Notes Concerning the Writer and the Subject
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was perhaps the outstanding Southern African-American writer of the prime of her life, the 1920’s and 1930’s. She was a noted literary contributor, flourishing in the “New Negro Movement,” which characterized those two decades. She traveled widely and wrote many novels and stories. She was notable as a folklorist and anthropologist as well as a creative writer.
Born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama into a solid family of eight children. Her father John Hurston was a “Baptist preacher, tenant farmer and carpenter and her mother was a school teacher.” Her grandfather was also a Baptist preacher. At the age of 3 the family moved to Eatonville, Florida, “one of the first all-black towns to be incorporated in the United States.” There she grew up and there her father was, for a time, mayor.
Hurston attended Howard University from 1918 to 1924, then moved to Barnard College, Columbia University, receiving a B. A. degree in anthropology in 1927, at the age of 36, and did graduate work there for two more years. She married twice, but neither lasted.
Hurston traveled extensively in the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research. Her work in the South, sponsored from 1928 to 1932 by a wealthy philanthropist, produced Mules and Men in 1935, often regarded as a folklore classic, as well as the base material for novels like Jonah’s Gourd Vine published in 1934.
In 1936 and 1937, she traveled to Jamaica and to Haiti with support from the Guggenheim Foundation from which her anthropological work Tell My Horse, published in 1938, emerged.
By the end of the Great Depression and the dawn of World War II, Hurston’s popularity and critical recognition faded. By 1940 she was almost 50 years old, American literary focus was abruptly redirected toward the arms buildup and the fighting and, following victory, was redirected toward the emerging school integration and Civil Rights movements. The 20-year era of the “New Negro Movement” had passed, and her career had passed with it. Her autobiography, published in 1942, presents her life up to the close of her important contributions to African American literature and philosophy.
Sadly, Zora Neale Hurston, so important in the 1930’s, entering old age without a husband or children, suffered poverty during the 1950’s and died in early 1960 in Florida at the St. Lucie County Welfare Home at the age of 69 years.
It seems that politically, Hurston was on the wrong side of political correctness as it was congealing during the 1950’s, and she had lost the ability to be influential. Of the 1954 school integration ruling she complained, that “educating black students in physical proximity to white students would not result in better education for either race and she worried about the demise of black schools and black teachers as a way to pass on cultural tradition to future generations of African Americans. In a 1955 editorial she expressed a fear that “the Supreme Court’s ruling could become a precedent for an all-powerful Federal Government to undermine individual liberty on a broad range of issues in the future. She was also opposed to the idea of preferential treatment of African Americans. Of that position, one can see a parallel to the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, who admonished that society judge people by their “character,” not by the color of their skin. Good and admirable character was important to Hurston. She only desired to see a level playing field upon which Americans of every race might compete without artificial preference:
“If I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.”
Hurston’s important novels and non-fiction books are:
Availability of Hurston Books
Reprints of Hurston books are readily available. We suggest Amazon. Kindle e-book versions are also available for some. You can also obtain narrated versions of some of Hurston’s books, such as Mules and Men. Go to audible.com.
CNW and HRW
Note, much of the content of this review was pulled from Wikipedia and the Society is thankful of this resource.