Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, although she spent all her childhood in Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was a village founded by slaves’ descendants; in fact Zora’s grandparents were slaves in Alabama. They used to say that it was a village made by black people for black people, something strange, but real.
Zora had an easy life (compared with her neighbours) since her father was the mayor and the preacher. Since she was little she knew she wanted to study and get an education, and everything was going well until the death of her mother, who was the family’s core. Her dad rejected her and sent her to a private all board school in Jacksonville, until he stopped paying. Then she moved from one family member to another, by her own words, she was handed like a penny.
After that she had to work as a maid in different houses, with the idea of finishing her studies. She lied about her age and faked being several years younger in order to finish her secondary education and being able to access University.
Tenacious and constant, she ended up being admitted to the Howard University of Washington D.C. for Anthropology, where she met her philosophy professor, Alain Locke, an authority in Afro American culture, who inspires her to start writing. It was 1919, Zora was 28 years old, but her documents said she was 18.
Zora grew up fascinated by the mythology of the popular culture of her people, mysticism inherited from her ancenstres with rites that combined Christianism and Protestantism. A cultural mixture about which she wanted to discover the origins and portray them in her novels.
That’s how she started to write texts that mixed reality and the mythology that she had learnt when she was a child. One of the main criticisms she received was that she used the dialect of her people to write the dialogues, so there were times when her novels weren’t easy to understand. Zora defended her writing explaining that she had always talked like that, and that it didn’t make sense that a black person from Eatonville talked as an intellectual from a big city.
It is important to understand that at the time there was an emerging movement, Harlem’s Renaissance, that wanted to show black culture to the world. It included big musicians (the most famous Jazz players are from that time) and writers. This movement wanted, among other things, to end with the stereotypes from newspapers’ comic strips in which black people were depicted as people who didn’t know how to talk, and that was a reason to make fun of them. This, and other controversial thoughts, confronted her against the big intellectual men of her time, but always from a respectful debate, and being completely conscious of her social status, her ancestry and her gender.
She had to stop studying her degree in 1924 since she had no money to pay for it, but her texts had gotten the attention of some figures of Harlem’s Renaissance and in 1925 she got a scholarship to study Anthropology in Barnard College, associated with the University of Columbia (New York), all thanks to the anthropologist Annie Nathan Meyer. Finally, she graduated in 1928.
Fascinated by the culture, the songs and story telling of her people, she decides to go further and starts studying the mythology of the regions of Mississippi and Louisiana. She wrote several novels narrating her discoveries and the rites that she witnessed there. She even explained how she saw how they boiled a cat until there were only bones, as a rite of entrances to a sect/religion.
Her novels had moderate success in the world of Anthropology, and she got a scholarship to study Obeah in the Caribbean in 1936. For two years she travelled along Haiti and Jamaica, writing everything she experienced. At that point she reaches her culmination as a researcher.
She considered Obeah, now known as Voodoo, as a religion itself; she soaks herself with its roots and notices that all these rites are a specific culture from the area that mixes rites from Africa, the Caribbean and Christian culture. To call Voodoo a religion, with its own mythology and not just a set of rites was revolutionary for that time.
Despite this, Zora was not taken seriously by the scientific community, or anybody outside Harlem’s Renaissance thinkers. Her work was considered fiction, not based on Anthropologic research. Nobody believed the stories she told in her novels; all the knowledge that she collected during the years ended up lost at the University library, collecting dust.
The biggest criticism to her works happened in 1948 when she wrote a novel about two white men who work at a factory and lived in poverty. A black woman writing about white men was not accepted by anybody at the time.
Once the grant run out, she had to stop studying again, and work as a cleaning lady. The 28th of January on 1960 Zora was surprised by death. She was living alone and without descendants, in the most absolute poverty. She was buried in Fort Piece, Florida, in an unmarked tomb.
In 1973 Alice Walker and academic Charlotte Hunt went to Florida to find her tomb and mark it. In 1975 Alice Walker published the article: In Search of Zora Neale Hurston. This reignited the public interest for Zora’s work, and was an inspiration so numerous black women researchers published their works.
Today, Zora is considered a great anthropologist. Her works are not considered fiction anymore and they’ve been used to study the culture of the people that were enslaved and taken to the United States. She was heavily criticised for picturing the way of talking of her people, but today that is considered a great stylistic exercise. She’s considered an expert in Caribbean culture and a pioneer in the study of Voodoo; and it is thanks to her that it’s considered a religion.
For being tenacious and reaching her goals, for fighting against a word that never took her seriously, she ended up in the most absolute misery. That’s the reason we want you to meet her, and we name her The Boss that she was.