Black History Profiles
by Brianna Rae
Zora Neale Hurston
A self-possessed woman with infinite curiosity, Zora Neale Hurston was a key figure in the literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance, but also in the fields of anthropology and folklore. Known for saying, “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company?” Hurston never allowed anyone to define her or deny her her own magic.
Born in Alabama on January 7, 1891 to a Baptist preacher and a school teacher, she grew up in Eatonville, Florida, one of the first incorporated all-Black towns in the United States. Eatonville would later serve as a backdrop and inspiration for Hurston’s work.
As a child, Hurston always had a mind and an ear for listening to and remembering stories, idioms, jokes, expressions, and folklore of the Southern African-American culture, and she used her writing to normalize and preserve the rich and unrepresented culture in which she grew up.
She attended Howard University and was later offered a scholarship to Barnard University, where she earned her B.A. in Anthropology at age 37 and was the only Black student. She continued her studies in the graduate program at Columbia University while traveling extensively throughout the Caribbean and American South, absorbing and documenting the culture.
Hurston moved to New York City in 1925 during the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, where she met Langston Hughes (among many others) and became a published writer of short stories. Her first three novels were published in the 1930s, including her most famous work Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
Though her work slipped into obscurity for years and was criticized for its use of the African- American dialect, it resurfaced in the 1970s with the rise of other prominent women of color authors such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou, all of whom helped to redirect due attention to Hurston’s remarkable work.
She died on January 28, 1960 of hypertensive heart disease and was buried in an unmarked grave. Years later, Alice Walker planted a grave marker where she thought Hurston might be buried and called her “A Genius of the South.” Since, Hurston has been added to the literary canon and is one of the most beloved authors of the 20th century.
Throughout his 50-year career, Amiri Baraka has produced poetry, fiction, essays, drama, and music criticism that has been of defining importance to African-American literature and American culture. Baraka remains one of the most respected, controversial, and widely published writer of his generation, and Maya Angelou called him the world’s greatest living poet.
Born as Everett LeRoi Jones on October 7, 1934 in New Jersey, Baraka received his B.A. in English from Howard University in 1954. He moved to Greenwich Village and while working in a records warehouse (for his love of Jazz), he wrote poetry and worked as an editor and critic for literary journals.
In 1965, after the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka and his family moved to Harlem, where he started what became known as the Black Arts Movement, the artistic branch of the Black Power Movement. In his 1965 poem “Black Art,” Baraka expressed, “We want a Black poem / And a Black world,” and increasingly saw poetry as a means of political action against injustice.
Baraka went by LeRoi Jones until 1967 when he changed his name to Imamu Amear Baraka (meaning ‘Spiritual leader,’ ‘Prince,’ and ‘Blessing,’ respectively), and later shortened it to Amiri Baraka. Baraka later distanced himself from Black Nationalism and aligned himself with Marxism and Third- World Liberation movements.
Baraka wrote on a large variety of topics, including Black liberation, white racism, music, literature, and society. Some of his most famous works include Blues People (1963), Dutchman (1964), A Black Mass (1966), Black Music (1968), New Music, New Poetry (1980) and The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (1987).
Baraka received numerous fellowships, awards, and honors from prestigious institutions throughout his career. After his long battle with diabetes, he passed away on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.