Zora Neale Hurston was born January 7, 1891, in Eatonville, FL; died January 28, 1960, in Fort Pierce, FL.

Near-complete bibliography of her writings:

Most of history is ugly, particularly American History, particularly for blacks. Zora Neale Hurston was unable to accept the idea that the culture of slaves and share croppers was without value. It is too frightening for some people to live without a sense of heritage. So, she boldly reinvented the image of poor southern blacks. She tried to show that impoverished and oppressed people had created some cultural elements of value. In order to do this she romanticized the ugly. She glorified poverty, and the mannerisms and stereotypes about blacks and the south that continue to haunt us to this day. For this reason she has been one of the most problematic figures in American literature, continually falling in and out of favor with both liberal and conservative critics of her work.

Resisting the “New Negro” Mold

Because she chose to write about the lives of poor blacks in the south Hurston has been unable to escape the charge that her works must have a political meaning or, more frequently, that they have the wrong political meaning. Hurston, however wanted to go beyond life as a mere “race champion.” She was committed to showing the inner and outer life of subtile individuals. Her goal was more indulgent than any minority writer of her time, she wished to be afforded the license to write works purely as a cultural articles.

But, in existing out of the political sphere in a time when political writing was of extreme importance to other black writers Hurston's artwork becomes almost reactionary. In remaining apolitical Hurston, ironically, makes a strong political statement.

Hurston stirred her contemporaries in other ways as well. The members of the “talented tenth” of the Harlem Renaissance had rejected nearly all aspects of southern black culture in favor of anything from fairly irrelevant bits of African history to attempts at assimilation into affluent northern white culture. The historical facts seemed to provide blacks with no power base, so everyone was searching for something new. It is easy to understand why Hurston, the reactionary, wanted to romanticize what most black intellectuals found most repulsive: poor southern blacks. So, Hurston’s work is hard to swallow, even today. In Mules and Men Gold tells the story of how colored people got to be so black.
“Long before they got thru makin’ de Atlantic Ocean and haulin’ de rocks for de mountains, God was makin’ up de people. But He did finish ‘em all at one time ... Well, He give out eyes one day. All de nations come up and got they eyes. Then He give out teeth and so on. Then He set a day to give out the color. So seven o'clock dat mornin’ everybody was gone to git they color except de niggers. It was gettin’ hot and God wanted to git His work done ... They Hunted all over Heben till dey found de colored folks. All stretched out sleep ... They all jumped up and run o up to de th'one and they was so skeered they might miss sumpin’ they begin to push ... So God hollered “Git Back! Git Back!” and they misunderstood Hin and thought He said, “Git Black.” and they been black ever since.”
The story goes on to play off nearly every popular stereotype about blacks mainly that they are too, lazy, excitable and generally simple minded. A close reading of the text might reveal a group of people covering their shared hardships with self mockery. But, Hurston, perhaps to stay in print, perhaps out of arrogance did little to make this interpretation apparent to the reader. Many people might (and have) read the text and failed to see the complexity of her statement.

Hurston is Mistaken for a Minstrel

In fact failing to see the complexity of Hurston’s statements is a favorite pastime of her admires and enemies alike. When Mules and Men was first published a New York Times Review cooed “At the end you have a very fair idea of how the other color enjoys life.” The Saturday Review called it “A simple and unpretentious story.” Hurston’s teacher, anthropologist, Franz Boas said: “It is the great merit of Miss Hurston’s work that she entered into the homely life of the southern Negro ... “6 On the other hand, Richard Wright, a columnist for one of the black newspapers at the time, called it “a minstrel show.”

All of this praise and criticism failed to see the double layered nature of Hurston’s writing. Hurston’s layering served her well. The surface reading of a text like mules and men pleased her white patrons and may have helped to keep her in print. A more in-depth study quickly revealed Hurston’s motives, mainly to invent a cultural base for blacks that grows out of slave culture. It is as if she wished to justify all of the suffering and ignorance blacks endured during and directly after slavery. Perhaps, the thought of that much wasted life was too frightening for Hurston, so she was compelled to “prove” its value.

