Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Zora Neale Hurston

1891-1960 / Novelist, playwright, folklorist, anthropologist

Born in Eatonville, Florida, Hurston moved to Harlem in 1925 at the urging of scholars Charles S. Johnson and Alain Locke. Hurston's short story "Spunk" and her play "Color Struck" had just won her second place in a writing contest sponsored by the magazine Opportunity.

For Hurston, the name of that publication proved to be prophetic: Harlem gave her a chance to meet and mingle with like-minded artists and intellectuals—notably the poet Langston Hughes—at gatherings and parties thrown by Carl Van Vechten, A'Lelia Walker, and others. Hurston also met a wealthy widow named Charlotte Mason, who wound up giving Hurston key financial support.

Hurston's writing explores the courageous struggles of African Americans living in the rural South in the early 1800s. It brings to life the dialects, customs, and folklore of the region.

Her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine—set in a small, all-black Florida town—was published to critical success in 1934. Her acclaimed 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, describes an independent black woman's search for self-fulfillment.

Hurston's career path did not lead steadily upward. Nearing the end of her life, this successful novelist and pillar of the Harlem Renaissance was forced to support herself as a maid. Yet through times thick and thin, she never blamed events on the color of her skin. In her 1928 essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," she wrote: "I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."