In the summer of 1973, a young writer made a pilgrimage south to Fort Pierce, Florida, to visit the final resting place of an artist whose novels, plays and essays had inspired so much of her own writing. She arrived at the Garden of Heavenly Rest to find the segregated cemetery abandoned, weed-choked and overgrown with brambles, and it took her some time to locate the unmarked grave she sought. But find it she did, and before leaving she placed the stone she and a fellow scholar had paid for with their own money. The marker was modest, but its message was not.
Zora Neale Hurston, read the inscription, Genius of the South.
The pilgrim was none other than Alice Walker, who ten years later would win the Pulitzer Prize for her hugely acclaimed and best-selling novel The Color Purple. She was also the figure largely responsible for bringing to light the all but forgotten work of Zora Neale Hurston, now viewed as one of the most important Black writers of the 20th century.
Hurston was born Jan. 7, 1891, the fifth of eight children in a Notasulga, Alabama, household. When she was 3, the family moved to Eatonville, Florida—the first all-Black township to be incorporated in the United States—where her preacher father eventually became mayor. Hurston described Eatonville as “a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty of guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse.” It was an idyllic setting where, unlike most African Americans of her generation, Hurston was isolated from the humiliations of segregation.
But when she was 13, her mother died and her world was forever changed. Her father hastily remarried, and Hurston and the new bride violently quarreled. Hurston was sent to boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida. She was soon expelled, and had to make ends meet by becoming a maid to a singer with the travelling Gilbert & Sullivan show. Eventually she wound up in Baltimore, where at 26, she resumed her high school education.
Her efforts won her admission first to Howard University and later a scholarship to Barnard College as its first Black student. There she would work with noted anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict before earning her bachelor’s degree in 1927 when she was 36. She would also be mentored by Franz Boas, whose then radical ideas about the richness and import of indigenous cultures would shape much of her later work.
But in addition to her scholarly life, Hurston lived a kind of second existence as a mainstay of the emerging Harlem Renaissance literary scene, known at the time as the “New Negro Movement.” She began writing short stories and became friendly with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, who formed the core of a bohemian group who called themselves, with deliberately provocative irony, the “Niggerati” (a portmanteau coined by Hurston). In their writings for Fire! and other short-lived publications, the group addressed taboo subject matter like prostitution, homoeroticism and the envy of whites, in hopes of ruffling the feathers of what they perceived to be Harlem’s stuffy, Black bourgeoisie.
By the mid-1930s, Hurston had published a variety of short stories and essays and a collection of Black folklore, Mules and Men, culled from research in Eatonville and New Orleans. Intrigued by the voodoo rituals she encountered in the latter city, she used the Guggenheim Fellowship grant she was awarded to conduct more research in Jamaica and Haiti.
It was while doing field research in Haiti that she penned her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book was written in a mere seven weeks (Hurston tended to dash off her novels, seeing them as secondary to her ethnographic research) and is now hailed as a classic of American literature.
But at the time its reception was decidedly tepid, particularly among African-American critics. The preeminent Richard Wright famously dismissed it with, “her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is ‘quaint,’ the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the ‘superior’ race.”
Though Hurston did receive much critical acclaim for her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, she was ultimately unable to make a living as a writer (the largest royalty check she received in her lifetime was for $943.75). Echoing Wright, many leading Black thinkers of her era criticized her use of dialect, seeing it as demeaning, a staple of racist vaudeville. The characters she depicted—rural, largely uneducated—were part of a way of life the urban Black middle-class wanted to leave behind rather than celebrate through literature.
She also found herself in opposition to many leading voices when it came to politics. Hurston was a lifelong Republican, and though against Jim Crow laws, was more committed to Black self-sufficiency than to denouncing racism. “I am not tragically colored,” she wrote in 1928. “There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. . . . I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature has somehow given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it.” Hurston even published a letter voicing her opposition to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, arguing that Black-only schools were not inherently inferior to mixed schools and were important for preserving African-American culture.
In 1948 she was accused of molesting three young boys. Though the charges were ultimately dismissed, the Black press—already suspicious of her ideology—got a lot of mileage out of the scandal, and her reputation was severely damaged. Perhaps as a combination of these factors, her writing slipped into obscurity during her final decade. She contributed freelance articles to newspapers and journals here and there, but was forced to make ends meet as a librarian and later substitute teacher. Finally, the four-time published novelist, Guggenheim winner, and shining light of New York’s Harlem Renaissance ended her working years right where she had started as a teenager—working as a maid in Florida. Her three brief marriages had all been failures, she had no close friends, and lived out her final days in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. When she died, a collection had to be taken to cover her funeral costs.
All these years later, one is left to wonder what Hurston would have made of all the posthumous acclaim her work has received since Alice Walker dusted off her grave, but perhaps a clue can be found in her most famous work.
“There are years that ask questions,” she wrote in Their Eyes Were Watching God, “and years that answer.”