A new biography chronicles the life of an African American writer who nearly vanished from the literary scene, only to be rediscovered just a few decades ago. Zora Neale Hurston is the subject of a book called Wrapped in Rainbows. The author is Valerie Boyd, an editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper.
More than 40 years after her death, the voice of Zora Neale Hurston lives on in her recordings.
Zora Neale Hurston first heard that song in the 1930s, at a time when little attention was being paid to black American folk culture. Helping preserve that culture was just part of her legacy. Valerie Boyd says Zora Neale Hurston was also a pioneering fiction writer.
"She was writing about the inner lives of ordinary black people. That seems almost commonplace today when we've all read writings by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and John Edgar Wideman," she explains. "But for a writer in the 1920s and '30s and '40s to do this was almost revolutionary. And she specifically wrote about the lives of black women. Hurston really broadened America's perception of what was worthy of literature."
Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that she'd experienced great sorrows and joys in lifejoys that made her feel "wrapped in rainbows." In her biography, Wrapped in Rainbows, Valerie Boyd describes both the lows and the highs, beginning with Zora Neale Hurston's idyllic childhood in Eatonville, Florida.
"Eatonville was an amazing place for a child to grow up at the turn of the twentieth century, because it was all black town," she explains. " It was the nation's first incorporated black town. She saw examples of black achievement everywhere she looked. The mayor was black. The storeowners were black. All the teachers were black. And that gave her a strong sense of the possibility that she could be whatever she wanted to be."
Those years also shaped Zora Neale Hurston as a writer.
"Her father was a Baptist minister and visiting ministers would come to the Hurston home and sit on the porch and tell stories," says the author. " And I think this kind of language and humor became the bedrock for her own literature."
Zora Neale Hurston was 13-years-old when mother died. Her father remarried and the family dispersed. She spent the next decade struggling to survive on her own. At age 26, she set off in a new direction, claiming to be just 16 to qualify for free study at a Baltimore, Maryland high school.
"She reinvented herself from that moment on, and always part of her reinvention was this fiction about her age, which she maintained throughout her life," explains Ms. Boyd.
Zora Neale Hurston went on to attend college and become a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of black American art and culture centered in New York City. But late in the 1920s, she set out in a new direction, taking a series of trips through the American South and the Caribbean to study black folk literature, dance and music.
"She did a great deal of anthropological research, and had in fact studied anthropology at Columbia University, and found in anthropology a scientific way of looking at the black folkways she'd always appreciated growing up in Eatonville. She definitely preserved a lot of materials that might otherwise have been lost. And of course this research informed all her writing," she says.
Zora Neale Hurston published books of anthropology, a memoir and fiction, including an acclaimed novel called Their Eyes Were Watching God.
"It's specifically a black woman's story, but she deals with themes of love and loyalty and trust. The kinds of issues we all struggle with at some point in our lives," explains Ms. Boyd. " She got a lot of criticism from some of her peers because she wasn't writing what was then known as social protest literature. And Zora said, 'I'm interested in what makes a man or a woman do so and so, regardless of color.' "
That determination may also have prevented her from gaining more recognition in her own time. By the time she died in 1960, Zora Neale Hurston was living in poverty, and her books had long gone out of print. She was buried in an unmarked grave.
"But in the mid 1970s, Alice Walker went to Fort Pierce, Florida and put a marker on the grave to honor this black woman writer who had been so important in her own life. And Alice Walker wrote a moving essay about that experience in Ms. Magazine and really jump-started a resurgence of interest in Zora Neale Hurston," the author explains.
And what is it that we're able to appreciate today that earlier generations weren't able to see in her work?
" I think we're able to appreciate her commitment to celebrating the lives of ordinary black people," Ms. Boyd responds. " In her day, those lives weren't necessarily thought to be worthy of literature. Zora was so ahead of her time, America wasn't really ready for her. And we are now."
Zora Neale Hurston's works are now taught in high school and college classrooms. They've been staged in theaters, and each year, a Zora Neale Hurston Festival is held in Eatonville, Florida. Valerie Boyd says she wanted to explore the personal life of a writer who's fast becoming a legend.
"We often think of her as flamboyant and feisty. But I think she was also lonely in some ways," the author says. " She had trouble finding people who would walk the inventive road she wanted to walk. She was more than anything an independent, liberated thinker."
And Valerie Boyd says that was the recurring theme in all her research. Again and again, people who'd known her would say, "There was no one like Zora Neale Hurston."