The Sunday Magazine

Dismissed in her lifetime, African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston is considered a legend in ours

As Hurston's non-fiction book about the last survivor of the last slave ship is finally released to the public, Michael Enright speaks with writers and scholars about her extraordinary life and legacy.
Zora Neale Hurston's non-fiction book Barracoon was just published posthumously, 58 years after her death and 87 years after she first tried to publish it. (US Library of Congress, HarperCollins )

Zora Neale Hurston led many lives: novelist, anthropologist, maid, manicurist, voodoo apprentice, counterrevolutionary, trailblazer.

In her lifetime, she was dismissed by many of her male contemporaries. She died in poverty in 1960, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

A people do not throw their geniuses away.- Alice Walker

Her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, sold fewer than 5,000 copies while she was alive.

Today, 500,000 copies of her books are sold every year.

Her ardent fans include writers Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Zadie Smith and Edwidge Danticat, rapper Cardi B, and singer Solange Knowles.

This month, her non-fiction book Barracoon, based on her interviews with the last survivor of the last transatlantic slave ship, is available to the public for the first time.

It comes 87 years after she first tried to publish it, and more than a half century after her death.​

Our one-hour program is called "Jumping at the Sun: The politics and prose of Zora Neale Hurston." Click "listen" above to hear the full special. 

Hurston interviewed Kossola (also known as Cudjo Lewis) in 1927. He was in his 90s, and lived in Africatown, Alabama — a community built by former slaves.

She described him as "the only man on earth who has in his heart the memory of his African home; the horrors of a slave raid; the barracoon; the Lenten tones of slavery; and who has 67 years of freedom in a foreign land behind him."

"Barracoon" refers to the enclosures slaves were held in on the coast of Africa before being shipped to North America.

A 'prophetic' writer

Hurston's most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is about a young African-American woman named Janie Crawford and her quest for selfhood and love.

Edwidge Danticat, who has read Their Eyes Were Watching God 10 times, says Hurston is 'absolutely in the brew' that makes her a writer. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat describes the novel as both an adventure story and "an incredibly complex love story."

"It's a relatively short book that covers so much — poverty, migrant work, preservation and respect for Indigenous people, Indigenous land. There's even climate change in this novel from the 1930s," she says.

She first read Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school, during an elective course on black women's writing.

"I was blown away," she says. "I just thought, 'Wow, you can tell stories like that."

Part of Their Eyes Were Watching God involves a devastating hurricane in Florida. In its aftermath, local leaders want to separate the black and white corpses and bury them separately — even though the bloated bodies are difficult to tell apart.

"I remember when Hurricane Katrina came through, and we saw those images of what happens after a flood like that goes through a predominantly poor and black community. I thought it was the book on my screen," Danticat says.

"She was just prophetic in that sense."

Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat talks to Michael Enright about Their Eyes Were Watching God and the enduring relevance of Hurston's writing
Nicole Blades is a Canadian novelist, public speaker and journalist. (Submitted by Nicole Blades)

Canadian writer Nicole Blades first read Hurston as a student at York University.

She says that while Hurston's books were written decades ago, they deal with issues surrounding race, racism and colorism that are still very present today. 

"We're going through a shift. With the #MeToo movement, with Black Lives Matter, the volume on voices that have been pushed to the margins historically  —  that volume is being raised, and we're hearing these stories," she says. 

"I think Zora Neale Hurston fits right in line with that."

Canadian writer Nicole Blades talks about her first experience reading Zora Neale Hurston and why she considers her an important writer

'No job, no friends, and a lot of hope'

In the 1920s, Harlem was becoming the unofficial capital of black America. (Wikimedia)

In 1925, Hurston arrived in Harlem. She had $1.50 and "no job, no friends, and a lot of hope."

She had grown up in the South and moved north, like many other African-Americans during the period historians call the Great Migration.

Harlem was just becoming the unofficial capital of black America, and it was the epicentre of an artistic explosion. The writers, artists and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance were experimenting with new forms and setting stereotypes ablaze.

"There was this sense that two generations after slavery, it was time to announce a spiritual emancipation that went along with the political emancipation from slavery," says Cheryl Wall, a professor of English at Rutgers University who studies Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance, and black women's writing.

"They wanted to create more honest expressions of the consciousness and creativity of 'the race,' as they would have said."

Members of the Harlem Renaissance, like Hurston and Langston Hughes, created some of the most dynamic and enduring literature of the 20th century.

Scholar Cheryl Wall says it was in Hurston's writing that she "recognized not only the language, but the cultural practices of the people who were in my community." (Provided by Cheryl Wall)
Cheryl Wall studies Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance and black women's writing.

But there was often tension between political leaders — who wanted artists to advance the race — and the artists themselves.

"Artists did not want to be told, 'Oh, well, you can't write that, because that won't reflect well on black people,'" Wall says.

Hurston, in particular, resisted calls to appease others with her writing. ​

"She wasn't really concerned with making a good impression on white Americans. She just arrived as who she was," says Wall.

