Check out books by Daphne Du Maurier

9 Fascinating Facts About Zora Neale Hurston

  • 6 min read

9 Fascinating Facts About Zora Neale Hurston - Enya's Attic

This article was first published in Medium 

 Click here to download our FREE Booklist of "100 Books by Women Everyone Should Read in Their Lifetime".


In a 1943 letter to good friend and poet, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “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 illusion”.

 It seems, Hurston knew herself well.  

Though the Black American writer was a fixture in the literary scene during the Harlem Renaissance, her resolve to reflect the reality of the Black individual as she saw it, did not always find favour with her contemporaries.

And it left her languishing in obscurity soon after she had died. 

If it hadn’t been for the dogged research carried out by another Black writer, Alice Walker, Hurston’s work may never have been rediscovered - and embraced - by new generations of readers and writers. 

Even now, though most people have heard of her most beloved book Their Eyes Were Watching God, few people really know just how special she was and the impact she left on the world of writing. 

So, with that in mind, and to mark the nearly 90 years since her first novel was published (Jonah's Goard Vine, 1934), here are 9 fascinating facts about Zora Neale Hurston.


Zora Neale Hurston Graduated High School at Age 27

When Hurston was only 13, her mother died and her father remarried quickly. 

Hurston, who had a difficult relationship with her stepmother, was forced to leave school in her home state of Florida and spent the next few years being passed from relative to relative and working odd jobs.

However, when she was 26 years old, she rejoined public school, insisting she was 10 years younger than she was so that she could qualify for free schooling at Morgan Academy in Baltimore. 


BUY IT NOW: Zora Neale Hurston Quote Eco-Friendly T-Shirt

Hurston Co-Founded the Oldest Daily Black Collegiate Newspaper 

When Hurston finally graduated high school, she enrolled at Howard University where she earned an associate’s degree in 1921. 

She also co-founded Howard’s renowned newspaper, The Hilltop, which remains the oldest and largest daily publication at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to date. 


Hurston was Barnard University’s First Black Graduate

In 1925, Hurston, who was already winning literary prizes for her stories and poems, received a scholarship to transfer to Barnard College. 

She was the only African-American student there during the entire time she attended, and became the college’s first Black graduate when she received her undergraduate degree in 1928.  


Zora Neale Hurston’s Love of Anthropology was Central to Her Work …and the Criticisms She Received

While at Barnard, Hurston was poached from the literature department by the “Father of American Anthropology”, Franz Boas. 

Boas would have a huge impact on Hurston’s future work, pushing her, as he did all his students, to place herself at the centre of her studies. 

As a result, the American writer would immerse herself in the cultures of the Caribbean as well as the American South, where she had been born and raised. 

Her interest was in showing the folkloric influences on a community’s identity. However, as a result, her stories embraced a written dialogue that mimicked the vernacular of the local people she met spoke – something that upset several of the writers in the Harlem literary scene she had become involved in while a student at Barnard. 

Her critics claimed she was supporting the stereotype of the simple-minded and servile African American. 

The influential Black novelist Richard Wright was particularly scathing about her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, a tale of a woman’s self-discovery which he claimed incorporated:

Minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears”.

READ NEXT: 5 Books by Daphne du Maurier You Need to Read ...That Aren't "Rebecca"

She Engaged in Voodoo

Hurston’s deep commitment to her anthropology and Black folklore, however, was not swayed. 

After Barnard, she travelled to New Orleans where she studied spiritual practices like hoodoo and voodoo. Here she learned how to communicate with spirits, fasting for days and lying prostrate in front of a voodoo alter for hours on end.

In 1936, she won a Guggenheim fellowship to study magic in Jamaica and Haiti. Once more she immersed herself in the voodoo culture of the area, spending time with medicine men and learning about vegetable poisons and antidotes. 

Hurston’s research was published in several anthropology journals as well as being the source material for her four novels and various published stories during her lifetime.


Hurston Interviewed One of the Last Slave Ship Survivors

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the major players in the early Harlem Renaissance, partying and writing alongside the likes of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Jessie Redmon Fauset.

Her reputation enabled her to secure financial support from philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason to travel to the American South in the late 1920s.

During this trip, she interviewed Cudjoe Lewis, one of the last slave ship survivors. Lewis had arrived in the United States on board the Clotilda in 1860. 

After the American Civil War, Lewis found out that the promise of “forty acres and a mule”, was as false as all other promises he’d received during his life in the US. In frustration, he and 31 other formerly enslaved people founded African Town in Alabama. 

Hurston videotaped and interviewed Lewis, gathering all the details together for her book Barracoon - The Story of the Last 'Black Cargo'". 

But after she had finished it, the writer and anthropologist rejected publishers’ requests to translate Lewis’s dialect to standard English. So it was that the book remained unpublished until 2018, over 50 years after Hurston’s death. 


She was Impoverished for Much of Her Adult Life

While much of Hurston’s work was published and praised during her lifetime, she was still underpaid and spent most of her later life living in poverty. 

In the years before she died, Hurston had worked as a maid to help pay her debts. Finally, unable to take care of herself financially, she moved into the St. Lucie County Welfare Home in Florida where she died of heart disease at 69.


Her Last Book was Published 61 Years after Her Death

Even before she died, most of Hurston’s work had gone out of print. It wasn’t until 1975, when the renowned Black writer and activist Alice Walker, wrote a story for the feminist magazine, Ms. titled In Search of Zora Neale Hurston (later retitled Looking for Zora), that interest in Hurston’s writing was reignited. 

Such interest would lead to the republication of Hurston's four novels—Jonah's Gourd VineSeraph on the SuwaneeMoses, Man of the Mountain; and Their Eyes Were Watching God—and several short stories and plays. 

As Hurston’s posthumous popularity continued to rise, several of her unpublished manuscripts, including the aforementioned Barracoon, also found both a willing publisher and an eager readership. 

In 2020, 61 years after she had died, a collection of her short stories entitled Hitting A Straight Lick With A Crooked Stick, was published to much excitement and acclaim.


Alice Walker was Instrumental in Hurston Regaining Her Place in History

While Hurston’s great work speaks for itself, her current recognition as one of the most important writers in America is thanks primarily to Alice Walker.

During the social upheavals of the 1970s, Walker saw in Hurston a writer whose work, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God, presented the roots of a Black American female identity that had been largely ignored during Second Wave feminism. 

 BUY IT NOW: The Color Purple by Alice Walker - €13.50


As she researched her 1975 story, Walker found her way to Hurston’s unmarked grave, pretending to be related to Hurston so she could gain access to the plot. 

After she was sure she had found the right place, she resolved that Hurston would not go unnoticed any more. 

She purchased a headstone and had it engraved with an eight-word inscription that sums up Hurston and her work in a nutshell. It simply says:

“A genius of the South, novelist, folklorist, anthropologist”.


 Click here to download our FREE Booklist of "100 Books by Women Everyone Should Read in Their Lifetime".


Leave a comment (all fields required)

Comments will be approved before showing up.