Zora Neale Hurston spent the late 1920s and early 1930s collecting the folklore she knew best, the stories, songs, tales, proverbs, and crafts of black southern people. At a time when the Ku Klux Klan was still a major force in national politics, in an era when "negro coeds" were expected to limit their horizons to school teaching, Hurston single-handedly, against great odds, became the best black woman writer in America.
Hurston's most acclaimed work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, has been read, adored, rejected, reviewed, and badgered by many literary critics and readers alike. "In a book rich with imagery and black oral tradition, Zora Neale Hurston tells us of a woman's journey that gives the lie to Freud's assertion that 'the difficult development which leads to femininity seems to exhaust all the possibilities of the individual'. This statement is manifested in Their Eyes… through Hurston's vivid imagery and uncanny sense of her own needs. The plot centers on Janie, a character some critics say is mimicked after Hurston herself, and her journey toward self-discovery. As a victim of circumstance, Janie becomes a victim of her own position. She is raised to uphold the standards of her grandmother's generation; she is taught to be passive and subject to whatever life gives her. But as Janie grows older she begins to realize that the world may not like it, but she has got to follow her desires, not suppress them. The story begins in her childhood, with Janie exalting material possessions and money, two things she has never had an abundance of. Janie marries twice, the second marriage being bigamous. She realizes that she must be self-reliant. She experiences all of these things in a totally Black community, where society is motivated by the most basic human instincts.
All of Hurston's critics said that she gave in to the stereotype of a typical African-American. This in turn furthered the sense of inequality present in society. The critics who held this view, according to an author , subscribed this style of confrontation: "They believed only by preaching to the white reader about how wonderful blacks really were and how horrible discrimination was, could equality be achieved".
She was a defiant free-spirit even during her early career. While working on an anthropological study for her mentor, Franz Boas, she was exposed to voo doo, which she quickly embraced. She was deeply interested in the subtle nuances that voo doo had left scattered throughout Afro-American culture. She also adopted this religion, which contrasted completely with her Baptist up-bringing , because it gave her a new artistic sense. Voo doo freed her from the institutional restraints that she experienced as a black woman in a white oligarchy.