On the author’s 125th birthday, we take a look at seven fascinating facts about her life.
When Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, African Americans, particularly African-American women, faced restrictions and unfair treatment that limited their opportunities. But Hurston was too driven, intelligent and resourceful to be held back — she took the few opportunities she had, and made others appear when needed. Today she is acclaimed for books that include Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mules and Men; however, there are other aspects of her story that are less well-known, but just as interesting. Here are seven fascinating facts about Hurston’s life, struggles and accomplishments:
For Hurston, Age Was Just a Number
Zora Neale Hurston always wanted to get an education, but for years circumstances conspired against her. Among them: her father stopped paying her school bills; then when she was living with an older brother and his family, she ended up having to help out in the household instead of attending classes.
In 1917, Hurston decided school couldn’t wait any longer. She was in Maryland, where “colored youths” age 20 and under were eligible for free public school classes. The only problem was that Hurston had been born in 1891, which made her 26. But she came up with a solution: Hurston told people that she’d been born in 1901 instead. This allowed her to attend night school, the first step on a path that would take her to Howard University, Barnard College and beyond.
From that moment, Hurston’s altered birth date remained a part of her story — even the grave marker that Alice Walker had erected for Hurston in the 1970s incorrectly notes her birth year as 1901.
Hurston Was a Student of Magic
As an anthropologist, Hurston was interested collecting information about African-American life. One area of investigation was hoodoo (which is basically an American version of voodoo). But to learn about hoodoo Hurston needed to gain the trust of its practitioners, which meant participating in both initiation rites and magical ceremonies herself.
In New Orleans in 1928, Hurston took part in hoodoo rituals such as “Black Cat Bone” (which, yes, involves the bones of a black cat). She also wrote to her friend Langston Hughes that she’d been exposed to “a marvelous dance ritual from the ceremony of death.”
Though Hurston was going through hoodoo rituals for her research, she believed in their power and was affected by what she was experiencing. One initiation, which required Hurston to spend three days lying on a snakeskin while fasting, made a particular impression. Hurston later wrote, “On the third night, I had dreams that seemed real for weeks. In one, I strode across the heavens with lightning flashing from under my feet, and grumbling thunder following in my wake.”
Hurston’s Criticized Masterpiece
Many critics applauded Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God when it was first published in 1937. The novel tells the story of Janie Crawford, an African-American woman whose life experiences — which include three marriages — help her find her own voice. Janie also finds love with her third husband, but is then forced to kill the young man in self-defense after he’s bitten by a rabid dog.
Yet there were prominent African Americans who didn’t care for Hurston’s work. Richard Wright, author of Native Son, wrote in a review, “Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction.” He also declared, “The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought.” And Alain Locke, who’d previously supported Hurston’s work, offered this take: “When will the Negro novelist of maturity, who knows how to tell a story convincingly—which is Miss Hurston’s cradle gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction?”
However, Hurston’s novel demonstrated that she (and other black writers) didn’t have to focus solely on serious social themes and issues in order to succeed. And by following her own path, Hurston was able to create a book that’s now regarded as a masterpiece.
Hurston and Hollywood
During Hurston’s lifetime, Hollywood studios considered turning several of her books into films. Hurston particularly hoped that her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), would be acquired by a studio; Warner Bros. saw it as a potential starring vehicle for actress Jane Wyman, but in the end the deal wasn’t made.
Hurston also spent time employed in Hollywood, signing on as a story consultant for Paramount Pictures in October 1941. However, though she was pleased to land the job — it was well-paid at $100/week, which was Hurston’s highest-ever salary — she viewed the position as “not the end of things for me.” In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston notes that by the time she was taken on at Paramount she “had had five books accepted then, been a Guggenheim fellow twice, spoken at three book fairs with all the literary greats of America and some from abroad, and so I was a little more used to things.”
In fact, Hurston tendered her resignation on December 31st. The attack on Pearl Harbor earlier that month, and the United States’ subsequent entry into war, likely contributed to Hurston’s decision to leave the West Coast behind and head back to Florida.
Work as a Maid Became National News
Despite her fame and success as a writer, Hurston was no stranger to financial shortfalls (the largest royalty payment she ever received was just $943.75). In 1950, with a slowdown in writing assignments, she was desperate to find another source of income — and as an African-American woman in Florida, domestic service was a readily available option.
Though Hurston started work as a maid, she didn’t leaving writing behind; in March, she had a short story published in the Saturday Evening Post. Hurston’s employer was stunned when she learned that her maid had a literary career, and she couldn’t keep the information to herself. Soon the Miami Herald wrote about Hurston and her second job as a maid, which became national news. Thankfully, the publicity had an upside: Hurston ended up receiving more writing assignments, which meant she was able to leave domestic work behind.
Hurston Helped Create a Black Doll
In 1950, black children and their parents had few options when it came to dolls: their choices included white dolls or ones that had racist features. So when Sara Lee Creech, a friend of Hurston’s, wanted to create a better black doll, Hurston was pleased to work on the project.
Hurston, who dubbed Creech’s doll “anthropologically correct,” helped put her friend in touch with African-American leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune and Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University, in order to get their blessing for the project. In 1950, Hurston told Creech that her doll “conceived something of real Negro beauty.”
The doll was released in 1951, and though it only remained on shelves for a couple of years, it was beloved by many. In 1992, one woman recalled her feelings about the toy, “Looking back, I would say she made me feel good about myself as a little black girl in the 1950s.”
Hurston’s Papers Were Nearly Destroyed
After Hurston’s 1960 death, the house where she’d been living (before she entered a welfare home following a stroke) needed to be cleared out. To accomplish this, a yardman started a fire, then threw Hurston’s belongings — which included her writing and correspondence — into the flames.
Hurston’s possessions had already started to burn when Deputy Sheriff Patrick Duval happened to pass by and spot the fire. Duval, who’d met Hurston when he was a high school student in the 1930s, recognized the importance of what was being destroyed and rescued her papers. Thanks to his actions, today the University of Florida in Gainesville has documents (some scorched) that otherwise would’ve been lost forever.