Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston Introduction

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." The generations of readers who have since discovered Zora Neale Hurston are grateful that she did.

Zora Neale Hurston Trivia

Zora Neale Hurston would never had died penniless and unknown if she had lived in the age of Oprah. Their Eyes Were Watching God is, in Oprah Winfrey's words, her "favorite love story of all time." In 2005 the media mogul produced a television adaptation of the book starring Halle Berry. More than 24.6 million people watched it.

In 1945, more than a decade before her own death in obscurity, Hurston wrote to the famous black scholar W.E.B. DuBois to suggest the creation of a cemetery for "the illustrious Negro dead" in Florida. "Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness," she wrote. "We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored." DuBois wasn't interested.

The Hurston/Wright Foundation is a non-profit founded in 1990 to support black writers. Ironically, the two writers it is named for hated each other. Richard Wright disparaged Their Eyes Were Watching God when it first came out, writing in a scathing review that its use of black vernacular language was demeaning and offensive.

While conducting anthropological research in the Bahamas in 1929, Hurston survived a five-day hurricane, rescuing herself and another family from a home moment before it was flattened.

Hurston struggled financially all her life, never earning more than $943.75 in royalties from any single book. Once she even pawned her typewriter.

Sadly, a tour of Hurston's Harlem is no longer possible. Most of the boarding houses and hot spots where she spent her time no longer exist, destroyed during Harlem's post-Renaissance bleak years during the Great Depression.

Zora Neale Hurston Resources

Books

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Hurston's novel about a woman's search for identity is by far her best-known work. The story of Janie and her lover Tea Cake is hailed as a feminist classic, and women from Alice Walker to Oprah Winfrey have identified it as one of the most important books they've ever read. You don't have to be a woman to like it, though!

Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)
Hurston's memoir of growing up in Eatonville, Florida was critically acclaimed during her lifetime. Hurston was such an unabashed fabulist that it's impossible to know exactly which of her memories actually, um, happened, but her lyrical writing style is a pleasure to read.

Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934)
Jonah's Gourd Vine was Hurston's first novel. The novel is based loosely on the lives of her own parents, John and Lucy Potts Hurston.

Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (2003)
In a feat of detective work worthy of Sherlock Holmes, scholar Valerie Boyd created this authoritative account of a woman who often intentionally misled people about the truth of her own life. Boyd reconstructed Hurston's life through letters, interviews and primary documents. Her portrait reveals a gifted and passionate writer who refused to conform to anyone else's standards.

Carla Kaplan, ed., Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States (2001)
One of Hurston's greatest contributions to literature was her tireless collection of African-American folklore. This anthology includes some of Hurston's finds, as well as other tales that make up this piece of history.

Alice Walker, ed., I Love Myself When I Am Laughing ... and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979)
The writer Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) is the reason that you are reading about Zora Neale Hurston today. As a young woman Walker single-handedly uncovered Hurston's overgrown grave and resurrected her career, bringing new attention to a writer time had forgotten. Walker herself chose selections of Hurston's work for this anthology.

Music

WPA recordings
Hurston made these recordings of African-American folk songs when she worked for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Her work included songs like "Dat Old Black Gal" and "Mama Don't Want No Peas No Rice." This website lets you play them directly from your computer.

Folk Life
This page from NPR has recordings of folk music from the 1930s South, sung by Hurston and the women she interviewed. Hurston and her fellow researchers recorded children's songs, spirituals and folk music during their research on a massive portable recorder.

Haitian Voodoo
Hurston received a Guggenheim fellowship in the 1930s to study the West Indian practices of obeah, also known as voodoo. Listen to these tracks of the music of Haitian voodoo (a practice in some ways similar to Jamaica's obeah) to get a sense of the world she wrote about.

Music of the Harlem Renaissance
Hurston arrived in Harlem in January 1925 with, as she later put it, "no job, no friends and a lot of hope."_CITATION24_ She went on to become one of the most influential literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. And what would the Harlem Renaissance be without its music?

Duke Ellington
When describing how she felt in Harlem jazz clubs, Hurston wrote, "I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai [spear] above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww!"_CITATION25_ Like Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington is an icon of the Harlem Renaissance. Listen to Ellington's tracks and see if you don't have the same response.

Marian Anderson
At the same time that Hurston was breaking boundaries as a researcher and writer, Marian Anderson was defying another type of convention. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the African-American singer to perform before an integrated audience at Constitution Hall. A political uproar ensued, resulting in Anderson's famous concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Images

Portrait
A photograph of Zora Neale Hurston.

Happy Hurston
An exuberant Zora Neale.

Hurston at the Fair
Zora Neale Hurston at the 1937 New York Book Fair.

Theatrical Hurston
Hurston in a stage revue.

Musical Hurston
A candid portrait of Hurston.

Eatonville
Hurston listens to a guitar performance by Gabriel Brown in Eatonville, Florida.

Their Eyes Were Watching God
Dust jacket of the first edition.

Felicia Felix—Mentor of Haiti
A photograph taken by Hurston during her research in Haiti.

Movies & TV

Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005)
Oprah Winfrey produced this much-hyped TV movie of Hurston's famous novel. Halle Berry stars as protagonist Janie Crawford. The movie lacks the nuance and passion of Hurston's novel, but Janie and Tea Cake are so incredibly pretty that it's hard not to get sucked in.

The Gilded Six Bits (2001)
Filmmaker Booker T. Mattison wrote and directed this adaptation of Hurston's short story when he was still a student. "The Gilded Six Bits" is about a husband and wife whose lives are upended by the arrival of a slick hustler. It's short—barely 30 minutes—but a fascinating interpretation of one of Hurston's best stories.

Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun (2008)
PBS' American Masters documentary series takes on Zora Neale Hurston. The filmmakers explore the rise and fall of Hurston's fortunes. Hurston's life story—an accomplished writer who died penniless, only to have her career resurrected years later by another rising artist—makes for compelling viewing.

I'll Make Me a World (1999)
Zora Neale Hurston appears as herself in this acclaimed documentary of black American artists in the twentieth century. The movie features interviews and archival footage of artists from Hurston and Dizzy Gillespie to Spike Lee and Wynton Marsalis.

Hughes Dream Harlem (2002)
Hurston and the poet Langston Hughes were among the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston always regretted the end of their friendship, which came about after a dispute over a play they were both working on. This made-for-TV documentary examines Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, with tours of his favorite hangouts in Harlem and interviews with people who knew the poet.

Brother to Brother (2004)
This film imagines the artistic community in 1920s Harlem. A young art student befriends an elderly homeless man named Bruce, who narrates to him the story of his life growing up as a young black gay writer during the Harlem Renaissance. Bruce recounts his friendships with historical figures like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.

Websites

The Zora Neale Hurston Official Website
This should be your first stop for all things Zora Neale Hurston. The attractive site offers a comprehensive introduction to Hurston's life and works, along with critical essays about her. It also has a guide for book clubs reading Hurston's works.

i am/zora
A Zora Neale Hurston fan has compiled this site with links to pretty much everything by or about Hurston on the web. It's a little messy, but spend time clicking around and you will uncover some interesting gems.

Zora!
Hurston's hometown of Eatonville, Florida has had a complicated relationship with the writer. Residents—many of whom are still alive—were outraged when Hurston revealed personal information about their neighbors during her anthropological research in the 1930s. They've patched things up since, and now Eatonville hosts the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.

Florida Memory
This site has information about Hurston's work as an anthropological researcher with the Works Progress Administration. She collected cultural material in Florida in the 1930s. It's a fascinating treasure trove of reports, audio recordings and photographs that this talented researcher uncovered during her time there.

The Big Read
The National Endowment for the Arts selected Their Eyes Were Watching God as part of the Big Read program, an effort to get communities to read the same book at the same time. It has useful information about Hurston and her book, including a historical timeline that puts the events of her life in context.

Zora Neale Hurston and Ruby McCollum
In 1952, Hurston was hired by the Pittsburgh Courier to cover the sensational trial of Ruby McCollum, a black woman tried for murdering her white lover. Hurston was fascinated by the case, which raised complicated issues of race and sex. The site was created by a writer with a forthcoming book about the event that brought the two women together.

Video & Audio

Hurston's Hometown Legacy
A short video about Hurston's relationship with her hometown of Eatonville, Florida.

Jump at the Sun
A preview of the acclaimed documentary about Hurston's life.

The Zora Festival
A video of the 2008 Zora Neale Hurston Festival in Eatonville, Florida.

Alice Walker
Video of the writer Alice Walker talking about her idol Zora Neale Hurston.

The Big Read
A short video on Hurston prepared for the NEA's Big Read of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Animated "Eyes"
A charming animated retelling of Their Eyes Were Watching God created for a class project. Way to go Magdalena Milosz!

Primary Sources

"How It Feels to Be Colored Me"
Hurston's 1928 essay about racial identity.

"Turpentine"
Hurston's 1939 report from the Florida turpentine camps for the Federal Writer's Project.

"What White Publishers Won't Print"
A 1950 essay in Negro Digest.

"Sweat"
A 1926 short story by Hurston.

Mules and Men
The text of Hurston's non-fiction account of Eatonville and New Orleans.

Jump at the Sun
A 1943 letter Hurston wrote to her friend Countee Cullen.