On this day in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston, novelist and folklorist, is born in Eatonville, Fla. Although at the time of her death in 1960, Hurston had published more books than any other black woman in America, she was unable to capture a mainstream audience in her lifetime, and she died poor and alone in a welfare hotel. Today, she is seen as one of the most important dark writers in American history.
Eatonville, Fla., was an all-black town when Hurston was born. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Hurston experienced little contact with white people until her mother’s loss of life, when Hurston was 11. Until her teens, Hurston was largely sheltered from racism. A talented, energetic young women with a powerful desire to learn, she didn’t finish high school but prepared herself for college and excelled at Howard University. In 1925, she moved to New York, where the girl became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. High-spirited, outgoing, and witty, the lady started to be famous for her storytelling talents. She studied anthropology with a prominent professor at Barnard and received a fellowship to collect oral histories and folklore in her home state. She also analyzed voodoo in Haiti.
In 1931, she collaborated with Langston Hughes on the play “Mule Bone”. Her first novel, “Jonah’s Gourd Vine”, featuring a central character based on her father, was published in 1934. “Mules and Men”, a collection of material from her research in dental folk traditions, was released in 1935 and became her bestselling work during her lifetime-but even so, it earned her only $943. 75. In 1937, she published “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, the story of a black female looking for love and happiness in the South. The book was criticized at the time, especially by black male authors, who condemned Hurston for not taking a political stand and demonstrating the ill effects of racism. Instead, the novel, now considered her masterwork, celebrated the rich tradition of the rural dark-colored South. Hurston’s function remained uplifting and joyful despite her financial struggles. She published a memoir, “Dust Tracks on a Road”, in 1942. Hurston worked on and off as a maid near the end of her life, and she died in poverty in 1960. In the 1970s, her job, almost forgotten, was revived by feminist and black-studies scholars, and an anthology, “I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…And Then Again Once I Am Looking Mean and Impressive”, was posted in 1979.