Hurston is Mistaken for a Feminist

This layering became the focus of a Hurston revival lead by black women writers in the 1970s. They were so delighted to discover a black female author living and writing so early in the century, they may have failed to consider the side effects of bringing her work into the light. The feminist reading of texts like Their Eyes Were Watching God, is forgiving at best. Her bizarre way of rendering of the southern black dialect in text was seen as poetic, her nearly stock type Mulatto-heroine was “a woman between two worlds,” and her rather fluffy romance novel-type plot was all about “sexual empowerment.”

Having been thrust into the attention of academics once again, Hurston’s works were an instant shoe-in for anthologies, high school and college reading lists. One again Hurston was being read on two levels. As a black women she neatly killed two minority birds with one stone, and her work was baffling enough to perpetuate the myth that black people are “sensual” or “lively” and generally weird. Hurston’s work provided a porthole into a kind of fantasy heart of darkness for many readers, who felt through reading her books one might “understand what it’s like to be black.”


Bourgeois is Beautiful

“Of the nation's 100 poorest counties for children, 84 are in the South. Thirty-four of them are majority Black. The South has a greater number and proportion of people without health coverage than any other region, one in six Southern children — 4.8 million children — lacked health coverage in 1996.

Poor children score lower on reading and math tests, suffer more mental and physical disabilities, and earn 25 percent lower wages as young adults.’
Hurston’s choice to romanticize the lowest of the low in the American class system is problematic especially because she attempts to approach her work from an anthropological standpoint. The sense of stability and community Hurston portrays in poor black communities could potentiality be misinterpreted as a sanctioning the continuation of that way of life. Hurston’s unlikely heroes live in a state just a few steps from slavery. At a time when black intellectuals were realizing the value of a black burgher class Hurston attempts to espouse the values of Southern Slave culture. Poor southern black culture can be thought of as residual symptom of the abyss of slavery. Hurston’s romantic vision of a proud people purging themselves of the pain of there situation through self-mockery is only one part of the picture. One might also see the folklore of a culture of financial and political failure self perpetuating its self by reinforcing its own lies. Hurston abandons the upwardly mobile ideals of “the new Negro” in order to defend her “folks back home.”

In America, poverty is no virtue. Any group of people but most particularly minorities would be well advised to assimilate themselves to the majority culture to a great enough extent to have some of their members enter the bourgeois. Only then might the minority group obtain enough political power to ensconce itself against further discrimination. It is dangerous to cling to modes of living, or even reflect fondly on modes of living that do not lead to economic empowerment.

Assimilating the Black Voice in Literature

Assimilation has grown to carry a kind of negative stigma. But, it is a strong force of equalization. In “Criteria of Negro Art” W.E.B. Du Bois tells the story of a professor at a university who reads a poem his class:
“A professor in the University of Chicago read to a class that studied literature a passage of poetry and asked them to guess the author. They guessed a goodly company from Shelley to Robert Browning ... The author was Contee Cullen.”
DuBois thinks this kind of perfect assimilation as selling out. He neglects to see the double benefits of assimilation. Mainly the author is seen as being more similar and thus more equal to the majority and the authors ideas are in a position to be heard by the majority. Only by speaking the language will an artist be heard.

Hurston’s motives about the issue of assimilation are clear in her rendering of dialects. Her narration is written in “Standard English” but the dialogue is generally rendered in a kind of proto-ebonics. Modern authors, such as playwright August Wilson render dialect just as effectively without “misspelling” any of the words. In other words, Wilson uses diction rather than word alterations to convey the manner of speech of his characters. For example Boy Willie (from the south) says:
“You know as well as I know the man gonna sell the land to the first one walk up and hand him the money.”
The grammar of this speech is not standard English corrected it might read:
“You know as well as I the man is going to sell the land to the first one who walks up and hands him the money.”
Wilson has rendered a specific mode of speech with very few altered spellings.

His is the assimilated black voice in literature; the subject and diction are still personal but the general mode of communication is not. As you read the text you start to hear the voices of the characters speaking in naturalistic dialects just as “nonstandard” as Hurston’s, the difference is Wilson’s rendering is easier to read and less alienating. Since Hurston uses Standard English spelling and diction for her narration the effect is a bit schizophrenic, furthermore the transition from Standard English narration to is often jarring.

