Hurston was "purposefully inconsistent in the birth dates she dispensed during her lifetime, most of which were fictitious." For a long time, scholars believed that Hurston was born and raised in Eatonville, Florida, with a birthdate in 1901. In the 1990s, it came to light that she was actually born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891 (see for example Lowe, Jump at the Sun, 1994); she moved to Eatonville at a young age, and spent her childhood there.
Hurston also lived in Fort Pierce, Florida and attended Lincoln Park Academy. Hurston would discuss her Eatonville childhood in the 1928 essay, "How It Feels To Be Colored Me". At age 13, her mother died and later that year, her father sent her to a private school in Jacksonville.
Read Poker! by Zora Neale Hurston, one of three of her works available free from Project Gutenberg. College and anthropology
She began her undergraduate studies at Howard University but left after a few years, unable to support herself. She was later offered a scholarship to Barnard College where she received her B.A. in anthropology in 1927. While at Barnard, she conducted ethnographic research under her advisor, the noted anthropologist Franz Boas of Columbia University. She also worked with Ruth Benedict as well as fellow anthropology student Margaret Mead.
Hurston applied her ethnographic training to document African American folklore in her critically acclaimed book Mules and Men (1935) along with fiction (Their Eyes Were Watching God) and dance, assembling and leading a finger popping group which performed works such as the 1932 Broadway performance The Great Day. In addition, Hurston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Haiti and conduct research in 1937. She was one of the first academics to conduct an ethnographic study of the Vodun, also a subject of study for fellow dancer/anthropologist Katherine Dunham who was then at the University of Chicago.
In 1954 Hurston (who had fallen upon hard times) was assigned to cover the murder trial of Ruby McCollum for the Pittsburgh Courier with journalist/author and civil rights advocate William Bradford Huie.
Hurston died penniless in obscurity and was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida. African-American novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found and marked the grave in 1973, sparking a Hurston renaissance. Hurston's house in Fort Pierce is a National Historic Landmark.
Fort Pierce celebrates Hurston annually through various events such as Hattitudes, birthday parties and a several-day festival at the end of April, Zora Fest.
During her prime, Hurston was a supporter of the UNIA and Marcus Garvey, casting herself in fierce opposition to communism as professed by many of her colleagues in the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, who wrote several poems of effusive praise for the Soviet Union. Hurston thus became by far the leading black figure on the libertarian Old Right, and in 1952 she actively promoted the presidential candidacy of Robert Taft.
Hurston's detachment from the wider civil rights movement was demonstrated by her opposition to the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954. She voiced this opposition in a letter, Court Order Can't Make the Races Mix, which was published in the Orlando Sentinel in August 1955. This letter caused a furor and proved to be Hurston's last public intervention.
Public obscurity and acclaim
Hurston's work slid into obscurity for decades, for a number of reasons, cultural and political.
Many readers objected to the representation of African American dialect in Hurston's novels. Hurston's stylistic choices in terms of dialogue were influenced by her academic experiences. Thinking like a folklorist, Hurston strove to represent speech patterns of the period which she documented through ethnographic research. For example (Amy from the opening of Jonah's Gourd Vine):
"Dat's a big ole resurrection lie, Ned. Uh slew-foot, drag-leg lie at dat, and Ah dare yuh tuh hit me too. You know Ahm uh fightin' dawg and mah hide is worth money. Hit me if you dare! Ah'll wash yo' tub uh 'gator guts and dat quick."
Some critics during her time felt that Hurston's decision to render language in this way caricatured black culture. In more recent times, however, critics have praised Hurston for her artful capture of the actual spoken idiom of the day.
The conservative politics of Hurston's work also hindered the public's reception of her books. During the 1930s and 1940s when her work was published, the pre-eminent African American author was Richard Wright. Unlike Hurston, Wright wrote in explicitly political terms, as someone who had become disenchanted with communism, using the struggle of black Americans for respect and economic advancement as both the setting and the motivation for his work. Other popular African American authors of the time, such as Ralph Ellison, were also aligned with Wright's vision of the struggle of African Americans. Hurston's work, which did not engage these explicit leftist political issues, simply did not fit in smoothly with this struggle.
With the publication of the ambitous novel Seraph on the Suwanee in 1948, Hurston burst through the tight bounds of contemporary black writing in yet another seemingly apolitical way. This is a tale of poor whites struggling in rural Florida's citrus industry. Black characters recede to the background. Neither the black intelligentsia nor the white mainstream of the late 1940s could accept the notion of a black writer speaking through white characters. Panned across the board, Seraph ended up being Hurston's last major literary effort as she retreated to small-town Florida for the rest of her life. The text stands out, as she remarked herself, as a testimony to her own self-definition as a regional as much as a black writer.
In academia, anthropologists often disdained Hurston's works as fiction, and thus unworthy of inclusion on anthropological reading lists. Feminist critics of academia have observed that a number of novels and non-fiction works of confessional literature written by women with anthropological training that draw upon their observations and experiences were sidelined in this fashion. Hurston's work was, in this respect, treated in the same manner as some books by Elsie Clews Parsons, Ella Deloria, and Laura Bohannon, among others. At the same time, when well known male anthropologists began to experiment with literary form and style in ethnography, they were often hailed for their work. Many critics therefore perceive the lack of academic acclaim for Hurston's work to indicate a form of institutional sexism. Hurston's books have since been discussed and celebrated not only as African American literature, but as feminist literature as well.