Forgotten Women: The Story of Zora Neale Hurston

by | Mar 22, 2019

“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was a writer that had long fascinated the Books That Matter team. We were endlessly curious about her story, her life, and her much heralded writing. She has been bookmarked as one of many female writers that history has ‘forgotten’ somewhat. As an African-American woman, it appears that upon researching Hurston’s past, that her work being underpublished and underrepresented is racially charged. What shocked us as we produced the Forgotten Women box this March, was actually how difficult it was to obtain enough copies of Hurston’s novel. It doesn’t appear to be in circulation in large numbers, and we had almost exhausted our sources and suppliers when we found Virago, an independent publisher of exclusively classical female work. The irony here was that we knew Hurston’s work had been underpublished and out of print for a long time, but it still appeared to be a difficulty to obtain it in the large numbers that we needed; reinforcing our focus on the Forgotten Women theme, and providing a platform for underrepresented works, not just this month, but as part of the continuing Books That Matter mission.

Our book of choice for this month, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is Hurston’s best known work. The novel documents Janie Crawford’s “ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny”. The work was criticised at the time of publication for being “too black” to appeal to a wider, white audience; and thus her writing went denounced, unappreciated, and unread for many years. Later, during the Second wave of feminism in the 1970s, Alice Walker helped to revive interest in Hurston’s works and this book in particular is now widely studied and heralded for its contributions to the canon.

Hurston’s writing journey began upon her move to Baltimore, Maryland, to attend Morgan Academy. She graduated, and then attended Howard University whilst juggling work as a manicurist, and she began to write in her spare time, publishing an early story in the magazine of the school’s literary society. She late moved to New York City, drawn in by the circle of creative black artists (now known as the Harlem Renaissance), and she began writing fiction. Later, the founder of Barnard College found a scholarship for Hurston which allowed her to begin her study of anthropology, and she went on to win a six-month grant that she used to collect African American folklore. As well as her work being criticised and deemed controversial because it didn’t fit easily into the stereotypes of black stories, and it was also not accessible enough in the opinions the white critics reviewing it, Hurston was criticised within the black community for taking these funds and grants from white people to support her writing.

Hurston went on to publish her last book in 1948, and following this, she worked for some time on the faculty board of the “North Carolina College for Negroes”, and she also went on to write for Warner Brothers motion pictures, and for some time worked on staff at the Library of Congress. However, her popularity waned. In her later years, she went back to Florida, and in 1960, after several strokes, she passed away, her work nearly forgotten and thus lost to most readers, who simply could not find it in circulation anymore. However, thanks to the revived interest brought about by Alice Walker in Hurston’s work in 1970, attention was brought back to them. Today, Hurston’s novels and poetry are studied widely in literature classes and women’s studies, and extensively on African-American and black literature courses, and she is rightfully renowned as one of the finest female writers of her time.

Further reading:

Hurston, Zora Neale. Alice Walker, editor. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979)

Howard, Lillie P. Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston: The Common Bond, Contributions in Afro-American and African Series #163 (1993)


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