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The Science Survey

Past, Present, and Future: The Life and Legacy of Zora Neale Hurston

‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is an absolute classic of American literature, an oft taught book in English classes throughout the country. Yet, how much do you know about Zora Neale Hurston, the woman who wrote it?
Here is a photo of Zora Neale Hurston taken in 1930. Hurston is considered one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance. (Photo Credit: https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/17243, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Here is a photo of Zora Neale Hurston taken in 1930. Hurston is considered one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance. (Photo Credit: https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/17243, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was August 15th, 1973, and it was hot. Not fever hot, or arid desert hot. But still, hot. A murky, moist hot engulfed the landscape, from the mangroves and the sand, to the scrub pine and most importantly, the five lakes scattered across the area of Sanford, Florida, according to Alice Walker in her article entitled ‘In Search of Zora.’ 

Sanford, located in Orange County, Central Florida, was known for its elegant storefronts and towering oaks. But why was Alice Walker in Sanford? Sightseeing? Walking the streets of some foreign locale to take in the beauty of the town? 

No. In fact, the beauty of Sanford was perhaps the last thing on her mind as Walker’s plane touched the terminal and she ushered herself into the “tacky but air conditioned” airport, as she described it. 

Alice Walker, accompanied by graduate student Charlotte Hunt, promptly left the airport and traveled 20 minutes down the expressway before their arrival at a town which, whether you know it or not, has been talked about at length in English classes across America. 

It is home to a woman dubbed “the genius of the South,” whose books have been heralded as American classics, and whose anthropological discoveries shook up the very foundations of the field. This town is Eatonville, home to the one and only Zora Neale Hurston. 

We don’t know much about Hurston, at least nothing concrete. Accounts of the time given about Hurston always seem to contradict each other. Her personality was described as being both boisterous and eccentric in one story, but alternatively quiet and reclusive in another. Even her appearance was up to interpretation: accounts from her friend and employer, fellow author Fanny Hurst, described her as “tall and big-boned,” while an account from Theodore Pratt, writer for the Florida Historical Society, describes her as “short and squat.” 

During her lifetime, her novels inspired both awe and disgust. One day, her books would be reviewed positively, receiving the utmost praise and literary love; the next day, a review would come out condemning them, lambasting her use of dialect or the topics she touched upon. Her persona was something critics took offense to.  In almost every review of her work published during this time, reviewers would embed subtle (and not so subtle) remarks about her conduct, rifling through their stories about Hurston to make some point about how “uncouth” she was. 

Hurston’s work very much went against societal norms at the time, and in a way, her work was shaped by them. She was born in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891, but her family immediately moved to Eatonville after her birth, which Zora considered to be her home. 

Eatonville was a town unlike any other at the time, as it was one of the first all-black towns to be established in the country. In the fallout of the Civil War, states throughout the U.S. imposed segregation, separating black people from white people in the workforce, school, and even at leisurely locations such as the beach. In the South, this was first formally enforced through Black Codes immediately following the Civil War. In an attempt to severely limit the prospects of newly freed black Americans and confine them to sharecropping, before the Jim Crow laws were passed in the 1870s, this effectively banned black people from existing in the same places as white people. 

Eatonville was founded in 1887, and is the oldest African American municipality in the U.S. The town was run entirely by African Americans, and made up primarily of former slaves. Hurston’s father was the town’s mayor three separate times, and even helped pass some laws that are still in effect today in Eatonville. Hurston’s upbringing in a town where black people had autonomy over how it was run and free from the worst of segregations burdens undoubtedly had an effect on her perception in the world, and shaped her fictional tastes as well. 

Hurston’s mother was a Sunday school teacher, and by all accounts the two were rather close. Her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, encouraged Hurston’s love for all things creative. She fostered Zora’s passion for writing, and encouraged her to be independent. She wanted all her kids to “jump at de sun,” and encouraged them to work towards their dreams. 

In 1904, when Hurston was 13 years old, her mother died. She was distraught, left alone at a young age in a home where she wasn’t quite liked. Her father had always disapproved of her, and favored her older sister Sarah over her. Lucy’s funeral was one of the last places where all of the family members were together, as two weeks later, Zora’s bags were packed and she was sent off to her relative’s house. 

Over the next few years, Zora floated from relative to relative, only settling in one place for a few months before being passed off to the next person. Hurston refers to this period as the “haunted years,” given how traumatic they were for her. During this period of her life, Hurston had to pause her high school education and take on a job as a maid. She moved to Jacksonville to live with her siblings, and as her father would sometimes skimp out on paying her tuition for high school, she ended up missing much of her education in exchange for a job. 

