How’s this for the plot of a novel? A black child is born into poverty in the rural south, somehow gets a degree in anthropology from Barnard College; plays a significant role in the Harlem Renaissance writing plays, short stories, and four novels; does African American culture and folklore studies in the southern U.S. and elsewhere; and wins a Guggenheim fellowship to do ethnographic studies. Then her works disappear from print; she falls into severe poverty; dies, and is buried in an unmarked grave. But that’s not the end of the plot. Years after her death another black writer pens an article about her which renews interest in her works, and she finally finds her proper place in the firmament of great American authors.
As you have probably guessed by now, this is not fiction, but rather the true life story of Zora Neale Hurston. Though born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 7, 1891, her family soon moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in the Unites States. This was a unique setting for Hurston to grow up in because all of the town’s residents were black. Blacks ran the businesses, blacks (including her father) were the mayors, and black people built everything. When Hurston was thirteen her mother died, and her father, a minister, married a much younger woman. Hurston did not get along with her stepmother, and after a few years left home with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan company. At age 26 she turned up in Baltimore and lopped ten years off her age so she could finish high school. She later attended Howard University and earned an anthropology degree from Barnard College. She became a major member of the Harlem Renaissance hobnobbing with writers such as Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. She wrote her best known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937, and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, in 1942. She also married twice, but both marriages failed after a short time.
Tragically, Hurston’s life deteriorated after a while, and she ended up taking jobs as a substitute teacher and a maid in Fort Pierce, Florida. By then her books were out of print, and she was unknown to most people, so no one took notice when she had a stroke and died on January 28, 1960. Hurston, a pauper, was buried in an unmarked grave there in Fort Pierce.
A young black writer named Alice Walker had been influenced by Hurston’s writings, and in 1973 she went to Florida in search of Hurston’s grave. In the Garden of Heavenly Rest – an overgrown, ill-kept, segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce – Walker waded through the high grass, and found a rectangular area where the ground had sunk. She decided that that was the spot where Hurston was buried, and there she put Hurston’s grave marker.
In 1975 Walker wrote a story for Ms magazine entitled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” That single article renewed the public’s interest in Hurston and her works, and returned many of them to print. Additionally, there is now an annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts & Humanities in Eatonville, Florida. You can find information about it here.
Like all black people of that time she endured discrimination, but she had an admirable way of dealing with it. “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against,” she said, “but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
In 2005 Hurston’s most popular novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was made into a movie for television. Halle Berry who portrayed Janie, Michael Ealy, who portrayed Tea Cake, and the rest of the cast members made it a movie worth searching for if you haven’t seen it. The story is riveting.