Studying voodoo, tall tales and folk music in the south

During the Great Depression, Hurston travelled to Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas to record folk music with Alan Lomax. She is pictured here with an unidentified man in Belle, Glade, Fla. (Library of Congress)

As a student at Barnard College, Hurston took a detour from her literary career to study anthropology with pioneering scholar Franz Boas.

She returned to Eatonville — the all-black Florida town where she grew up — to conduct fieldwork, and studied voodoo in New Orleans. She also conducted fieldwork in Haiti, Jamaica, Honduras, and the Bahamas.

In both her anthropology and her fiction, she tried to capture vernacular speech as faithfully as possible.

The reception was not always positive.

When she tried to published Barracoon in 1931, one publisher offered to buy it if she rewrote the book "in language rather than dialect." She refused.

Here's an example of Hurston's use of vernacular speech in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

In this scene, the main character's grandmother talks to her about her hopes for the future. 

Sophia Walker is an actress based in Toronto. She is currently performing in To Kill a Mockingbird at the Stratford Festival. (Denis Grant)

Canadian actress Sophia Walker as Janie Crawford's grandmother

The use of vernacular speech was also fiercely debated by black writers. Some argued since that dialect had been used in minstrel shows to caricature black people, it should be abandoned by black writers. 

"She wasn't trying to imitate the minstrel stage. She was trying to find a literary equivalent for the language she had heard spoken all her life," Wall says.

'She glories in ... contradictions and complexities'

Hurston's political views sometimes put her at odds with her fellow black writers.

She once famously said, "I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow gave them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it … No, I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."

Wall says Hurston's worldview was shaped by her upbringing in Eatonville, one of the first all-black incorporated towns in America.

"There was a black mayor. Black people owned the store. Black people ran the school. There was a sense of autonomy in Eatonville that Hurston was very proud of, and that she really wanted to use as an example in her own life and in the lives of others," she says.

"I think a valid criticism of Hurston is that in her zeal to promote the plentitude of black culture, that she does turn a blind eye to some of the suffering."

I think we want black artists in general, and black women in particular, to just symbolize one thing ... and Hurston doesn't really let us do that.- Cheryl Wall

As she got older, Hurston's politics became more iconoclastic. After the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, which desegregated schools, Hurston argued the case had been decided wrongly. Segregationists then used her position to say that not all black people supported integration.

Wall says Hurston was a complicated, contradictory figure — but we shouldn't be surprised.

"We are ready to allow that kind of complexity to white male artists. I think we want black artists in general and black women in particular to just symbolize one thing," she says.

"Hurston doesn't really let us do that. She glories in the contradictions and complexities that define her persona."

The final years

The last years of Zora Neale Hurston's life were not easy.

In 1948, she was falsely accused of molesting a young boy. The charges were dropped a year later, but the scandal had a devastating effect on her career, and it nearly drove her to suicide.

My junior year in high school, that was the year that Zora died. And I had no idea she had ever lived.- Alice Walker

In 1950, a Miami Herald reporter realized Hurston was working as a maid in a Florida hotel.

She said she had taken the job just to "live a little." In fact, she could not find a publisher for her work, and needed the money.

She spent the last ten years of her life obsessed with a revisionist history of King Herod the Great. In 1955, she wrote to Winston Churchill, asking him to write a foreword. The book has never been published.

In 1960, after a series of strokes, Hurston died in a welfare home in Saint Lucie County, Florida.

'A people do not throw their geniuses away'

For years, her remains lay in an unmarked pauper's grave. Her writing virtually disappeared from the public arena.

Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, grew up not knowing who Hurston was.

"I think my junior year in high school, that was the year that Zora died. And I had no idea she had ever lived," she said in a lecture at Barnard College in 2003. 

"I had no idea — none — that there were black women writers."

When Walker finally discovered Hurston's writing, she was captivated. She set out to find Hurston's resting place, bought her a headstone, and became a fierce champion of her work.

"A people do not throw their geniuses away. If they do, it is our duty as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children. If necessary, bone by bone," Walker wrote. 

It was the beginning of Hurston's literary resurrection.

British novelist Zadie Smith spoke to Writers & Company in 2010.
Zadie Smith writes that when she first read Their Eyes Were Watching God at age 14, "it had me pinned to the ground, unable to deny its strength." (Brian Dowling/Getty Images)

Today, she is considered a legend by a new generation of black writers. 

British novelist Zadie Smith first read Their Eyes Were Watching God as a teenager. The experience shaped her as both a reader and an aspiring writer. 

"If you're a kid, and you want to do something, and you don't see many people who look like you doing the thing you want to do, it's a great joy to find out that it has been done — not just competently, but brilliantly," she says. 

Hurston is now is among the most beloved and widely-read African-American writers in history. 

Click "listen" above to hear the full special. "Jumping at the Sun: The politics and prose of Zora Neale Hurston" was produced by Pauline Holdsworth, with help from music producer Dean Ples.