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The Essential Zora Neale Hurston

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • January 08, 2020

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.

In a 1975 essay in Ms. Magazine, Alice Walker called Zora Neale Hurston "the patron saint of black women writers." A key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston made waves and polarized many with her creative use of dialect, a quality that is now held up as a particular strength. But after her death in 1960, her work seemed to be in danger of being forgotten. Luckily, Walker's praise led to the republication of Hurston's four previously published novels, as well as dozens of her short stories and plays. Since that time more of Hurston's work has been found and published posthumously, including a collection of eight of her "lost" stories, coming out next week. Here are five of our favorite Hurston works.

There is something wonderful to behold just ahead. Let's go see what it is.

Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama. When she was three years old her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the setting of many of her stories. In her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston describes her upbringing in this all-black community where her charismatic father served as both mayor and preacher. Her beloved mother taught her to read at a young age and encouraged her to "jump at de sun."

But after her mother's death when she was 13, her father remarried. Hurston didn't get along well with her new stepmother and was sent away to school. When her father stopped paying tuition, Hurston was forced to drop out and support herself. At age 25, she returned to school, continuing on to become the first black woman to graduate from Barnard. During this time, Hurston began publishing her stories and making a name for herself as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Ah done been in sorrow's kitchen and Ah done licked out all the pots.

Hurston's debut novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, depicts a marriage, which seems to have been based on that of her parents. Published in 1934, the book tells the story of John Pearson, a philandering preacher who is desired by many women and his long-suffering wife Lucy. In this novel, as in her other work, she employs not only her glorious writing abilities, but also her extensive research as a philanthropist and folklorist. The authenticity of her stories and anecdotes is what made them so powerful, and even controversial, as many of her contemporaries objected to her use of the colloquial African-American vernacular.

Those who love us never leave us alone with our grief.

In 1931, after many hours interviewing Cudjoe Lewis, one of the last survivors of the slave trade, Hurston recorded her account of his experience in the nonfiction work Barracoon. However, when publishers asked Hurston to tone down her subject's dialect to make the content more comfortable for white readers, she flatly refused. As a result, this important work would not see the light of day until 87 years later in 2018.

Belief in magic is older than writing. So nobody knows how it started.

First published in 1935, Mules and Men is a glorious collection of black folklore, meticulously curated by Hurston. This treasury of songs, sermons, stories, and sayings represents a rich oral history of the South since the time of slavery. Reported with the kind of intimacy that only an insider could access, this anthology brings to life the vibrant mix of strength, humor, and wisdom that infuses the African-American legacy.

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

This list would not be complete without Hurston's most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Written over the course of just seven weeks and published in 1937, the book suffered harsh criticisms and was a commercial failure. Rediscovered and republished in the 1970s, it has gone on to become her most esteemed work, a robust combination of her prowess as a storyteller and her deep knowledge of Southern black culture. Inspired by Hurston's own secret romance, the book tells the story of Janie Crawford, an independent woman who chooses love above all else. Deeply compelling and steeped in the richness of the South, this book is a shining example of Hurston's enduring legacy.

If you haven't had the chance to read any of Zora Neale Hurston's books yet, get on it! If you're already an ardent fan, be on the lookout for the release of her new collection of stories, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, on January 14.

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Women_Authors | Black_Authors
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