The trouble with attempts to characterize a mode of speech though spelling is that there is not, in fact, a true standard pronunciation for any word, or for any spelling for that matter. Unless one resorts to a collection of phonemic symbols the true sound of a word is not continued in the text. Consider a affluent Londoner and Bostonian both saying the following sentence: “I bought another copy.” Though both are speaking politically Standard English their speech could easily be rendered in this manner:

ENGLISHMAN “I bot an-notha cope-pe”
AMERICAN “Ahy baht an-nather ca-pe”

Even these renderings fail to capture the variability of speech, for example a friend pointed out to me that it is possible to read the rendering for the Englishmen as if you were from inner city Cleveland. On the whole Hurston does little but confuse and annoy her readers with all the “Ah’s” and “dats.” Some critics feel this extra baggage lends musically to the text, but it’s hard to see how this is possible when it is so easy to discount it or misinterpret with when pronouncing the words. (when typing up selection from her books I found my self unconsciously “fixing” the “misspellings” in other words in reading the text I had translated into my own dialect.)

But the altered, foreign sounding voice created by the disparate text styles fit right in with Hurston’s goal of romanticizing and heightening the lives of poor black southerners. It is a reactionary plea for attention. A effected stamp of uniqueness that has convinced many readers they are getting exposed to something mystical and distant. In fact If this quixotic juxtaposition of the romantic and the ugly was enough to make her work fascinating then perhaps it is in that respect she is best remembered.

Since Hurston’s works are not straight forward she will continue to be problematic for critics and readers. But as one of the only published black female author in her time she stands no chance of being forgotten as long as the origin of text continues to count more than the words themselves.
Sources:
DuBois, W.E.B. Criteria of Negro Art. From: The Portable Harlem Renaissance reader. edited and with an introduction by David Levering Lewis.
CDF report, The High Price of Poverty for Children of the South, May 1998.
Frazier, Franklin E. La Bourgeoisie Noire. c1930.
Pavloska, Susanna . Modern primitives : race and language in Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Zora Neale Hurston .New York : Garland Pub., 2000.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: a literary biography. 1977
Cronin, Gloria L. Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston. 1998
Delbanco, Andrew. Required reading : why our American classics matter now

Books by Zora Neale Hurston:
Their eyes were watching God
Mules and men.
(With an introd. by Franz Boas)
Dust tracks on a road; an autobiography
Jonah's gourd vine
Seraph on the Suwanee
I love myself when I am laughing ... and then again when I am looking mean and impressive
Moses, man of the mountain
Tell my horse : voodoo and life in Haiti and Jamaica
Mule bone
Short stories
Folklore and autobiography
Selections
The sanctified church
Sweat

To complement jderrida's useful bibliography and futurebird's excellent account of the critical debates regarding Hurston, here is a brief account of her life.

American novelist and anthropologist
Born Notasulga, Alabama, January 7, 1891?
Died Fort Pierce, Florida, January 28, 1960

1891, 1901 or 1903. Hurston's exact date of birth is shrouded in mystery. Earlier biographical accounts tended to specify 1901 or sometimes 1903, but 1891 is now considered most probable. Her birthplace was most likely Notasulga in Alabama, although it was also widely believed to be Eatonville, Florida.

Her father John Hurston was a tenant farmer, carpenter, and Baptist preacher, and her mother was Lucy Ann Potts Hurston. Soon afterwards the family moved to Eatonville, the first incorporated black community in the USA. Her father later became mayor of the town, and Hurston wrote about it as an idyllic place in many of her novels.

1904. Hurston's mother died, and Hurston was removed from school by her father.

1917. Following years of itineracy, and with little in the way of education, Hurston found herself in Baltimore, working as a domestic. She enrolled in high school at Morgan Academy, lying about her age.

1918. Hurston graduated high school, and went on to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she studied under Alain Locke, a leading authority on black culture. While at Howard, she decided to to pursue a literary career.

1921. The publication of her first short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea" in The Stylus, her college literary magazine. In the next few years, she published more stories in various journals, coming to the attention of poet Langston Hughes and other prominent black writers.

1925. Offered a scholarship, Hurston studied anthropology at Barnard College in New York, an affiliate of Columbia University, from which she eventually gained a B.A. in 1928. In New York, she became involved with the Harlem Renaissance.

