Zora Neale Hurston Biography

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Their Eyes Were Watching God Author/Context

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida in 1891. At the time she was born, Eatonville had only existed for five years. Much like the description in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Eatonville was the first incorporated all-black community in America. It was founded by a man named Joe Clarke, who was eventually elected mayor. This is very similar to Joe Starks, a character in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

There are many other characteristics of Eatonville that Hurston included as part of the setting in this book. Just like Joe Starks' store porch, people would sit outside of Joe Clarke's store porch and tell stories and have conversations about the neighbors. Similar to the pear tree under which Janie has her dreams, the outside of Hurston's house was surrounded by beautiful flowers and fruit trees.

When Hurston was 13, her mother became ill and died. Hurston had to leave Eatonville and move to Jacksonville where she started school. It was here that she was first exposed to white people and racism. This was a key point in Hurston's life, for, like Janie discovering she was black, Hurston had to grapple with her identity as a black person. Her imagination and intelligence went wild as she got older and excelled in school. She eventually moved back to Eatonville, but a fight with her new stepmother caused her to leave; she moved in with her brother, in another part of Florida. Hurston joined a traveling light-opera show and worked as a wardrobe girl for Miss M, an actress in the show. She left the troupe in Baltimore and started high school at Morgan Academy, where she excelled at science and math. Here, she wrote her first story, won a speech contest, and earned her diploma in June 1918. She then went on to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she met and fell in love with Herbert Sheen.

Herbert eventually moved to New York, and then to Chicago for medical school. They wrote letters for over eight years before reuniting to marry. The marriage only lasted a few months, as Hurston was more interested in her writing and research.

In 1925, Hurston moved to New York City. She left Howard University without graduating due to illness and financial difficulty. Once in New York, she became part of the Great Migration, a movement of southern blacks to the north, and specifically Harlem. This was the backdrop for the Harlem Renaissance, a period from 1919-1930, that produced an outpouring of ideas through art, literature, and music from blacks. Hurston eventually earned a scholarship to Barnard College, the women's division of Columbia University. In December 1927, Hurston became the first African-American woman to graduate from Barnard. While there, Hurston's writing career blossomed. She developed an interest in African-American folklore. This was the start of many creative works to come.

During the yeas that followed, Hurston wrote novels, essays, articles, and plays. She was a spokeswoman for African-American women and a political activist. She traveled far and wide to conduct research for her folklore tales. Some of her books include: Mules and Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moses, Man of the Mountain, and her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. She married one more time, to a man named Albert Prince III, a playground worker in Jacksonville. Similar to Tea Cake and Janie, Albert was 23 and Hurston was 48. She left him when she got a job as the Director of Dramatic Productions at the North Carolina College for Negroes.

By the late 1950s, Zora had become very heavy, weighing over two hundred pounds. She had difficulty getting around, and in 1959 Hurston had a stroke. This stroke affected her so much that she no longer could write nor think very well at all. She finally died on January 28, 1960.


Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1937.

Lyons, Mary E. Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Charles Scribner's & Sons, 1990.

Porter, A.P. Jump at de Sun. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1992.

Yates, Janelle. Zora Neale Hurston: A Storyteller's Life. Staten Island: Ward Hill Press, 1991.

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