when she was three years old. Making her own decision as to where she was ‘born,’ was is just one facet of Hurston’s rebellious spirit.

Eatonville is known for being one of the first all-black towns to be incorporated, which happened in 1887. Though she was living in an era of strict racial codes, Hurston’s childhood was rich with the evidence of black success. In Eatonville, located just outside of Orlando, Hurston saw black men and women running a town. In 1897, Hurston’s father was elected mayor, and in 1902 he became preacher of the town’s largest Baptist church.

The town served as the setting for much of Hurston’s writing, specifically her widely anthologized 1928 essay, How It Feels to Be Colored Me. Hurston describes the town as, ‘a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse.’

A Literary Education

During her childhood in Eatonville, Hurston was introduced to literature. She describes this as a kind of ‘birth.’ For the most part, Hurston had a happy childhood. Though her father tried to control her free spirit, her mother encouraged it. Her mother told Hurston and her seven siblings to ‘jump at the sun.’

After Hurston’s mother died in 1904, however, Hurston was shipped to a boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida by her father and stepmother. When they stopped paying her tuition, Hurston was expelled and began work as a maid. At 26, Hurston still hadn’t finished high school, but far be it from the scrappy and tenacious Hurston to be stopped by rules. She lied and said she was 16 so she could qualify for free public schooling. Years later, she would write in a letter to Countee Cullen, another Harlem Renaissance writer, ‘I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.’   

An Artistic Rebirth

With a career spanning 30 years, Hurston wrote novels, short stories, essays, articles, and plays. In addition to her dazzling character and can-do spirit, she was a successful and significant black woman writer throughout the first half of the 20th century. Hurston was also a folklorist and anthropologist. The 1920s, when Hurston was writing, was a vibrant time, with the literature world reeling from a movement called The Harlem Renaissance. Known as the New Negro Movement at the time, the movement was a rebirth for African American arts, and Hurston played a major role within it.

Hurston was the type of writer and figure that never stopped. She was always moving, searching, working, and questioning. She had an enormous sense of humor and an ability to charm people who weren’t expecting it. Hurston did not drink much alcohol, but fellow writers recall her by saying ‘When Zora was there, she was the party.’

Genius of the South

The apartment Hurston lived in, which was often the scene of a lively, literary function, was furnished by donation, perhaps because she never received much financial reward for her literary works. Her largest royalty ever received was $943.75. Considering the great depth and intellect of her work and life, this is hard to imagine.

When Hurston was a student at Howard University, she was an early member of Zeta Phi Beta, the historically black sorority founded on the belief that the concerns plaguing our culture, like prejudice and poverty, should be more important than socializing and college life. She also co-founded The Hilltop, the student newspaper.

Hurston was later offered a scholarship to attend Barnard College, Columbia University, where she was the only black student in the entire school. It is here that Hurston received her B.A. in anthropology. She traveled all over the Caribbean and the American South for her anthropological research, which inspired her 1935 work, Mules and Men. She traveled, worked, and wrote in many different areas, including Jamaica, Haiti, and Honduras. Hurston was endlessly curious about the living rituals of different cultures and sought to give a voice to the unheard. She once said, ‘Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with purpose.’

Late Life

Later Hurston established a school of dramatic arts at Bethune-Cookman University. She also taught on the faculty for the North Carolina College for Negroes, which is now North Carolina Central University. Nearing the end of her life, she moved from job to job, working as a freelance writer, substitute teacher, and a maid. For a time she worked at the Pan American World Airways Technical Library, but was fired for being ‘too well educated.’

Hurston died of a stroke in 1960 at the St. Lucie County Welfare Home, and her remains were put in an unmarked grave. In 1973, novelist Alice Walker found what she believed to be Hurston’s grave and marked it with a stone. The epitaph reads ‘Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.’

Lesson Summary

Zora Neale Hurston was a prominent writer of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary movement that focused on African American art and spanned the 1920s. Hurston wrote novels, short stories, plays, essays, and articles, and was also an anthropologist and folklorist. She is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Even though she was born in Alabama, Hurston considered Eatonville, Florida her true home, and wrote of it often. She was known for her tenacious spirit, depth of knowledge, sense of humor, charm, and literary success.