Zora Neale Hurston
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Literature

In January 1935, writer and anthropologist ZORA NEALE HURSTON (1891–1960) received a letter from one Alan Lomax, who — impressed by Hurston’s Journal of American Folklore article, “Hoodoo In America” — proposed they collaborate. Though young, Alan didn’t lack experience: his father was folklorist John Lomax, erstwhile “discoverer” of Huddie Ledbetter at Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm. It was a quite a story — indeed, in Hurston’s reply, she hoped to meet “Brother Lead Belly” — but one hardly more remarkable than her own. She came from a “Negro town” just north of Orlando. “I do not mean by that the black back-side of an average town,” Hurston explained. “Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth a pure Negro town — charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.” Though she began high school in Jacksonville, family travails kept her from graduating; not until 1918, in Baltimore — where she’d first arrived while employed as a maid for a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan troupe — did she earn a high school diploma. Intermittent studies — and a steady literary immersion — at Howard University followed until 1925, when Hurston moved to New York. The Harlem Renaissance was one education; Barnard College, where pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas became her mentor, was another. Thus the path bringing Hurston, Lomax, and another white folklorist, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, south in June 1935 to collect: the Georgia Sea Islands, Eatonville, the Everglades; the last, in her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston called “the muck.”

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Hugh Kenner and Nicholson Baker.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903). Note that Hurston claimed she was born in 1901; honoring that claim, we’ve declared her an honorary Hardboiled.

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.