Black History Month Secular Profile

As a writer and anthropologist, Hurston centered the perspective of Black women

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Zora Neale Hurston’s literary works have stood the test of time. Well-known essays such as “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” “High John de Conquer,” and “What White Publishers Won’t Print” feel especially relevant today in an America that has continued its high-profile reckoning on racial justice issues. Many of her themes rest on the idea that Black Americans are fundamentally misunderstood, their Black culture often depicted stereotypically in traditional media. Hurston pushed her readers to better understand the lives of Black Americans and their struggle for justice.

Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama to parents who had both spent part of their lives enslaved. Her family moved to Florida where Hurston enrolled at Morgan Academy. She later attended Howard University, participating in student government and founding the school’s newspaper, The Hilltop. Hurston later attended Barnard College, graduating with a degree in anthropology.

Hurston dedicated her life to the study of Black art and culture and began publishing fictional stories that centered the perspectives of Black women. She became a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, along with such prominent Black writers as Langston Hughes. Her anthropological research saw her travel throughout the Caribbean, to countries such as Jamaica and Haiti to study African rituals and dialects. 

Hurston had long been a skeptic of religion, which set her apart from many of her literary contemporaries.

Hurston had long been a skeptic of religion, which set her apart from many of her literary contemporaries. In Mules and Men, she wrote: “It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world.” Hurston began questioning Christianity early on in her life. In her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, she wrote: “I wanted to know why didn’t God make grown babies instead of those measly little things that messed up didies and cried all the time? What was the sense in making babies with no teeth? He knew that they had to have teeth, didn’t He?” She also asked why “if Christ, God’s son, hated to die, and God hated for Him to die and have everybody grieving over it ever since, why did He have to do it? Why did people die anyway?” 

In 1934, Hurston established a school for dramatic arts at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida. She served on the faculty at the North Carolina College for Negros at Durham. Throughout her life, Hurston was not paid well for her literary work and struggled through poverty and debt. At the end of her life, she lived in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She died on January 28th, 1960 of heart disease. 12 years after her death, author Alice Walker found Hurston’s unmarked grave and created a marker, beginning the process of Hurston’s posthumous rise to fame.

Today, Hurston’s writing is well-known around the world and has influenced countless contemporary writers. Her legacy is one of breaking conventional literary and anthropological norms by centering the perspectives of Black women.

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.

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