I guarantee that you likely heard of Zora Neale Hurston in a literature class in high school, probably as part of the unit for Black History Month, as she was a fixture in the literary scene during the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of her best known works, and it’s on plenty of reading lists everywhere. But how much do you really know about Zora Neale Hurston? She was, like so many others, multi-faceted and so much more than just a writer in the Harlem Renaissance.
A genius of the South, novelist, folklorist, anthropologist.
Inscription on the tombstone of Zora Neale Hurston, written by Alice Walker
Zora Neale Hurston was Actually 10 Years Older Than She Claimed
When Alice Walker finally found what is believed to be Zora Neale Hurston’s grave after a long search, she had a tombstone put in place to finally mark where her grave was. But the birth year that Walker put on the tombstone was 1901, off by about 10 years. Zora Neale Hurston was actually born in 1891, but when her mother died in 1904 she was forced to leave school by her father.
She was unable to rejoin public school until she was 26, where she took ten years off her age to qualify for free school and finally finish high school. This would not be the last time she would lie about her age, either. When she married her second husband, she took another 19 years off her life to be closer in age to him since he was 25 years her junior. Apparently she was pretty well known for just making stuff up about her life along the way. She was a storyteller, though, that’s her prerogative.
She Was Barnard University’s First Black Graduate
Zora Neale Hurston started college in 1921 at Howard University, before going to Barnard College in 1925. She was poached from the literature department by the anthropologist Franz Boas (AKA the Father of American Anthropology. He’s kind of a big deal). At Barnard, Hurston rubbed elbows with a number of notable anthropologists like Margaret Mead, but every single person she worked alongside was white. Hurston was the only Black student the entire time she attended, and she would become the college’s first Black graduate in 1928.
Hurston and Langston Hughes Had A Love/Hate Relationship
Both Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were active during the Harlem Renaissance, and in fact were some of the founding members of the Fire!! literary magazine. But they had opposing views when it came to representing the Black community. Hurston was folksy, focusing on Southern Blacks and their vernacular. Langston Hughes was the urbane poet type. They officially came to a clash when they decided to write the play Mule Bone together. They wrote parts of it together, but also wrote parts separately, and both considered the play to be their own brainchild. They both tried to get their versions copyrighted, which then led to a messy court case over infringement, and ended up ending their friendship. Mule Bone didn’t end up getting staged until 1991, well after the deaths of both its authors.
She Was Once the Assistant to Fannie Hurst
Yes, Imitation of Life Fannie Hurst. They met at the 1925 Opportunity Magazine awards, where Hurst presented Hurston with prizes for her poems “Color Struck” and “Spunk.” Their friendship blossomed from there. Hurston worked for Hurst through college to help cover expenses (an experience most of us can relate to) and met more than a few well known names of the time through Hurst, including the founder of Barnard College. Their partnership caused a fair amount of controversy, though — Hurst was a white Jewish woman and Hurston Black, and while both of them could bond over their marginalized identities, at first glance seeing a white woman walk around and, most of all, be friendly towards a Black woman in the 1920s was not the most popular thing out there.
Despite Her Popularity Now, Zora Neale Hurston Was Regularly Criticized By Her Contemporaries And Not Viewed As A Major Writer
Zora Neale Hurston just wasn’t that popular with many of her contemporaries, mostly due to the way she represented the Black community. Hurston’s literary works and scholarship focused on the folklore and lifestyle of Blacks in the American South and in the Caribbean, writing in a way that mimicked the way they spoke. She was doing what a good anthropologist does and represented her subjects in the most accurate way she could. But this upset her Black contemporaries, many of them viewing her work as setting the Black community back, confirming the stereotype that Black individuals are not nearly as intellectual as their white counterparts. Her most popular book today, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was once called by Richard Wright (and I’m paraphrasing) the literary equivalent of a minstrel show, deeming her writing style a “minstrel technique” with no great message, written to satisfy a white audience.
“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. […] No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road
Her Most Recent Book Was Actually Published Last Year, 61 Years After Her Death
Due to Hurston not making much from her writing, there were quite a few unpublished manuscripts left over after she died. In 2018, her interview with Cudjoe Lewis, the last known slave to be brought illegally to the United States in 1860, was published under the title Barracoon. Most recently, in 2020, Hitting A Straight Lick With A Crooked Stick, a collection of her short stories from the Harlem Renaissance, was published, and works that went out of print during her lifetime are regularly being entered back into recirculation. She may have not been popular during her life time, but thanks to the efforts of people like Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston is having her time in the light now.
It’s Not Uncommon to Hear Hurston Called “America’s Favorite Black Conservative”
Far be it to assign labels to historic figures who are dead and gone, as they can no longer speak for themselves and definitions change over time, but it’s likely if Hurston was alive today, she would consider herself a libertarian. Not capital L Libertarian, but more someone that ascribes to the ideology of not relying on the state to provide for you.
She was famously outspoken against the New Deal as she believed that it would cause the Black community to become too dependent on the government, a government that many rightfully did not trust. She tended to ascribe to Booker T. Washington’s self-help politics and was very non-interventionist when it came to foreign policy. She was even against Brown vs. Board of Education, truly believing that the separate schools were equal and there was no reason to integrate them. She was also concerned about the potential of integration slowly removing Black cultural traditions that can be passed on via Black teachers. And her concerns were reasonable, for the time, but I can also see the Twitter fights she would start if she were alive today.
So there you have it. Some facts about Zora Neale Hurston that may have not made it into the class time dedicated to her, and maybe some facts that people would rather ignore. If you need some more information on her, maybe a more in-depth look into her life and works (and Alice Walker’s search for her grave) you can check out my piece on her here. Or if you’re looking for some facts on other Black authors for Black History Month, you can check out this article on Ralph Ellison.