Grave Matters

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Grave Matters

by Elizabeth Robeson
Southern Cultures, Vol. 5, No. 3: Fall 1999

"Zora Neale Hurston's correspondence with W. E. B. Du Bois in 1929 reveals her concern about how prominent African Americans of their era were honored after death."

The posthumous career of Zora Neale Hurston— and how it came about—is surely one of the remarkable events of American literary history. If the facts of Hurston’s life and death illustrate the pathos of segregation, her celebrated rediscovery suggests die breadth of America’s more recent cultural evolution. Hurston—arguably the most revered African American woman writer and on a short list of all-time American favorites—died an indigent in a Miami-area welfare home in 1960 after a life of hard-won accomplishment and sometimes bitter controversy. Winner of two Guggenheim fellowships and protégé of the pioneer anthropologist Franz Boas; first African American graduate of Barnard College; performance artist and teacher; folklorist and ardent champion of black folk culture, Hurston energized the Harlem Renaissance with an electric personality discernible in her cry, “I am on fire about my people!” Hurston left behind four novels, two volumes of folklore, an autobiography, and a slew of short stories and articles— more than any previous black woman writer in America. “If she did not achieve a commercial success,” suggested the New York Times in her obituary, “that was the fault of the reading public, not Miss Hurston.”