What do Zora Neale Hurston and Lane Kiffin have in common?
One was a remarkably talented poet, author, anthropologist and
activist; the other, a football coach. One was African-American; the
One was born in Alabama but moved away as a child. The other
presumably will move to Tuscaloosa.
One has been unjustly forgotten. The other?
Not long ago, I got an email from a friend. He wanted to know the
identity of the woman being pictured that day on the home page of
the search engine Google.
My wife asked the same question. She found the answer by clicking
on the picture.
It was Hurston. Google was honoring her on Jan. 7, her 123rd
I was surprised and pleasantly so. Hurston was a torch of the
Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. She was friends with Langston
Hughes and influenced Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison and
Yet today, few people remember her. Moreover, it's unusual for an
artistic female African-American to receive any national
There is a postage stamp with Hurston's image on it, and she has
been featured in a couple of TV documentaries, but given the body of
her work, there hasn't been much. I hope the Google honor is a start
-- not only for Hurston but also for all unjustly neglected American
Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga. One biography says her
parents were former slaves. At age 3, she moved with her family to
Florida, which she regarded as her home state for the rest of her
The Hurstons lived in Eatonville, an all-black community, where
her father was elected mayor. He stirred up a scandal by marrying
another woman as soon as Hurston's mother died.
Hurston was sent away to a boarding school in Jacksonville, but
her family stopped paying tuition and Hurston was kicked out.
Working as a maid, Hurston saved money and attended a high school
in Baltimore. Later she went to Howard University and won a
scholarship to Barnard College of Columbia University in New York,
where she was the sole African-American student. She earned a B.A.
degree in anthropology there in 1928.
It was unusual for a black woman to hold such a lofty degree in
the 1920s, but Hurston was an unusually talented person. At
Columbia, she worked with the famed anthropologist Franz Boas, as
well as with fellow student Margaret Meade.
At the same time, she launched a literary career and soon steamed
to the top of the potent brew that was later called the Harlem
Renaissance. Over the years, her essays, short stories, poems and
novels, including 1937's superb "Their Eyes Were Watching God," won
To my mind, her adventures in folklore were equally compelling.
Employed in the 1930s by the WPA, Hurston served as a sort of Ruby
Pickens Tartt to Alan Lomax and other folklorists, leading them to
raw, country blues singers in Florida.
Moreover, her book, "Mules and Men," published in 1935 and
recounting the lives and beliefs of African-Americans of the Deep
South, is a classic in the field of folklore.
In the late 1940s, she lived in Honduras, hoping to find ancient
ruins. She returned to the United States, where she was accused
falsely in 1948 of molesting a 10-year-old boy. Her innocence was
beyond doubt -- she was in Honduras when the alleged molestation
occurred -- but the accusation still clouded her career.
In her later years, she wrote a bit for newspapers and magazines.
To make ends meet, she took jobs as a substitute teacher and even
worked again as a maid.
Suffering a stroke, she died of hypertensive heart disease in a
welfare home in Fort Pierce, Fla. …