January 7, 1891: Zora Neale Hurston is born.

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the principal figures of the Harlem Renaissance. She was born to a Baptist preacher and a schoolteacher in Notasulga, Alabama, although she moved at age three to Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town that was formed shortly after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Hurston studied at Howard University and later Barnard College, Columbia University, where she worked alongside Margaret Mead before earning a degree in anthropology. She arrived in New York City in 1925, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, which was not only a “flowering of Negro literature” but also a flowering of African-American culture in general, which emerged distinct from white American culture and from white stereotypes of African-Americans. Harlem was not the only place this cultural explosion occurred, but it certainly was the center, and throughout this period black intellectuals, artists, musicians, and soul-searchers flocked to this formerly white-dominated district.

The Harlem Renaissance was not dominated by one opinion or view, and Hurston and her background brought to the diverse movement a rural, southern element. Hurston wrote in her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road that “there is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you”, and many of her stories dealt with the struggles of black women or black communities in the South; in writing them she probably drew upon her own life experiences. She is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which celebrated southern African-American culture and was rejected and/or criticized by other leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, among them Richard Wright, who wrote that the novel’s characters “swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.” Hurston drew upon her anthropology background to study and accurately depict the dialect of southern blacks, which was interpreted by some as her appealing to (in Wright’s words again) ”a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.”

She and her works faded into obscurity in the decades following her death, but interest in her works revived after Alice Walker published an article called “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”, which introduced her to a new generation of authors. Among those influenced by Hurston include Alice Walker herself, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison. 

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    Happy birthday to you Zora Neale Hurston!
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