Sunday, January 08, 2006

Happy Belated Birthday Zora Neale Hurston

Yesterday was the birthday of novelist, folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, born in Notasulga, Alabama (1891). She eventually finished high school in Baltimore while working full time as a live-in maid. In 1920 she enrolled in Howard University. Her first story, Spunk, was published in Opportunity magazine in 1925 when it won second prize in a fiction contest. At the awards dinner Hurston met author Fanny Hurst who hired Hurston as her assistant and arranged for her to receive a scholarship to Barnard College. While in New York Hurston published the "Eatonville Anthology," a series of fourteen brief sketches, some only two paragraphs long, including glimpses of a woman beggar, an incorrigible dog, a backwards farmer, the greatest liar in the village and a cheating husband.

Hurston came to the attention of anthropologist Franz Boas who got her a grant to collect folklore, songs and stories from black Southerners. Unfortunately her subjects were highly suspicious of her New York accent and manners. She said, "When I went about [talking] in carefully accented 'Barnardese,'... the men and women who had whole treasuries of material seeping through their pores looked at me and shook their heads. No, they had never heard of anything like that around here. Maybe it was over in the next county. Why didn't I try over there?'"

On returning to New York, Hurston became part of what has become known as the Harlem Renaissance. And it was there in just seven weeks that she wrote her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). It's the story of a black woman in rural Florida named Janie Crawford and her three marriages: the first to the farmer Logan Killicks who treats her like a slave, the second to the politician Jody Starks who treats her like a queen, and finally to the penniless Tea Cake Woods with whom she finally finds true love.

Although for a time Hurston was the most prolific and most famous black woman writer in America, interest in her work faded away in the 1950s, and so did her money. She worked at odd jobs for the next ten years writing a few magazine articles every now and again. She wrote three novels which were rejected for publication. Her death in 1960 in a welfare home went largely unnoticed and she was buried in an unmarked grave.

Zora Neale Hurston said, "Love, I find, is like singing. Everybody can do enough to satisfy themselves, though it may not impress the neighbors as being very much."

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