You might call Zora Neale Hurston a novelist, an essayist, an anthropologist, a playwright, an icon of the Harlem Renaissance—but none of these labels fully capture the varied career of this African-American trailblazer. Perhaps that's just the way she wanted it. Hurston lived life on her own terms, and she paid a price for failing to conform to the expectations of either blacks or whites. Though she is celebrated as a fixture of the Harlem Renaissance, her politically incorrect opinions often set her at odds with its key figures. Her most famous work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, was vilified after its publication by many of the great black American writers she is now often compared to. Hurston refused to substitute what she saw as the truth for what was socially acceptable. "I tried ... not to pander to the folks who expect a clown and a villain in every Negro," she said of Their Eyes Were Watching God. "Neither did I want to pander to those 'race' people among us who see nothing but perfection in all of us."1
Zora Neale Hurston was brilliant but flawed—she was a gifted B.S. artist, and had no problem stretching the truth to get what she needed. She died penniless in a welfare home. Hurston seemed destined for obscurity until the writer Alice Walker launched a successful one-woman crusade to resurrect her career, decades after her death. But Hurston made no excuses or apologies, and accepted the consequences that came from her decisions. "I have never liked stale phrases and bodyless courage," she wrote to her friend, the poet Countee Cullen. "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 illusions."2 The generations of readers who have since discovered Zora Neale Hurston are grateful that she did.