Zora Neale Hurston: Florida folklorist and explorer

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Zora sometimes characterizes the people of an area by the plants and animals around them. Regional plants and animals not only lend authenticity to settings and dialogue, they also provide a central symbol for each of her three Florida-based novels. Jonah’s Gourd Vine is filled with snake imagery. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, often considered her finest literary achievement, the central symbol is a pear tree. A large mulberry tree is the main image in Seraph on the Suwannee. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora also includes the most calamitous natural disaster in modern Florida history: the drowning of more than two thousand people on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee during the devastating 1928 hurricane.

In 1973, novelist Alice Walker (years before her The Color Purple was written) and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt traveled to Fort Pierce, Florida to find this “bodacious” woman’s grave. On locating the segregated cemetery called the Garden of Heavenly Rest, they discovered that Zora’s unmarked grave was in a field of weeds. Before leaving the town, Alice Walker purchased a gravestone to place in her honor that stated “Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Genius of the South.’” The publication of Alice Walker’s article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in the March 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine revived interest in her work and helped spark a Hurston renaissance.

Thank you, Zora, for showing us the strength of women through the strength of nature.


Zora Neale Hurston: January 7, 1891 (Nostasulga, Alabama) – January 28, 1960 (Fort Pierce, Florida)

Zora Neale Hurston was a novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist whose fictional and factual accounts of black heritage are unparalleled. Her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, begins with the words: “I have memories within that came out of the materials that went to make me. Time and place have had their say.” Zora’s “place” was the frontier wilderness of Florida. She grew up in Eatonville, the only incorporated all-black town in America. Playing in the pine barrens and oak scrub, she unconsciously absorbed impressions about the wild flora and fauna. The memory of these sights, smells, and sounds inspired her curiosity and creativity.

Zora explored and understood all parts of her home state of Florida. She traveled its every mile gathering folktales. Mules and Men, a collection of Hurston’s folklore from Florida, is rich in the magic of the natural world. The lyrical descriptions of settings, the realistic dialogue, and the haunting simplicity of symbols demonstrate her knowledge of real Florida.

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