Zora Neale Hurston is often cited as one of the most influential African American writers of the 20th century. She celebrated black culture through her novels and became a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Her novels, including ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’, offer a fascinating insight into African American culture.
Born on 7 January 1891, Zora moved to Eatonville - the first integrated black township - at an early age. Her father was a Baptist and mayor of the town, and her mother was a school teacher.
Zora was torn apart by the death of her mother in 1904. She had always encouraged Zora to aim high and “jump at the sun”. Her father remarried shortly after his wife’s death. Zora’s stepmother rejected the children and, at the age of 16, Zora left the family home to become a maid to a travelling actress.
Determined to better herself, Zora continued her education. She graduated from Morgan Academy in Baltimore in 1918, before winning a scholarship to study at Howard University in Washington D.C. During her time as a student she started to write for university publications. In 1921 she published her first short story, “John Redding Goes to Sea”, in Howard’s literary magazine.
Hurston enrolled at Barnard College in New York in 1929. She studied Anthropology with scholar Franz Boas. After graduating, Hurston’s reputation as a writer grew and she was sponsored by rich New York patrons.
She became an influential part of the Harlem Renaissance. This movement celebrated black culture, literature and music. Fellow writers admired Zora for her wit, irreverence and folk writing style.
Hurston’s found huge success as a writer in the 1930s and 1940s. The white population toasted Hurston’s achievements when she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work. Ironically, over time the black community became less supportive of her writings. Some felt that her use of dialect and idiomatic language turned her black characters into caricatures.
Hurston’s career took a nose dive in 1948, when she was falsely accused of molesting a 10-year-old boy. From this point forward she struggled to make a living as a freelance writer, then later as a substitute teacher and maid.
In 1959, Zora Hurston had a fatal stroke and was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida.
See also: Julian Bond
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