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Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston went to college and pursued an education in anthropology at a time when very few Black women did the same. She was a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance and inspired an entire generation of Black writers when her works made a resurgence in the late 20th century

Zora Neale Hurston Biography

Zora Neale Hurston Biography Photograph of Zora Neale Hurston StudySmarterPhotograph of Zora Neale Hurston, commons.wikimedia.org

Zora Neale Hurston Biography: Early Life

Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama to formerly enslaved parents John Hurston and Lucy Potts Hurston. While still a toddler, the family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the place Zora Neale Hurston called home. Eatonville was a very unique town. Formed in 1887, it was America’s first all-Black incorporated township.

Surrounded by Black role models, Zora Neale Hurston did not grow up in a racist environment that made her feel inferior. Her father was a preacher and served as the town’s mayor for multiple terms. Her mother was a schoolteacher who helped run Sunday school at the Church. The family lived in a large house with several acres of land.

Zora Neale Hurston’s life took a turn for the worse when her mother died in 1904. Her father quickly remarried and was no longer interested in caring for or supporting Zora Neale Hurston and her seven siblings. Hurston took up a series of odd jobs to support herself while she attempted to finish her schooling. Eventually, she left Eatonville without finishing high school to join a traveling opera troupe as a maid.

Zora Neale Hurston Biography: Education and the Harlem Renaissance

In 1917, Zora Neale Hurston landed in Baltimore where she attended Morgan Academy to finish her high school education. She spent the summer working, before attending Howard Prep School in Washington D.C. in 1918. The next year, she began her college career at Howard University. While there, she published her first short story, “John Redding Goes to Sea” in the campus literary magazine and earned her associate degree.

Morgan Academy would not accept a pupil of her age, so she took 10 years off her age, claiming to be 16. She would abide by this new age for the rest of her life.

In 1924, Opportunity magazine published Zora Neale Hurston’s second short story, “Drenched in Light,” and in 1925, they awarded her second place in two different literary competitions for her short story, “Spunk,” and her play, Color Struck. The same year, she received a scholarship to Barnard College, which took her to Harlem, New York City. She was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.

The Harlem Renaissance

a cultural movement based in the city of Harlem during the 1920s that celebrated Black heritage, music, art, and literature

Zora Neale Hurston Biography: Studies in Folklore

Zora Neale Hurston graduated from Barnard College in 1928 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. She pursued a graduate degree at Columbia University but never finished. Instead, she focused on field studies in folklore that took her across the South under the patronage of Charlotte Mason. In 1931, Hurston and Mason went separate ways and Hurston began work on her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, published in 1933.

‘You mean uh whole town uh nothin' but colored folks? Who bosses it, den?’

‘Dey bosses it deyself.’

‘You mean dey runnin' de town 'thout de white folks?’

‘Sho is. Eben got a mayor and corporation.’

‘Ah sho wants tuh see dat sight.’”

- Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1933

Zora Neale Hurston received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1936 and used the funding to visit both Jamaica and Haiti to study their folklore. While in Haiti, she began work on her most popular novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. Although we now remember Zora Neale Hurston for her novels and short stories rich with folklore, she published a variety of non-fiction works based on her studies as well.

Zora Neale Hurston Biography: Later Life

In 1942, Zora Neale Hurston published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road, followed by her last novel Seraph on the Suwanee in 1948. She spent her later years pursuing her interest in theater and working a variety of jobs, such as a substitute teacher and a librarian, to support herself as she never received proper payment for her works. Although she had shown early promise in her career, her works were not instant classics and were largely forgotten by her death. She passed away penniless from heart disease on January 28th, 1960.

Because Zora Neale Hurston died without money, she was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1972, writer Alice Walker found Hurston’s grave and placed a headstone for her. Alice Walker’s search sparked a revived interest in Hurston’s writings in the late 20th century.

Zora Neale Hurston's Books and Quotes

Throughout her life, Zora Neale Hurston wrote short stories, essays, poems, books on folklore, and plays, but today we remember her for her four novels:

  • Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934)

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

  • Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939)

  • Seraph of the Suwanee (1948)

Zora Neale Hurston’s writings focused on the African American experience in the South and pulled on her knowledge of folklore. She often used the vernacular dialect to give her works authenticity as exemplified here:

“‘Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves.’” - Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937

She focused on the themes such as:

  • Race and racial discrimination

  • Gender roles and relations

  • Influence of Black folklore

  • Love versus independence

We can see her opinion on gender roles very clearly in her first novel:

'Jes' 'cause women folks ain't got no big muscled arm and fistes like jugs, folks claim they's weak vessels, but dass uh lie.’” - Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1933

Zora Neale Hurston’s Beliefs on Segregation

But what about Zora Neale Hurston’s beliefs on race and racial discrimination? Zora Neale Hurston was unique among other black writers in that she supported segregation. This could be due to her idyllic childhood in an all-Black town and/or her pride in Black culture and folklore. Regardless, when Brown v Board of Education made segregation illegal in 1954, Zora Neale Hurston spoke out against it.

Zora Neale Hurston - Key takeaways

  • Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7th, 1891, and called Eatonville, Florida (an all-Black town) her home. She had an idyllic childhood until her mother died and her father remarried.
  • She had to work to support herself and did not finish high school. Working as a maid for a traveling opera troupe, she ended up in Baltimore in 1917 where she finished high school at Morgan Academy.
  • In 1919, she began college at Howard University where she earned her associate degree and had her first short story published in the campus literary magazine.
  • After Opportunity magazine recognized her work, Hurston received a scholarship from Barnard College where she earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology. While there, she became involved in the Harlem Renaissance.
  • Hurston completed field studies in black folklore in the South, Haiti, and Jamaica. She used her knowledge of folklore and the vernacular dialect to give authenticity to her novels. The themes she covered include:
    • race and racial discrimination
    • gender roles and relations
    • influence of black folklore
    • love versus independence
  • Hurston was unique among other Black writers in her support of segregation.

Frequently Asked Questions about Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston moved to Eatonville, Florida as a young girl.

Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida.

Zora Neale Hurston was a writer, folklorist, and central figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

Zora Neale Hurst believed that slavery was a thing of the past and that it was important to move forward and be successful in spite of it. 

Zora Neal Hurston is famous for her novels, (particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God), her work in African-American folklore, and her part in the Harlem Renaissance. 

Final Zora Neale Hurston Quiz

Question

When was Zora Neale Hurston born?

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Answer

1891

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Which town did Zora Neale Hurston call home?

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Answer

Eatonville, Florida

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What happened after Zora Neale Hurston's mom died?

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Answer

Her father remarried and left Zora Neale Hurston to fend for herself.

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Which magazine recognized Zora Neale Hurston and propelled her into the public eye?

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Answer

Opportunity 

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Where did Zora Neale Hurston earn her bachelor's degree?

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Answer

Barnard College

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What movement was Zora Neale Hurston a part of in the 1920s?

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Answer

The Harlem Renaissance

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Which place did Zora Neale Hurston not visit?

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Answer

West Africa

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What did Zora Neale Hurston get her bachelor's degree in?

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anthropology

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Which is not one of the main themes of Zora Neale Hurston's works?

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Answer

the impact of war

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Zora Neale Hurston supported segregation.

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True

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What was unique about the language in Zora Neale Hurston's works?

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Answer

She used the vernacular dialect for her characters. 

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