In 1973, while conducting research on West Indian voodoo, a young writer named Alice Walker came across Mules and Men, a book on the subject written by one Zora Neale Hurston. By the book's end, Walker found herself more interested in the author of the book than its subject. She did a little digging and found another book by Hurston, an obscure novel called Their Eyes Were Watching God. Walker, who would later go on to earn her own fame as the author of The Color Purple, realized after reading Eyes that "There is no book more important to me than this one."3 Though Hurston had died years before, Walker felt a connection to her, and set out to find her late literary godmother.
Posing as Hurston's niece (a bit of handy subterfuge that Hurston herself would surely have approved) Walker tracked down the overgrown pauper's field in Florida where an impoverished Hurston had been buried in an unmarked grave more than a decade before. Stepping through the weeds and the snakes, Walker found Hurston's burial place. She purchased a headstone inscribed "Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South," and set about restoring the all-but-forgotten Hurston to her rightful place in the pantheon of great American writers.
Without Alice Walker's intervention, the world may never have rediscovered Zora Neale Hurston, a novelist, essayist, and anthropologist who defied conventions of race and gender. Though Their Eyes Were Watching God is celebrated today as a classic and Hurston is acknowledged as an icon of the Harlem Renaissance, during her lifetime her unorthodox politics put her at odds with many of her fellow black artists. The fiercely individualistic Hurston lived life on her own terms, and as a result she sacrificed the full recognition she might otherwise have earned. "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,"4 she wrote in a letter to her friend, the poet Countee Cullen. And what nerve it was. Zora Neale Hurston may have died in obscurity, but her works live on.