1927. She married Herbert Sheen, a fellow student at Howard. They divorced in 1931.

1927. Hurston undertook anthropological field research in the American South. Instructed by professor Franz Boas and thanks to a fellowship from the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, this was to be for a doctorate at Columbia, although she never completed her studies. She published her first research in a paper, "Cudjo's Own Story of the Last African Slaves", in 1927, which after her death was found to be plagiarised from Historic Sketches of the Old South by Emma Langdon Roche, written in 1914.

1930. Hurston collaborated with Langston Hughes on a play, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. However, they quarreled over credits, and the play was not performed.

1932. Wallace Thurman's novel Infants of the Spring fictionalised Hurston as Sweetie Mae Carr, one of a number of characters based on leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

1934. Hurston received a Rosenwald Fellowship to support anthropological fieldwork.

1934. Publication of her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, to general critical acclaim. It is set in a fictional town called Sanford, based on her old home of Eatonville, and the main character is a womanising Baptist preacher.

1935. Publication of Mules and Men, a study of voodoo in the American South, focussing on the areas of Florida and New Orleans.

1936-1938. Having received a Guggenheim Fellowship, Hurston travelled through Jamaica and Haiti. Her field studies led to the 1938 publication of Tell My Horse, a study of voodoo in the region. This book was praised for its keen eye for detail, and the vividness and wit of its anecdotes, but has also been criticised for its lack of factual accuracy.

1937. Publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God, her most acclaimed novel. It is the story of a mixed-race woman and her three marriages, mixing folkloric narrative and anthropological knowledge with her keen feel for black life in the rural South. One of its few critics was Richard Wright, a communist and existentialist whose bleak urban novels were far from Hurston's joyful tales of the rural poor. Wright condemned it as counter-revolutionary.

1939. Married Albert Price III, whom she later divorced.

1939. Publication of Moses, Man of the Mountains, another novel, based on a modern version of the story of the Biblical patriarch Moses. The critical reception was mixed.

1942. Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography, was published. In this work Hurston attempted to take an anthropological approach to the story of her life. The book was an instant critical and commercial success, and is still widely read and critically acclaimed; however it is now believed to contain numerous inaccuracies.

1948. Publication of Seraph on the Suwanee, her final novel. This tells the story of a white family in Florida early in the century.

1948. Hurston was arrested for molesting a mentally-disabled ten-year-old boy. The charges were subsequently dropped and it was established that Hurston was out of the country at the time. However the damage to her reputation accelerated the fall in her standing caused by poor reviews and the growing distance between her and other black intellectuals.

1952. Hurston campaigned for conservative Republican senator Robert Taft in his campaign to be president.

Hurston had become more and more out of step with the black civil rights movement. She was accused of failing to engage with racism, because most of her books had been about the all-black society of Eatonville, and her work often seemed to celebrate the poverty-stricken nature of rural life. In the 1950s she wrote for right-wing publications, criticising campaigns for black voting rights and other issues.

Early 1950s. Without any significant income from writing or academic work, Hurston was forced to return to her old employment as a domestic servant back in Florida. Despite spells as a journalist, librarian substitute teacher, and drama professor, this remained a major source of income for the rest of her life.

1954. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of school desegregation in the American South in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Hurston spoke out against this judgment, on the grounds that black children could learn on their own without white children.

1959. She suffered a stroke, and was confined to the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida.

1960. Zora Neale Hurston died of hypertensive heart disease, in poverty and largely ignored. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce (Alice Walker later paid for a marker), and left behind an incomplete book, The Life of Herod the Great.

Following her death, her reputation gradually grew, but she remains a controversial figure. Debate over her symbolic role as an early black woman writer, often couched in identity-politics terms of treachery and "whose side are you on?", still outweighs objective consideration of the merits of her work.


  • Women in History. "Zora Neale Hurston biography - extended". Lakewood Public Library. http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/hurs-zorx.htm. June 17, 2003.
  • AALBC. "Zora Neale Hurston". http://aalbc.com/authors/zoraneal.htm. June 17, 2003.
  • "Classic Notes: Zora Neale Hurston". http://www.gradesaver.com/ClassicNotes/Authors/about_zora_neale_hurston.html. June 17, 2003.

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