As we wrote before, Isabel Wilkerson has been educating her fans on the impact of the Great Migration by posting stories of prominent African Americans to her Facebook page. Recently, she profiled Zora Neale Hurston, one of our favorite writers and one of the literary world’s greatest treasures.
We loved what she had to say about Hurston so much that we decided to share it with you here:
On this day, January 7, in 1891 or 1901, beloved author Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Ala., to Rev. John and Lucy Hurston. She grew up in the all-black town of Eatonville, Fla., and went north as a young woman, just as the Great Migration was starting during World War I. She attended what is now Morgan State University and then Howard University, where she got her first story published in the literary magazine, Stylus, and co-founded the student newspaper, the Hilltop, while working odd jobs as a maid and a manicurist.
She went to New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and, in 1928, became the first black student known to graduate Barnard College. There, she majored in English and studied anthropology, but was not permitted to live in the dormitories. As was her way, she never complained. She once famously said: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
She would become a renowned folklorist and novelist, acclaimed for her 1937 masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which some see as drawn from parts of her own life. Five years later, she published an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, about her many journeys, but her star faded as she appeared removed from the changing politics of the day. In 1946, she supported the Republican who was opposing Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, the most famous black politician of the era. Powell won reelection by a landslide, and the election seemed a window into the distance between her southern traditionalism and a growing push for equality in the North.
She returned to Florida and, in January 1960, she died in a welfare home in Fort Pierce, Fla., after suffering a stroke. She has grown more legendary in death than even in life after acclaimed novelist Alice Walker went in search of her unmarked grave, erected a headstone in her honor, and helped return her to her rightful place in literary history.
Hurston has inspired generations of writers with her free-spirited wit and imagination and her love of black southern folkways. “I am not tragically colored,” she once said. “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.”