Zora Neale Hurston: Forever A ‘Genius Of The South’

Considered one of the best writers of the 20th century, Zora Neale Hurston’s work continues to inspire writers across the world today.

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When admissions officials for Baltimore’s Morgan Academy saw Zora Neale Hurston in 1917, they saw a 16-year-old girl. Why would they believe anything different? She’d given them her age, telling them she was born in 1901. They let her into Morgan Academy without a second thought. A year later, Hurston completed her high school graduation requirements… at the age of 27.

In reality, Hurston was 26 when she arrived at Morgan Academy in 1917, but in order to qualify for a free high school education, she lied about her age and birthdate, pretending to be 10 years younger than she actually was. She maintained this lie until her death in 1960.

Zora Neale Hurston faced hardships early in her life, but rather than backing down she paved her own path, not letting anything (like her age) hold her back. She became an accomplished author. A playwright. An anthropologist. A folklorist. A filmmaker. Though she’s no longer with us, her work and legacy lives on. She’s considered one of the best writers of the 20th century, and her work continues to inspire writers across the world.

Early Life

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Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, but many, including Hurston, consider her hometown to be Eatonville, Florida. She and her family moved to the all-black town shortly after she was born. In 1904, when Hurston was 13, her mother passed away and her father quickly remarried. He seemed to then have little time and money for his children, so Hurston worked a series of menial jobs in order to support herself and finance her education.

After completing her high school graduation requirements, Hurston attended Howard University and received her associate degree in 1920. From 1925 to 1927 Hurston attended Barnard College, studying anthropology with Franz Boas, the German-American anthropologist. Through her field work with Boas, Hurston made her way to Harlem and cemented herself as a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

Zora’s Mark On Harlem…

Many described Zora Neale Hurston as witty, outgoing, and an amazing storyteller. She socialized with many, and her apartment was considered an “open house” for artists. But she didn’t let any of that get in the way of her work- she would sometimes be writing in her bedroom while a party was going on in her living room.

In 1931 she collaborated with Harlem legend Langston Hughes on the play Mule Bone. Between 1934 and 1939 Hurston published three novels, one of which being the famous Their Eyes Were Watching God. Surprisingly, Their Eyes was criticized by Black male writers- they criticized her for not demonstrating the effects of racism towards African Americans. Instead, Hurston’s novels and short stories centered on celebrating the rich culture and traditions of the rural Black South and the experiences of African American women.

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Along with writing short stories, novels, and plays, Hurston dedicated her life to studying black culture. She studied oral histories and folklore in her home state, voodoo in Haiti, and the religions of the African diaspora. She incorporated her findings in a lot of her stories as well. In 1935 she published Mules and Men, a collection of folktales she gathered in Florida.

…And The World

Unfortunately, Zora Neale Hurston’s work largely went unpublished during the last decade of her life. Her popularity decreased, and she died poor and alone in 1960 after suffering multiple strokes. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, FL.

In the summer of 1973, young writer Alice Walker located her grave and created a headstone for her, which read: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.” Walker wrote about Hurston in a 1975 essay titled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” which was published in Ms. magazine. Walker’s essay helped introduce Hurston to a new generation of readers during the “second wave” of feminism, bringing public attention back to Hurston’s work.

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Now, Hurston’s work is studied in literature classes as well as women’s and Black studies courses. A number of her works were published posthumously as a result of renewed interest and appreciation for her writings, and she’s now considered one of the best writers of the 20th century.

This only scratches the surface of Zora Neale Hurston’s extensive career and legacy. We could probably dedicate an entire series of articles to Hurston and her immeasurable impact on literature and Black History. Hurston’s work will no doubt remain ageless and continue to inspire writers across the world for generations to come.

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