UPDATED: 9:45 a.m. ET, Jan. 7, 2022 —
Writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most outstanding authors that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance, would have celebrated her 131th birthday today if she were still alive.
Over the course of four novels, an autobiography and dozens of published writings, Hurston has been an inspiration for distinguished writers, such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison and countless others.
Hurston was the fifth of eight children born to her parents, John and Lucy Ann, in the small town of Notasulga in Alabama. The family uprooted when she was just a toddler, making their new home in Eatonville, Florida. Her father, a preacher, would become mayor of the town, which was one of the first all-Black incorporated cities in the United States. After the death of her school teacher mother in 1904, her father remarried and she was sent to boarding school in nearby Jacksonville. Hurston was later expelled after her father stopped paying the tuition.
Hurston worked as a maid for a short while before attending classes at Morgan Academy, the high school division of Morgan State University (then Morgan College) in 1917. Although she was 26 years old at the time, she put her birth year as 1901. She graduated from the academy in 1918, heading to Howard University shortly after. Along with joining the Zeta Phi Beta society, she also helped create the school’s newspaper, The Hilltop.
After obtaining her Associate’s degree in 1920, she would pen her first short story, “John Redding Goes To Sea,” in 1921. The story gained her entry in to the first African-American Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke’s exclusive literary club. Once Hurston left Howard in 1924, the following year she was offered a scholarship to New York’s Barnard College as its sole Black student. She would graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1928 and studied under Franz Boas, considered a leading pioneer in modern anthropology.
Hurston would find growing literary fame in the late ‘30s and ‘40s, after a pair of failed marriages. Her most-notable novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” was released in 1937. Based on her anthropological studies in the Caribbean, she released the book “Tell My Horse,” which focused on the voodoo practices of the islands, afterward.
The year 1939 would see the release of another popular novel, “Moses, Man Of The Mountain,” but it wasn’t until her 1942 autobiography, “Dust Tracks On A Road,” that she finally became a household name.
Although she had plenty of famous friends, Hurston did not reap the financial benefits of her own fame. She reportedly reached out to W.E.B. Du Bois, suggesting that a 100-acre plot of land serve as a cemetery for Black celebrities. Du Bois shunned the idea.
With little money and living at the St. Lucie County Welfare Home, Hurston suffered a stroke and later died of heart disease on January 28, 1960. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida.
Compelled to honor a writer that inspired her own work, Alice Walker would venture to the gravesite to give Hurston a proper headstone in 1973.
Hurston’s legacy lives on via her written work, including two compiled collections of her research writings and essays. In the town of Eatonville, there is an annual arts festival held in the writer’s honor, and in 2004, the Zora Neale Hurston library was opened.
Zora Neale Hurston’s contributions in both the realms of writing and research of African culture should not go uncounted.
As she wrote to fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Countee Cullen in a letter, “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.”
Amen to that.
Happy Birthday and a restful peace to Zora Neale Hurston.
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