After four years, Zora moved to Nashville, Tennessee with her brother, Robert. He was now a practicing physician, and invited Zora to help tend to his kids. At some point, Zora had a fight with her brother over whether she was allowed to finish her schooling; her brother disputed her desires, calling her desire to continue schooling “frivolous,” and actively discouraged her against attending. Zora ran off, and signed on to the Gilbert and Sullivan theater troupe as a maid for their headline singer, Miss M. During her time in the troupe, Zora would fall in love with the realm of drama, and seriously considered becoming a dramatist. 

This all changed when she caught a nasty bout of appendicitis, and as a result had to leave the troupe. She moved back in with her sister, this time in Baltimore, where she slowly recovered and began to return back to her normal life. She enrolled in Morgan Academy, but there was a problem: in order to gain free tuition, she had to be under the age of 18. Zora, in fact, was not under 18 years old; she was in her mid twenties. Lying to admissions officers, she pretended to be born in 1901, a lie she would keep up until her untimely death. 

Fast forward a few years, and she graduated from Morgan Academy in 1918, before attending Howard University. She originally doubted herself, unable to fathom how she had gotten into Howard. In fact, she even stated herself how confused she was, and thought herself unworthy to attend. However, once she made it to Howard, she left a lasting impression on the campus, and was shaped into the woman we all know of today. 

In the late 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston moved into Belle Grade, Florida, and could often be found socializing with her neighbors. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Majoring in anthropology, she focused on Black American culture, specifically that in the South. With fellow anthropologist Eugene King, she started The Hilltop, Howard’s student newspaper, which still runs to this day. In 1921, Zora published her first piece, a short story entitled John Redding Goes To Sea

The story centered around a young man, John Redding, and the fight between his desire to leave home and traverse the world and his duties at home. It functions as both a critique of the family unit, while simultaneously reflecting on the importance of community. The narrative also established some of the central aspects to her writing: mainly, her use of dialect. 

Zora’s use of dialect was a controversial aspect of her writing, hotly debated upon by members of the Harlem Renaissance. To some, it was derogatory, a play out of the tired old stereotypes that popped up again and again. According to Richard Wright, a prominent writer during the Harlem Renaissance and author of Native Son, Hurston’s audience wasn’t the African American community to which she centered the majority of her novels; instead it was “to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.”  

When talking about her use of dialect in her books, a main theme that props up is Zora’s background in anthropology. Zora focused on folk research, and as a result she would often imbed parts of her studies into her works. Take, for instance, Tell My Horse, a novel she published after conducting research in Jamaica and Haiti regarding Voodoo. According to Hurston, she directly participated in many of the rituals described in the book, and while it serves partially as a fictional retelling of her trip in the two countries, it also serves as an anthropological study. (There is, however, discussion as to whether Zora entirely fabricated events in the novel, as well as worked to exoticize the practice.) 

Another important factor to take into consideration regarding Zora’s use of dialect is her relationship to her white employers, one of the most tantamount being her relationship with fellow anthropologist Charlotte Osgood Mason. 

Zora, after winning a scholarship, attended Barnard College, where she began to further pursue her studies in anthropology. She was the only Black student at the college, and in 1928, was the first to graduate from the college. It was there that she met Mason, who by that time was in her 70’s. She was known as an elusive figure during the Harlem Renaissance, a mysterious white patron who sought out black artists such as Alain Locke and famous poet Langston Hughes, to create works for her. During the Great Depression, she spent an estimated equivalent of one million dollars today on commissioning art and writing from these prolific artists. 

Mason was a strange woman. She followed a theory named primitivism, which stated that so-called “primitive” societies were a cure for the troubles of modern day society, and was a sort of romanticized view on what a “pure” society would look like. She determined who she would patronize by determining who would be best at showing her “true” African American culture, and evidently serving as an editor for those she contracted. 

Her relationships with her clients were nothing short of disturbing. Mason had a “mythical vision of a great bridge reaching from Harlem to the heart of Africa.” Mason was obsessed with finding the so-called “true African culture”; she would berate Hurston if she failed to “sufficiently” find it. She had her employees address her by the name of Godmother, and had them grovel at her. In one letter, Hurston outright wrote a poem exalting Mason. 

Out of the essence of my Godmother

Out of the True one

Out of the Wise one I am made to be

From her breath I am born

Yes, as the world is made new by the breath of Spring

And is strengthened by the winds of Summer

The Sea is stirred by its passion

Thus, I have taken from the breath of your mouth

From the vapor of your soul I am made to be

By the warmth of your love I am made to stand erect

You are the Spring and Summer of my existence” 

During their partnership, Hurston had to track every single one of her expenses and send them back to Mason, with an explanation of each purchase. She even had to beg Mason for money to buy a new pair of shoes. Mason’s control over Zora’s work, while perhaps not the all encompassing factor behind many of her rhetorical decisions, is still something to keep in mind while reading her work, especially when knowing about her racism and heavy control over Hurston’s life. 

