Today in Literary History – January 7, 1891 – Zora Neale Hurston, black feminist pioneer, is born

Zora Neale Hurston, the American novelist, short story writer and anthropologist, was born in rural Alabama on January 7, 1891. When she was three years old her family moved to Eatonville Florida, one of America’s first all-black self-governing municipalities, where her father served as a Baptist minister and later as mayor.

The town features in many of Hurston’s stories. Today, Eatonville has an arts festival, a library and a museum named after her, and often claims to be Hurston’s birthplace.

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Hurston trained as an anthropologist, graduating with degrees from Howard University and Barnard College and doing graduate work at Columbia University. She conducted field work with eminent anthtopologists Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict as well as with her fellow student Margaret Mead.

While studying at Columbia Hurston lived in Harlem and became involved with figures from the Harlem Renaissance and began writing fiction. She co-wrote a play with Langston Hughes and published four novels and many short stories. She also continued to do anthropological field work throughout the American south and in the Caribbean.

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Her novels had only moderate sales during her lifetime and drew criticism from established black authors, like Richard Wright, who objected to Hurston’s use of dialect which he saw as demeaning. Hurston died in Florida in 1960 at the age of 69 in virtual obscurity.

Her work, particularly her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, were rediscovered in the 1970s and championed by black women writers, especially Alice Walker. Their Eyes Were Watching God has sold over a million copies and is now seen as an important work of early black feminism.

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An unpublished anthropological work by Hurston, Baracoon, written in the 1930às, is to be published this year. It is based on Hurston’s interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving American slave and is told in his voice and from his point of view. HarperCollins is publishing it in May.

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