Those who study African-American folk culture owe a debt of gratitude to the work of Zora Neale Hurston. This paragon of American literature was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, to a family comprised of a Baptist preacher and a schoolteacher.
She began her university career at Howard University, playing a major role in the foundation of the student newspaper and a sorority. After earning an associate’s degree from Howard, she received a scholarship to attend Barnard College, where she conducted groundbreaking ethnographic research under the tutelage of Franz Boas, of Columbia University.
Hurston traveled extensively throughout the South and the Caribbean, archiving folktales, studying the lives of various masses of black people, and writing books such as Mules and Men (1935) and her master work, Their Eyes were Watching God (1937).
Her stories tell the tales of average working people in the South. They represent a break from the tradition of other writers of the Harlem Renaissance in that they represented the dialect that various black people actually used at the time in the places where the stories were set; her stories didn’t necessarily have the class/political nature of writers such as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and other contemporaries.
Many of her peers considered her writing designed to appeal to the sensibilities of white chauvinists, and criticized her unjustly and unfairly. Hurston died in a welfare home in 1960, deeply beset by financial and medical issues. Her work slid into relative obscurity until rediscovered by Alice Walker in the 1970s, who placed a marker lauding her literary achievements over her grave. Since then, her work has flourished and has received the recognition denied it in past decades. Hurston is now read widely in high school and college classrooms and lecture halls across the nation.
Archaeology of a Classic: Celebrating Zora Neale Huston ’28
Finding a World that I Thought Was Lost: Zora Neale Hurston and the People She Looked at Very Hard and Loved Very Much
Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive