American writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston’s literary legacy is a class apart. Initially celebrated, later vilified, and posthumously canonized as “the patron saint of Black women writers,” her work has inspired the likes of Toni Morrison and Bernardine Evaristo. Here are some things you might not have known about the author, who was born on January 7, 1891.
1. Zora Neale Hurston’s most recent book was published 62 years after her death.
A collection of short stories Zora Neale Hurston wrote between 1927 and 1937 was published in 2020 under the title, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Stories from the Harlem Renaissance. In 2022, another essay collection—You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays—was reissued by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and fellow scholar, Genevieve West. In a review of the 2022 work, The New York Times wrote that it “adds immeasurably to our understanding of Hurston, who was a tireless crusader in all her writing, and ahead of her time.”
While many authors have had their work published posthumously, Hurston’s case is remarkable because her work and legacy were all but lost to the world—until Toni Morrison and The Color Purple author Alice Walker helped bring her work back into the spotlight.
2. Zora Neale Hurston’s out of print work was revived more than a decade after her death.
By the time of Hurston’s death on January 28, 1960, most of her work was out of print. Hurston’s writing came back into prominence beginning in 1975, when Alice Walker wrote a story for Ms. Magazine titled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” [PDF] (and later retitled “Looking for Zora”). It led to the republication of Hurston’s four novels—Jonah’s Gourd Vine; Seraph on the Suwanee; Moses, Man of the Mountain; and Their Eyes Were Watching God—and several short stories and plays.
3. Alice Walker pretended to be Zora Neale Hurston’s niece while searching for her unmarked grave.
Alice Walker’s abiding interest in Hurston was, in part, prompted by her time in college, where she was not exposed to a single work by a Black author. While conducting research for her own short story, she discovered Hurston’s folk stories and was inspired to look for the author’s (unmarked) grave. In 1973, Walker traveled to Eatonville, Florida, where Hurston was raised, and briefly posed as the author’s niece to scout for information [PDF]. While there, she met Hurston’s former classmate Mathilda Moseley—the woman who tells the “woman-is-smarter-than-man” tales in Hurston’s Mules and Men. Walker’s search finally led her to the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida, where Hurston spent the final years of her life.
4. Alice Walker had the wrong birth year engraved on Zora Neale Hurston’s gravestone.
Both Walker and Hurston’s biographer Robert Hemenway incorrectly recorded 1901 (instead of 1891) as Hurston’s birth year. Hurston herself is responsible for this confusion, as she was known for making up details of her life as she went along—sometimes out of necessity. After her mother’s death, Hurston—who was just 13 years old—was forced to drop out of school when her father refused to pay her tuition. Hurston left home and, for several years, worked as a maid to an actress in a traveling theater company.
At 26, to complete her high school education, Hurston fibbed about being born in 1901, erasing a full decade from her age in order to enroll in public school. Later, she dropped 19 years from her birth date when marrying her second husband, who was 25 years her junior. These colorful details led The Guardian’s Gary Younge to affectionately describe Hurston’s autobiography as “a work of fiction.”
5. Zora Neale Hurston set many of her works in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida—except it wasn’t her hometown.
Claiming Eatonville, Florida, as her birthplace was another detail about Hurston’s life that wasn’t exactly true. Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, and her family relocated to Eatonville, the first incorporated Black town in the U.S., when she was a toddler. Eatonville is the setting for many of her novels and short stories.
6. Zora Neale Hurston was the first Black woman to graduate from Barnard College.
In 1928, Hurston graduated with a degree in anthropology from Barnard College, and became the first Black woman to earn a degree from the institution. While there, she trained under pioneering scientist Franz Boas. With Boas’s help, she obtained a fellowship that allowed her to return to Florida to collect folklore that would later make its way into her novels Mules and Men and Tell My Horse.
7. She had a complicated friendship with Langston Hughes.
After graduating from Barnard College, Hurston went on to study anthropology as a graduate student at Columbia University. She lived in Harlem throughout this time, and in 1925, met and befriended poet, playwright, and social activist Langston Hughes.
In July 1927, the two actually went on a tour of the Deep South together (prompted, in part, by a surprise encounter outside a train station in downtown Mobile, Alabama), and explored both rural Georgia and Alabama, collecting folk tales from the area. The two also shared a patron—a white Manhattan-based socialite, Charlotte Osgood Mason, who provided both with monthly stipends to support their work—although both would subsequently sever their professional ties with her (Hurston, however, reportedly stayed on friendly terms).
Although Hurston at one point referred to Hughes as “the nearest person to me on Earth,” the two had a falling out in 1931 after collaborating on a play, Mule Bone, which was based off Hurston’s short story, “The Bone of Contention.” The two fought over the rights after Hughes reportedly attempted to produce the play himself in Pennsylvania; another factor in the dissolution of their friendship were Hughes’s ongoing disputes with Mason. The pair remained estranged for the rest of Hurston’s life.
8. Zora Neale Hurston interviewed the last known survivor of the transatlantic slave trade.
In 1927 as part of her Deep South tour with Hughes, Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, to interview 86-year-old Oluale Kossola (renamed Cudjo Lewis, but also known as Cudjoe Lewis), the last known survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. Hurston recorded the story of Lewis’s capture, the terror of the Middle Passage, his enslavement in Alabama, and his life after Emancipation.
As part of his account, he noted that many of his fellow abductees became closely bonded with one another, as they’d spend several months together during their harrowing passage to the United States. They were distressed when they were forced to part with one another in Alabama, after being sold to different enslavers. “We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry,” he told Hurston. “Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama.”
In 1931, Hurston completed Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” about Lewis’s experiences. It found no takers at the time but was published for the first time in 2018.
9. Zora Neale Hurston's best-known novel was met with serious criticism.
Hurston, a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, was at the height of her literary career in the 1930s. But adulation turned to derision with the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937. The story of Janie Crawford, a young, working-class Black woman, and her “ever maturing sense of self through three marriages,” the novel faced intense criticism from Hurston’s male peers and critics. Its depiction of a small, Southern town where everyday life did not include lynchings, abuse, or endless back-breaking labor led some to accuse Hurston of whitewashing the racial status quo and pandering to white audiences by perpetuating the minstrel tradition. In a 1937 review of the book, Native Son author Richard Wright wrote:
“Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears … The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is ‘quaint,’ the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the ‘superior’ race.”
As if anticipating her critics’ accusations, Hurston presciently wrote in a 1928 essay, “I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes … No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
10. Their Eyes Were Watching God garnered major acclaim more than 40 years after its publication.
Their Eyes Were Watching God went out of print a few years after publication and remained an obscure work for nearly 30 years. Hurston’s career never quite recovered from those early reviews. In the 1950s, she worked as a maid in Miami. When she died in 1960, the author was impoverished and living in a welfare home. Nearly 20 years later, the book’s reputation was reconsidered.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was reprinted in 1978 following Alice Walker’s essay, and is now considered a classic piece of literature that was far ahead of its time. A movie adaptation, produced by Oprah Winfrey and starring Halley Berry, was released in 2005.
A version of this story was originally published in 2021 and has been updated for 2023.