Now that Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, has become a staple of high-school and college classrooms, it’s easy to forget that Hurston herself was almost forgotten. In her lifetime, critics lambasted Hurston’s writing—as well as her sexuality and even her style of dress. Her books brought her little remuneration in her old age. She lived her last days in a welfare home, and her burial was paid for in installments. Their Eyes Were Watching God and her other works fell out of print. Plants overran her burial plot, obscuring her grave.
Although her fiction is much more famous now, it was her anthropology that catalyzed Hurston’s revival. Researching voodoo practices back in 1970, Alice Walker found a single unprejudiced text in a sea of racist anthropology books: Hurston’s 1935 folklore collection, Mules and Men. Astonished by “this perfect book,” Walker shared it with her relatives, “and a kind of paradise was regained. For what Zora’s book did was this: it gave them back all the stories they had forgotten or of which they had grown ashamed.” Walker was so captivated that she later searched for Hurston’s unmarked grave, an effort she documented in “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” a 1975 essay for Ms. magazine. After finding the grave site in a field of snakes and thigh-high weeds in Central Florida, Walker purchased a headstone with the inscription A Genius of the South.
Since then, Hurston’s reclamation has proceeded at a rapid pace. In 1975, Hortense Thornton chaired a seminar on her at the Modern Language Association. In 1977, Robert Hemenway published a biography. In 1978, Harper & Row leased the rights to Their Eyes Were Watching God to the University of Illinois Press, which issued a paperback edition of that tumultuous tale about a black woman from rural Florida named Janie Crawford, who “saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone.”
At the time of its republication, Janie’s story fed a growing demand for black women’s fiction. The paperback edition was so profitable that Harper & Row refused to renew the lease and, hoping to capitalize on the Hurston revival, reprinted her other work, helping to transform her into an emblem of the Harlem Renaissance and black literature.
Barracoon, a work unpublished in Hurston’s lifetime, captures both her anthropological spirit and her capacity for storytelling and narrative. Started in 1927, Barracoon is an oral history based on an interview that Hurston did with Kossula Oluale, the last survivor of the last American slave ship. For Hurston, interviewing Kossula—nine years before the Works Progress Administration compiled its oral histories of slavery—held the potential to transform histories of the transatlantic slave trade, most of which described everything but the experience of enslavement. “All these words from the seller,” Hurston noted in Barracoon, “but not one word from the sold.”