THE STORYTELLER: Zora Neale Hurston

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Black culture is rich in artifacts, customs and symbols — all of which have been widely imitated in the American mainstream. Author Zora Neale Hurston showed an active interest in the folklore of African-American life. As one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston chronicled the Black experience in unique detail, and in some ways made it possible for someone generations of Black readers to learn our people’s history.

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama at the turn of the 20th century. Hurston gave different birth dates throughout her life. That willingness to tell an embellished tale is one of Hurston’s remarkable eccentricities. She was raised in Eatonville, Florida, one of the few all-Black towns with its own government and sustainable economy. When Hurston’s father moved daughter and wife Lucie Potts to the area, he embedded them in the Southern tradition in ways that would affect Hurston’s work immensely. She set several of her novels and stories in parallel worlds with signifying memes like the front porch and the stubborn mule representing the ideals of her childhood. Hurston first studied at Howard University, publishing her first short stories and plays in the college’s literary magazine, Stylus.

Moving to Harlem, Hurston started the literary magazine, “Fire,” with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. Hurston won a scholarship to Barnard College for her writing, and it was her work with Franz Boas at Barnard that introduced her into the anthropological framework that characterized her worldview. Although critics sometimes charge her with creating trite early work, she had a style all her own. Hurston was a maker of Black mythology and, in this way, influenced future Black female authors, like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and others, to stray from convention to find unmatched techniques. Langston Hughes and other male writers of the vanguard pushed Hurston to create outside of her patterned work, but she consistently defied any predetermined notions of good literature. Her best known work is the 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” heralded as one of the great works of all American fiction.

When Alice Walker led a revival movement for her work in the 1970s, she pointed to Hurston’s style as her main strength, and to her folklore as the continuation of a separate tradition for African-Americans. After falling out of the literary world’s graces, Hurston continued to write, but much of her work went unpublished. Though in 1960 she died a poor woman, buried in an unmarked grave, Zora Neale Hurston paved an unlikely way for Black writers after her.

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