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Zora Neale Hurston was born almost a decade earlier than she declared in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942); accordingly, to biographer Valerie Boyd, she was a woman “ahead of her time” (Boyd 2003, p. 17). Hurston is noted today for her contributions as a literary author, folklorist, and anthropologist. She stands as a “first” in many arenas, including as the first African American woman to graduate from Barnard College in 1928 at the nontraditional age of 37. As a Barnard student, Hurston was able to take classes at Columbia University, where she flourished. “Under the kind eye of the preeminent Franz Boas, considered the father of American anthropology, Hurston found support for her folklore research,” wrote biographer Irma McClaurin (2000, p. 18). It was Boas who encouraged her to use “the clarifying monocle of anthropology” to salvage and analyze the superstitious stories and “down-home ‘lies’ ” she remembered hearing as a child in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town founded in 1887 near Orlando (Boyd 2003, p. 115). This thriving community of African Americans who supported and respected each other, according to Boyd, became a vital source of inspiration for Hurston, who lived there from the time she was almost two years old. Her father was elected mayor in 1897 and then again in 1912. Hurston eventually studied the rich folk culture of her hometown, recognizing the priceless contribution it could make to the field of cultural anthropology. Memories of the tales she heard on her neighbor Joe Clark’s storefront porch influenced Hurston’s fiction and are evident in stories like “Sweat” and “Possum or Pig,” both published in 1926. That same year she also published The Eatonville Anthology, “an engaging amalgam of folklore, fiction, and Eatonville history” (Boyd 2003, p. 139).
A New Day: The Harlem Renaissance
There is some debate over when the Harlem Renaissance began. Some list 1919 as the starting date and its demise during the mid-1930s. Also, there is some question as to where it started since Hurston and other Renaissance writers, including Angelina Grimké (1805–1879), Jean Toomer (1894–1967), Sterling Brown (1901–1989), Richard Bruce Nugent (1906–1987), and William Waring Cuney (1906–1976), began meeting in Washington, D.C., in the early 1920s as members of “the Saturday Nighters” at the home of the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson (1886–1966). Into their midst came influential writers and scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), Alain Locke (1886–1954), and James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), all of whom traveled between Washington, D.C., and New York City and had great influence in shaping the Renaissance. As a result of these interactions with “the gifted, the famous, and the wannabe famous,” Hurston, who didn’t arrive in Harlem until 1925, had no problem settling in and finding her place among the artists and writers who dubbed themselves “the Niggerati” (Boyd 2003, p. 116). It was not an easy time for a single black woman to establish herself as a writer; during the 1920s African American women were most often employed as domestic help or store clerks. “And so, in the 1920s,” wrote McClaurin, “we must see Zora as a woman who lived against the grain, … perfect[ing] a hat-wearing, cigarette smoking, gun-toting persona that was tremendously at odds with the ideals and standards of traditional womanhood of the time—for both black and white women” (2003, p. 5).
Researching the African Diaspora
From the start of her research, Hurston worked to gather perspectives from the African Diaspora—the scattering of African people throughout the Americas—collecting black folklore in the U.S. South, the Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, and the Honduras. Hurston believed that, despite slavery and its resulting social inequality, Africandescended people retained and continued to create a rich canon of stories, myths, and “lies,” all communicated through evocative language and performance—what she called “the greatest cultural wealth of the continent” (Kaplan 2001, p. xxiii). It was also Hurston who recognized the “logic” of studying the culture of blacks in the
South and the Caribbean as part of a continuum. In fact, Hurston had a desire to create a field of study around the American Negro, as she wrote in a letter to the anthropologist Melville Herskovits (1895–1963): “You fully appreciate how much there is to be done when you realize that there is no real curricula for those Anthropologists who wish to study the Am. Negro [sic]. Papa Franz knows the Indian, etc, but there was nothing to help me in my study of the Negro.… Suppose we set out to create the same thing for the Negro at Northwestern as Boas has done for the Indian at Columbia” (Hurston 2002, p. 372). In 1936, Herskovits was not only unsupportive of Hurston’s overtures, but he also tried to steer her away from conducting research in Jamaica and Haiti, where she eventually finished the manuscript for Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937.
