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Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891– January 28, 1960) was an author and anthropologist educated first at Howard University and later at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she was the sole black student. During the Harlem Renaissance she was underrated, often criticised, particularly by W.E.B. Du Bois, and died in relative obscurity. However, she has since been recognised as one of the best writers and most significant personalities of the movement. Hurston was well known in Harlem for hosting parties for both black and white friends. Famously, from the age of 26, she changed her date of birth to 1901, and from then on it was widely believed she was years younger than she actually was.
Hurston was one of the few writers of the Renaissance to come from the South and her writing style, recognisable for it’s language and humour, reflects her Southern roots. Although she later claimed she was born in Florida in 1901 it is in fact believed that Zora was born in Alabama in 1891. She grew up in one of the first all-black towns, Eatonville, Florida, formed after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, an extremely small and rural town where her father was mayor. This environment surrounded her with positive black images and role models from an early age. In 1927 Hurston received her BA in anthropology from Howard University. As a trained anthropologist she wrote two books on folklore based on research she conducted on trips to Southern towns, including Eatonville. Her novels and autobiography were also heavily influenced and informed by her life there and the folklore she collected. Her most famous work is her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God but her collections of folklore, such as Mules and Men, are also important as they have become vital records of oral tradition.
However, Hurston was considered problematic not only for her writing style and content but also for her personal views. Whilst Alain Locke called for exploration of folk tradition and in fact personally encouraged Hurston, by portraying folk culture as a part of the present, not just of the past Hurston presented it in a way that countered Locke’s intentions. Adding to this she often wrote in local dialects; for example ‘Yessuh, Massa, Ah’ll go git you some!’. This was considered to be detrimental to the African-American cause, which Du Bois and Locke perceived to be promoting the image of a modern black citizen. They saw recognition of the continuation of rural traditions as having a negative impact on their plans. John Lowe argues that in this way Hurston’s work exposed an ‘anti-southern bias’ in the intelligentsia of the New Negro Movement.
Furthermore, people found stereotypes in Hurston’s work and saw the humour she employed as strengthening existing views not challenging them. Hurston viewed her role in advancing the race as representing the daily lives of black Americans, and by doing so, showing their humanity. She was quoted saying ‘it is urgent to realise that the minorities do think, and think about something other than the race problem.’ This, along with the fact that she did not agree that black people must always be presented in a positive light, put her at odds with leaders of the New Negro movement.
Hurston was also not a strong supporter of collective action, which of course was crucial to Du Bois and groups such as the NAACP. This was due to her being influenced by the Enlightenment and ideas of radical individualist effort to fight social ills. However, Hurston was amongst a group of young black writers including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Aaron Douglas, and Wallace Thurman who in 1926, labelling themselves the Niggerati, produced the literary magazine Fire!!
Hurston, like many black writers of the era, had a white patron. This was often critisised by the black population, especially in the case of Hurston whose writing became associated with fulfilling white audiences' interest in ‘primitivism’. Her patroness, Charlotte Osgood, was a wealthy philanthropist who supported a number of notable New Negro artists including Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, and Arthur Fauset; however Osgood’s motivation was not only to help them excel, she was interested in African Americans as a link to the ‘primitive’ and sought to influence their work in this regard. Hurston had a close, influential and yet ultimately over-bearing relationship with Osgood, who insisted on being called Godmother by the New Negro group she supported. During their shared patronage by Osgood, Hurston and Langston Hughes became close friends. However, following a row over the play, Mule Bone, which they wrote together, their friendship ended in 1930. Later in life Hughes accused Hurston of posing as the ‘perfect Darkie’ for her white friends.
Evidence of the controversy she produced can be seen in contemporary reviews of her work. She tended to get positive reviews from white critics but make the black population uneasy. Lovalerie King compares Margaret Wallace’s review of Jonah’s Gourd Vine which calls it ‘the most vital and original novel about the American Negro that has yet been written by a member of the Negro race’, with Crisis writer Andrew Burris’s description; ‘quite disappointing and a failure as a novel’. Indeed Hurston was accused by blacks and leftist whites of being accomodationist and even opportunistic. Sterling Brown argued that her writing lacked a bitterness that would have made it realistic and shown the harsh conditions African Americans experienced. However Hurston’s belief was that ‘bitterness is the underarm odor of wishful weakness. It is the graceless acknowledgement of defeat’.
Hurston’s ideas of black pride, beauty and culture came from studying and appreciating local traditions, even against the example of her contemporaries. As she said in a letter to Countee Cullen;“I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.” Whilst underappreciated by her contemporaries and forgotten for decades, interest in Hurston was revived by Alice Walker’s article ‘In Search of Zora Neale Hurston’ in 1975. Her work is now considered to be cleverly subversive and she is remembered as a great African American writer.
Contributed by HGF
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