Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Everything You've ever wanted to know about Zora Neale Hurston

There is no wonder why Alice Walker went "in search of" Zora Neale Hurston some 15 years after her obscure death in 1960. Hurston was an interesting woman, often described as "weird" or "plain" and noted for her extensive hat collection.

Born in Notasulga, Florida in 1901, Hurston was the 5th of 8 children and spent her childhood in Eatonville, the setting for her famous "Eatonville Anthologies," and the first all-black town to be incorporated in the United States. She describes Eatonville as a place of freedom for African Americans, and a place where they were independent from the White society in which they were submerged and could live as they desired. After being sent to boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida, and subsequently being expelled for her inability to pay tuition, she temporarily worked as a maid before attending Morgan College in Baltimore. Though Hurston graduated from Barnard College, the all-women's college affiliated with Columbia University, in 1927, she originally started her college career at Howard, cofounding the students newspaper and becoming one of the original initiates of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority.

Education aside, Hurston was married twice: Once to Herbert Sheen, her former Howard classmate and a Jazz musician, and again to Albert Prince, a 23 year old who, at the time of her marriage, was 25 years younger than her. She was described as "odd" and dramatic, acting everything out and wearing frumpy clothing. Her students had no idea that she was famous, and noted her as the teacher who never got her hair done because she didn't have the funds. She later was involved in a sexual assault scandal in 1948, when she was accused of molesting an 10 year old boy, and though she was proven innocent, the scandal tarnished her reputation and ruined her personal life.

After the publishing of her major works, including "Their Eyes Were Watching God and "The Eatonville Anthologies," Hurston worked as a freelance writer, a substitute teacher, and a maid before dying of hypertensive heart disease and a stroke in 1960.

So, while Hurston was a gifted writer and is noted for her impressive personal life and overcoming many struggles as a female African American writer during the Harlem Renaissance, there is much more to her than meets the eye! Enjoy!


  1. She was such an interesting lady! This makes me want to read "Their Eyes Were Watching God" again! And see the movie!

  2. There are similarities between Zora Neale Hurston and Lucile Clifton but the strongest difference I noticed was the very different critical acclaim they received in their lifetime. I wonder why, how it affected their live, and how it affected their writing.

  3. "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston," Alice Walker's essay (originally published in Ms.), is impossible to find online. It's also only available through consortium loan here at GW, so linking to it is, well, impossible. However, this dodgy website appears to supply scans of an updated version of the piece, titled "Looking for Zora," that you might peruse.

    I think what we should keep in mind as we move forward are the matrilineal connections between some of these writers. Audre Lorde openly claims that poetry is a necessity for women. We might keep that argument in mind as we think about ZNH, who writes quite poetically, and about her importance to Alice Walker, who is a stylistic descendant of Hurston.

  4. I remember reading "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and seriously underappreciating it. I think I was just wearied by the heavily-feminist readings of my Junior year English course, but I remember it being an empowering work. What stuck out most was the Florida dialect, which was surprisingly easy to get used to. The move, however, was vapid and lifeless. Halle Berry can't act, and I don't care what that Oscar of hers says.

  5. This description of Hurston reminded me of what we read out of "The Etonville Anthology." It seriously sounds like Zora Neale Hurston could have been one of the characters in her own stories!