African American Women Who Changed the World: Zora Neale Hurston

From Webster:

Zora2Hurston lived in New York during different times in her career from 1925 on, and joined the Harlem Renaissance. She was one of the shapers of the black literary and cultural movement of the twenties. Hurston received a lot of criticism in her time by other writers, some of whom were also involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes, an important black author of the period was supported early on by the same white woman as Hurston but still offered harsh criticism toward her, regarding her career. Darwin Turner was a critic of Hurston's work who tended to primarily base his critique of her work on his person views of her personality. He said she was a “quick-tempered woman, arrogant toward her peers, obsequious toward her supposed superiors, desperate for recognition and reassurance to assuage her feelings of inferiority” (1979). Darwin Turner states that all of Hurston's work must be looked at in regards to the above statement. When Darwin Turner critiques an African American male writer of that time period, Jean Toomer, he mentions nothing of Toomer's marriage to a white woman or that at one point in his career he refused to be identified with other blacks. Turner skirts this issue and says that Toomer's insisting that he wasn't a “Negro” or Caucasian- but a member of the “American” race is “philosophically viable and utterly sincere” (1979). Hurston's work came at a time when critics were both white and black, but were all men. Mary Helen Washington has said that “To a large extent, the attention focused on Zora Hurston's controversial personality and lifestyle has inhibited any objective critical analysis of her work. Few male critics have been able to resist sly innuendoes and outright attacks on Hurston's personal life, even when the work in question was not affected by her disposition or her private affairs” (1979).

Hurston was the first black scholar to research folklore on the level that she did. She researched songs, dances, tales, and sayings. Much of her book material revolves around issues of slavery and the time period immediately following it. She took her black rural culture and heritage and celebrated it at a time when most black scholars were trying hard to deny and forget it. Hurston also studied voodoo practices in Jamaica, Haiti, and the British West Indies. She took photographs and recorded their songs, dances, and rituals. She had a Guggenheim Fellowship to research in the Caribbean, where she stayed for two years. In the Caribbean, Zora Neale Hurston wrote the book she is probably most known for Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was written in 1937, after the ending of a love affair she had with a younger man. It took her seven weeks to complete. The book is about a woman named Janie who learns to find herself and accept an identity that society is not so fast to accept, as a fulfilled and autonomous black woman. Janie also finds love in this novel in a way untypical of other “love” stories of the time.

More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).