It may even have been because of Mason that Hurston’s book Barracoon was never published. Barracoon narrates the tale of Oluwale Kossola, otherwise known as Cudjo Lewis, the last man to have arrived in the United States from the Banté region of Dahomey (now known as Benin) due to the Atlantic slave trade. The book was embroiled in controversy: Zora was accused of plagiarizing a reporter’s article on Kossola for her book, and while it was stated to have been an exclusive interview with Kossola, it seemed that the interview had never happened in the first place. Hence, the copying. 

This was in 1927, when she first signed on with Mason, and Barracoon played a part in it. Mason had an obsession with the book. In fact, it was one of the reasons she wanted to employ Zora in the first place. Zora, however, did not share this same enthusiasm for the project. Three years after the initial interview, the main draft still hadn’t been written up, and Mason was infuriated, sending racist letters to Hurston and nagging her to hurry it up. In the end, Hurston, despite writing the final copy of the manuscript, elected to not send it in for publication after all, and instead focused on writing short stories and plays. 

During her time with Mason, Hurston met Langston Hughes, another golden boy of the Renaissance, on an anthropological study, and the two would hit it off. They quickly became friends, and were joined at the hip in all respects. The two would write to each other for years, before 1931, in which they decided to collaborate on a play called Mule Bone. This play would, eventually, implode their friendship, ending it in a fit of words and ink. 

No one truly knows what caused it to implode. It could have been a number of things, as narrated in Yuval Taylor’s book, Zora and Langston. Jealousy over Hughes adding a third collaborator in the play, a fight between the two over who held the majority of artistic contribution to the piece, Hughes’s decision to break away from Mason’s patronage while Hurston decided to stay. In the end though, all that remained of their friendship were broken ties, tears, and a play that wouldn’t be produced until the early ‘90s

Hurston, despite being an influential writer with four novels and countless anthropological studies under her belt, began to find trouble publishing. After her hit book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, she experienced a stagnation in her career until she published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, which catapulted her into a momentary moment of fame before falling back down once again. 

By 1955, Hurston was making money from working as both a maid and a contributor to various magazines. This wasn’t enough to pay the bills however, and was evicted from her home in 1956. By 1958, Hurston’s health was at an all time low, and after suffering numerous strokes, she was admitted into the St. Lucie County Welfare Home, before dying on January 28th, 1960. She was buried in an unmarked grave, her writing out of print, and her voice lost. 

Thirteen years later, Alice Walker boarded a plane headed for Sanford, Florida. It was hot, blazing hot, but just enough to be bearable. Walker was not headed to Sanford, but to Eatonville, home to the great Zora Neale Hurston — and she was there with questions. 

Zora’s writing had been all but forgotten during this time, and Walker was determined to locate her, as a mixture of a revitalization effort and pilgrimage. In fact, it’s due to Walker’s efforts at locating Hurston that she is remembered and studied today. Her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, had an almost uncanny ability to resonate with Walker, inspiring a passion for the author. It was a bit of a journey to find the grave; it wasn’t located in Eatonville, as thought, but in a different part of Florida all together, and the grave was unmarked. Walker, however, sought to remedy that, replacing her empty gravestone with one containing this line: Zora Neale Hurston, A genius of the South, Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist

Moseley House was a place often frequented by Hurston, as her best friend, Matilda Clark Moseley lived there. Moseley House now serves as a tourist attraction. (Photo Credit: Jamesmartin111, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Zora Neale Hurston is an integral part of today’s English curriculum throughout America. Whether you like her writing or dislike it, there is no denying she has had a major influential upon American literature. According to Sirajum Munira ’24, “While I’m not the biggest fan of Hurston’s work, I do appreciate the universality of the themes she wrote about, especially with just how they manage to maintain their relevance today. She was writing about topics that were unheard of in her time, and pioneered against all odds.” 

There are so many things we won’t fully know about Zora Neale Hurston. Her political affiliations are confusing. Most of her political works were lost in the 1940’s, so we have little to no records of them. Some show a conservative, Republican bent, while others show a more left-wing approach to politics. She was either an anti-colonist and a staunch critic of American politics or a Republican yesman, a stalwart against progressive ideals. She was either funny or shy, reclusive or extroverted, or all of these attributes at once. We don’t know many concrete things about her besides what others have written down about her, no matter how false they may be. Regardless, of the things we do know, one thing is for sure: Zora Neale Hurston was a figure larger than life, and will continue to be an influence in American literature forever more.

Hurston’s work very much went against societal norms at the time, and in a way, her work was shaped by them.

About the Contributor
Nehla Chowdhury, Staff Reporter
Nehla Chowdhury is an Editor-in-Chief for 'The Science Survey,' as well as a Social Media Editor. Nehla enjoys researching topics for their articles, as well as sharing their observations with large numbers of people. One thing they find appealing about journalistic photos is how they can tell stories to people without using words. Some interests that Nehla has are reading, researching various cold cases, and listening to music. Nehla intends to focus on history in college, as well as pursuing women's, gender, and sexuality studies.