The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement marked by increased literary, musical and artistic creativity by black artists who wanted to challenge the previous stereotypical representation of their image.
Zora Neale Hurston was an important part of the Harlem Renaissance, but her struggle to make it in a patriarchal, segregated pre-WWII society was real. Even amongst her male peers, she was not taken seriously. It was extremely difficult for her to convince publishers and readers that she was up to the task.
Yet, it was in the 1920’s that she encountered her first successes. She won several playwright and short stories contest for the magazine Opportunity, one of the most prominent publications of the Harlem Renaissance.
After receiving a scholarship from the prestigious Barnard College in New York City, Hurston spent time in the South to collect African-American folklore tales, and later on in Haiti and Jamaica to study local voodoo practices. Her work led her to become one of the most influential anthropologists of her time, and brought to light many aspect of Afro-American folklore.
As for her literary career, she still struggled to be taken seriously by the publishing world. The game of patronage was practically impossible to win for women at the time. Indeed, despite the glamour attached to the “Roaring Twenties” and the Harlem Renaissance, it was still a decade dominated by Victorian conventions and ideas, particularly for black women. One rule that Hurston violated constantly was the one stipulating conventional and conservative public behavior.
Hurston dared to see herself as a writer with talent equal to her peers, sharing unique and divergent experiences in sharp contrast to those of black male writers. She added a new perspective to the intellectual revolution of the Harlem Renaissance, and pushed forward the genre of Afro-American novels with Afro-American characters.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, her most famous work, she was one of the first writers of the movement to give prominence to a strong feminine perspective. Hurston’s importance to the African-American and American literature is undoubted, as it anticipated and surely inspired the works of black women writers of the 1970’s and 1980’s, for example Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.
As a woman-owned business, her life and that of other female leaders is particularly inspirational to us all of us at Harlem Spirituals!
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For Zora Neale Hurston’s full biography click here.
For more information on Zora Neale Hurston, read Gender and Ambition: Zora Neale Hurston in the Harlem Renaissance by Ralph D. Stroy in The Black Scholar (1989).