Woman Making History #47: Zora Neale Hurston


Zora Neale HurstonZora Neale Hurston's exact birth date and birthplace are reported differently depending on the source, as was the case when she was alive. The most common belief is that she was born in 1891 in Alabama, but moved to Florida at a young age and spent her childhood there. Her mother died when was 13, after which her father sent her away to a private school. She went to college at Howard University, studying anthropology, but did not graduate due to financial constraints. She was later offered a scholarship to Barnard College, and she graduated with a B.A. in anthropology in 1927. In the course of her studies, Hurston worked with noted anthropologist Franz Boas, as well as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.

Though she is best known by contemporary audiences for her fiction, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston's professional dedications were not only to fiction, but also to folklore, ethnography and dance. She wrote a book about folklore, Mules and Men (1935), and produced dance number for a Broadway play. In 1937, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Haiti and study Vodun (known commonly as voodoo), after which she wrote another non-fiction book, Tell My Horse (1938).

Politically, Hurston was more conservative than many of her contemporary authors and artists. She was a staunch anti-communist and supported Robert Taft's presidential bid in 1952. She also opposed the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and was generally detached from the Civil Rights Movement.

Hurston's relative obscurity during her lifetime can be attributed to any of several causes. Many prominent liberal thinkers objected to the "black" dialect she used for the characters in her books, saying it made them seem like caricatures (this very same dialect has been praised as "realistic" in more recent times). She was criticized by the black community for allowing her work to be supported by white patrons, and for writing about white characters in Seraph on the Suwanee (1948). Her conservative politics alienated her from fellow artists. Any or all of these factors may have come into play. Hurston died in Florida in 1960, penniless. Her grave was unmarked until Alice Walker and Charlotte Hunt discovered it in 1973, at which time her work experienced a renaissance

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