My introduction to Zora Neale Hurston came as a 19-year-old college student taking an African American literature course. Hurston's classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God - along with Charles Chesnutt's Marrow of Tradition and William Wells Brown's Clotel - was required reading. I found a rapport with Hurston's gift for storytelling and deft use of Southern Black idioms.
Janie Crawford, Hurston's protagonist in Their Eyes Were Watching God, was fully imagined, and her complexity stood in stark contrast to most of the other female characters I'd encountered in Black literature. Still, it wasn't until months later, when I read Hurston's autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road and her scholarly work in Tell My Horse, that I grasped the weight of her contribution to American letters.
As a novelist, folklorist, intellectual and key figure in the literary movement of Harlem in the 1920s, Hurston was a Renaissance woman. She traveled throughout the South and the Caribbean, gathering little-known folktales of Black life, studied with pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas, collaborated (and feuded) with Langston Hughes, married a man who was literally half her age and generally lived a life outside of convention.
The author of seven books, numerous short stories and innumerable articles and essays, Hurston, like a number of her Harlem Renaissance peers, passed into obscurity in her later years. By the time I entered college, however, she had become a subject of both scholarly and popular interest, and on the strength of Their Eyes, Dust Tracks and Tell My Horse I elected her to my personal College Pantheon of Black Heroes.
Years later, when I was a graduate student writing a doctoral dissertation on African American anti-Communists, I sought to understand the roots of Hurston's well-known opposition to Communism. The Hurston I discovered during my research was as cantankerous as she was visionary, as witty and insightful as she was prone to troubling, sometimes stereotypical assessments of Black America and altogether more complicated than the writer I'd encountered as an undergraduate.
Although Hurston has become something of an icon among progressives and particularly Black feminist thinkers, she was deeply conservative. I was surprised to discover that she had been a steadfast supporter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy -- even at the point when other Republicans (including President Eisenhower) thought the Senator from Wisconsin a national menace. She also supported the Korean War and was apathetic toward the unprovoked invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini in 1935. …