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Civil rights movement

Zora Neale Hurston

by Jemma Levene

When I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God, I had that rare experience of discovering a completely new voice and moment in time and place within a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Looking into the life of the author, that individuality really stands out too. 

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891. Both her parents had been enslaved. From a young age, she lived in Eatonville, Florida, the oldest Black-incorporated municipality in the United States. Incorporated in 1887, it was the first town successfully established by African American freedmen, and her father became one of the town’s first mayors.

Hurston studied at Howard University, where she co-founded the school’s newspaper. In 1925, she received a scholarship to Barnard College and graduated with a BA in Anthropology. While studying in New York she became part of a group of writers involved in the Black cultural renaissance then forming in Harlem. 

Through writing, travelling, researching, educating and most notably through her writing, Hurston spent her life promoting and studying Black culture, particularly focusing on life in the Southern states of the U.S., and broke important new ground in her depiction of the lives of Black women. Her anthropological work examined Black folklore, which took her to Haiti and Jamaica to study religions of the African diaspora.

Her work as a writer was ignored by the literary mainstream for many years. Forced into debt and poverty, she died in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home in January 1960. Her grave was unmarked until 1972, when Alice Walker located it. 

The quality of Hurston’s work was not recognised during her life, but she now ranks among the best writers of the 20th century. Her work continues to influence internationally and appears in American school and college curricula.

Photo: Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress