"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board" - Their Eyes Were Watching God
Alice Walker’s moving essay ‘Looking for Zora’ reads like a pilgrim's memoir. It follows the journey of Walker to Florida in search of the grave of African American writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who despite being one of the most prolific black voices in America, died alone and penniless and allegedly buried in an unmarked grave at the age of 69.
During her search for Hurston’s grave in her home of Eatonville, Florida, Walker pretends to be Hurston’s niece in order to gain access to her records and embodies the role, ‘as far as I’m concerned, she is my aunt - and that of all black people as well.’ The essay, first published in 1975 is said to be responsible for the revival of interest in Hurston’s life and works. Here we look at her contribution to travel, literature, anthropology and black folklore.
Zora Neal Hurston was born in Alabama on the 7th January 1891 and moved at Eatonville, Florida as a toddler - a place she shared a lifelong affinity with. Her father was a travelling preacher and following the death of her mother she began travelling aged 14 while working as a maid for a travelling drama troupe performing Gilbert and Sullivan plays. Hurston moved to Harlem in 1925 during the Harlem Renaissance and became a part of its thriving arts scene befriending Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.
She studied anthropology with Franz Boas. Known as the ‘godfather’ of modern anthropology, Boas had many students such as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict and helped move anthropology away from its colonial routes and shape the modern practice we know today. Hurston travelled to collect african-american folk tales and published a collection of these titled ‘Of Mules and Men’ as well as contributing to magazines and the Journal of American Folklore.
Hurston spent the next twenty or so years travelling and collecting black folklore, poetry, music and literature in the Caribbean, and spending large amounts of time in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Honduras and Haiti, her work was met with much praise Langston Hughes remarking, ‘she was such a fine folklore collector, able to go among the people and never act as if she had been to school at all.’ It was while in Haiti she penned her most acclaimed novel “Their Eyes Are Watching God” during fieldwork on local voodoo practices.
During her final decade Hurston struggled financially and personally and despite writing horoscopes for the local paper, failed to have any writing published during this time. She died alone in Florida, 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave as is the subject of Alice Walker’s essay. Hurston has received much posthumous recognition (in most part due to Walker's essay and the rise of new African American authors), and ultimately it is her contribution to black literature, travel, ethnography and dedication to documenting black folklore that we remember her for.