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zora neale hurston Zora Neal Hurston was a writer and anthropologist. (Photo: Carl Van Vechten, April 3, 1938. CREDIT: The Granger Collection, New York)

Zora Neale Hurston Revealed

A great American writer uncovered in literature

By Nick Berray | February 8 , 2011

Most students younger than eighth grade have never heard of her, but she is one of the most inspirational and influential African American writers of all time. With a new young adult book out that imagines her life as a fourth grader, a younger generation is about to find out about Zora Neale Hurston.

Born in Alabama in 1891, Hurston grew up to earn multiple degrees, including one in anthropology. She was an extremely bright student and an exemplary writer.

Best known for the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston authored several short stories and non-fiction books. She also wrote an acclaimed autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.

She traveled extensively throughout the American South and the Caribbean, growing up in Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was one of the first all black towns created after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The young adult book, Zora and Me by T.R. Simon and Victoria Bond, is set in Eatonville.

Dawn Jefferson, a high School English teacher at The Potomac School in Virginia teaches Their Eyes Were Watching God to her ninth-grade students.

"I think that as a person she was actually quite mysterious," Jefferson said of the author, who died in 1960. She talked about how Hurston was influential—and inspirational—to many aspiring writers (particularly African Americans and women). 

"Hurston was a black woman writing at a time when most African Americans weren't being published," she said. "So she was inspirational because she let people know that even though you might be part of a minority group, your voice could be heard."

Not surprisingly, a major theme in Hurston's writing is finding your own unique voice in the world.

"The story has a personal anthropology to it: Who am I? Where am I from? What kind of people make up a community?" she said. "What does it mean to be a young woman, to travel from one place to another and pick up insights on language, class, the role of women?"

While writing Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston used her experience in anthropology to integrate Southern dialect into her story.

"Hurston allows the reader to hear exactly how people spoke at the time of the novel and even using phonetic spelling," Jefferson said. "And that commitment to what we call genuine sound is one of the significant contributions Hurston made to American literature."

Perhaps her most lasting appeal as a writer is that she was able to write about what it means to be human—a unique individual.

"We read Their Eyes Were Watching God because it is a journey novel," Jefferson said. "And because Hurston is able to effectively express a personal cultural perspective—not only on what it means to be black, but also what it means to be Southern.

Her writing was certainly an inspiration to Bond and Simon, who wrote Zora and Me, the first of a planned series of three books. Scholastic Kid Reporter Maxwell Smith met with the authors at the Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem recently. To hear what they had to say about how Hurston’s writing influenced their own, click on the Play button.

authors talking about zora neal hurston
 

You can also read a review of the book and see another video of the authors talking about their experience collaborating on Zora and Me.

CELEBRATE BLACK HISTORY MONTH

For more on the achievements and contributions of African Americans to U.S. History, return to the Scholastic Kids Press Corps' Black History Month Special Report.

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