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African-American Studies

Zora Neale Hurston Working as a WPA Hournalist

Journaling Florida culture

Ironically, Zora's search for truth in others helped her understand herself. She studied anthropology in college. Later, she narrowed her focus to black culture in America. She wandered Florida's backroads conducting interviews and filming life scenes for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). She wrote an account of Fort Mose in 1927, sixty years before it was excavated. She traveled to Haiti to study African voodoo. While there, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God burst out of her in a matter of weeks; it just happens to be the story of an independent black woman finding herself.

Zora Neale Hurston Drumming in Haiti

Hurston drumming in Haiti

No Fences

But Zora would not be pigeonholed as female, or black, or independent, or a scholar or artist or wife. She was never anyone's employee for very long. She often depended on grants, fellowships, and hospitality. She opposed forced racial integration. She was one of eight siblings, but never had any children of her own. She married three times and divorced three times.

Living outside the box brought Zora the usual onslaught of criticism. Blacks criticized her for catering to white audiences. Whites, including her friend Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, kept her at arms-length for social conformity. Publishers shunned her feminist writings. Zora admitted to her friend 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."

Zora Neale Hurston and Friends

Hurston and friends in New York

The Fight for Fame

Ever swimming upstream, Zora published seven books and many stories, essays, articles, and plays. Her time in New York put her in the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. She demanded attention and showered love at social and literary functions. Her writing sailed through racial barriers onto the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. And she humbled herself to support a fellow writer, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. When Rawlings lost her housekeeper, Zora offered to fill the position while Rawlings finished a book. Because Zora would have to postpone her own book to do it, Rawlings wrote a friend, "It is one of the biggest things I have ever known a human being to do."

Zora's ability to portray the African-American experience earned her frequent journalist assignments. For her books, she got accepted by the famous editor Maxwell Perkins, who worked with many prominent writers including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. But Perkins died before Zora could benefit from his collaboration. Her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, didn't become famous until America was ready for female and black independence, forty-one years after it was published, eighteen years after her death.

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