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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

13. Southern Renaissance

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Faulkner
- Zora Neale Hurston
- Flannery O'Connor
- Katherine Anne Porter
- John Crowe Ransom
- Robert Penn Warren
- Eudora Welty
- Tennessee Williams
- Thomas Wolfe
- Richard Wright
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

Zora Neale Hurston
[4565] Prentiss Taylor, Zora Neale Hurston, courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Used with the permission of the Estate of Zora Neale Hurston.

Zora Neale Hurston Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Although she would later mislead people about her age and birthplace, Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, and later moved to the small, all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. Hurston would later write that she spent the first years of her life blissfully unaware of the racial oppression experienced by the vast majority of southern blacks in that era. "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," Hurston's famous essay recounting this experience, sets the unapologetic, joyful, and defiant tone of much of her writing. Speaking about herself and her African American peers who came of age after the Civil War and the immediate turmoil of Reconstruction, Hurston writes: "No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost." Such exuberant optimism did not please many of her fellow writers in the 1920s and 1930s, and Hurston died in poverty and total anonymity. However, Hurston's prominent position in American literary history today suggests that perhaps she was more prescient than she could have known.

After spending the first thirteen years of her life in Eatonville, Hurston was sent to school in Jacksonville, Florida, where she was quickly initiated into the segregated, Jim Crow South. Determined to be undeterred by the experience, Hurston eventually made her way to Washington, D.C. There she attended Howard University before moving on to New York, where she earned a B.A. degree from Barnard College in 1928. At Barnard she worked with renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, and in 1927, under Boas's direction, Hurston traveled to Louisiana and southern Florida to study and collect African American folktales. That trip produced Mules and Men, published in 1935 and celebrated as the first collection of African American folklore compiled and published by an African American. "The Eatonville Anthology," an anthropologically based narrative, sketches vivid images of Hurston's hometown and reveals her skill as an anthropologist.

Hurston's short story "The Gilded Six-Bits" conveys the author's exuberant and optimistic voice. That voice also characterizes her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel that earned her the scorn and condemnation of other African American writers of her day, notably Langston Hughes and, later, Richard Wright. But while her critics urged her to write novels that would "uplift the race" by showing white readers the oppression and degradation experienced by African Americans, Hurston instead worked to promote a vision of "racial health--a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and literature."

Hurston's writing won her great acclaim in the 1920s and 1930s, and her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), won an award from the Saturday Review for its contribution to positive race relations. Yet, despite her considerable success as a writer, Hurston virtually disappeared from the literary world from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. Thanks to an emerging black feminist movement and the special efforts of Alice Walker and Mary Helen Washington, Hurston was "rediscovered" in the mid-1970s. She is now widely regarded as the most important pre-World War II African American woman writer.

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