How it Feels to be Colored Me | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston | Biography

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Childhood and Education

Born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, Zora Neale Hurston was the fifth of eight children. Her father was a carpenter and a Baptist preacher, and her mother had been a teacher. When Zora was about three years old, the Hurston family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first town settled by African Americans to be incorporated in the United States. For Hurston, Eatonville was a rich source of characters and settings for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

When Hurston was 13, her mother died, and Zora was sent to live with family in Florida, Tennessee, and Maryland. After finishing high school, she attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she began writing and publishing stories. Then Hurston transferred to Barnard College in New York City. After moving to Harlem in 1925, she joined a circle of talented writers who were part of the Harlem Renaissance—the name for the artistic, social, and political flourishing among African American intellectuals that began in Harlem in the early 1900s. In 1928 Hurston graduated from Barnard with a bachelor's degree in anthropology; she later collected African American folklore in Harlem, the South, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Writing Career

Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, her most famous novel, during a 1937 trip to Haiti, completing the manuscript in just seven weeks. In the novel she drew on personal experiences. For example, Hurston, like her fictional character Janie, lived in Florida, married three times, and fell in love with a younger man. Hurston's inspiration for the novel's love story between Janie and Tea Cake was her own relationship with Percival McGuire Punter, a 23-year-old Columbia University graduate student with whom she fell in love when she was 44 years old. As Hurston explains in the chapter "Love" in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, "the plot was far from the circumstances, but I tried to embalm all the tenderness of my passion for him in Their Eyes Were Watching God."

In addition to Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston published three other novels, two collections of folklore, her autobiography, and several essays, such as "How It Feels to Be Colored Me." She couldn't support herself as a writer, however, and also worked as a secretary, librarian, teacher, and maid.

Death and Legacy

After suffering a stroke in 1959, Hurston died poor and forgotten in an eldercare welfare home in Fort Pierce, Florida, on January 28, 1960. Friends tried to raise the funds to place a marker on her grave but could not collect enough money. Her burial site remained unmarked until 1973, when African American author Alice Walker (b. 1944) paid tribute to Hurston by providing a headstone that reads "A Genius of the South."

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