Hurston as Dramatist, Ethnographer, and Writer
Funded by a grant from Carter G. Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1927, and later a contract with white patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason (1854–1946), between 1927 and 1929 Hurston traveled to Florida, Alabama, Georgia, New Orleans, and the Bahamas in search of “authentic” Negro expressive folk culture (Kaplan 2001, p. xxii). She wrote to the author Langston Hughes (1902–1967) of her desire to write at least seven books based upon these ethnographic journeys, but she published only one, Mules and Men, in 1935. She also presented her patron, Mason, with a manuscript entitled “Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States,” published posthumously in 2001 as Every Tongue Got to Confess. Much of Hurston’s folklore material from her 1920s fieldwork seems to have vanished, although some of the rich data surfaced in her collaboration with Hughes on the play Mule Bone in 1930.
The 1930s proved a prolific period for Hurston: She published “Hoodoo in America” in the Journal of American Folklore in 1931, conducted ethnographic research on West Indian Obeah practices in 1936 in Jamaica and Haiti under a Guggenheim fellowship, and wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks and published it in 1937. With her Guggenheim fellowship renewed for 1937, she continued to conduct research in Haiti, recording her field experiences of the previous year in Jamaica and Haiti in her only traditional ethnography, Tell My Horse, completed and published in 1938. In 1939 Hurston joined the Federal Writers Project (FWP), where she produced “consummate essays and commentary about Florida and folklore,” demonstrating that she was “a serious anthropologist whose career had just hit its stride” (Bordelon 1999, p. x). During this time, according to biographer Carla Kaplan, she also staged folklore productions.
A Tragic Ending
Numerous tragedies struck Hurston in the 1940s. The FWP project ended, as did her second marriage (1939–1943) to Albert Price III. For a brief time in 1944, Hurston was married to James Howell Pitts, and published “My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience.” Always intrigued by the Diaspora, Hurston traveled to the British Honduras in 1947 to study black communities. While there she wrote Seraph on the Suwanee. Published in 1948, the novel contains excerpts taken from Hurston’s “FWP field notes and placed … in the mouths of her novel’s characters” (Bordelon 1999, p. x). In 1948, Hurston was accused of molesting a minor. Although the charges were dismissed a year later, the event took its toll. Between 1950 and 1959, Hurston worked a series of odd jobs—journalist, librarian, maid, and substitute teacher—and published some memorable essays along the way, including the controversial “What White Publishers Won’t Print” in the Negro Digest and her last published story, “The Conscience of the Court,” in the Saturday Evening Post, both appearing in 1950. In the early part of 1959, Hurston suffered a stroke. By October she was forced to move into the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. On January 28, 1960, the once-famous Hurston, noted anthropologist, folklorist, novelist, playwright, and preserver of black folk culture, died penniless. She was buried in an “unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest, Fort Pierce” (Gates 1990, p. 311). Interest in
Hurston revived in 1975 with the publication of Alice Walker’s “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. magazine. In 2005 Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God became a television movie starring Academy Award–winning actress Halle Berry. Hurston held a consummate passion for and commitment to the preservation of African American folk culture. What she contributed to anthropology was a body of scholarship that sometimes challenged the literary, social science, and social conventions of her time but illuminated the “figurative capacity of black language” in a manner yet to be replicated (Gates 1990b, p. 212). Hurston’s life, her strikes against social conventions, and her love for black language and black folk culture in all its expressive manifestations continue to inspire into the twenty-first century.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1926. Sweat. Fire! 1 (1): 40–45.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1926. The Eatonville Anthology. Messenger 8 (September–November): 261–262, 297, 319, 332.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1926. Possum or Pig. Forum 76 (September): 465.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1931. Hoodoo in America. Journal of American Folklore 44 (October–December): 317–418.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1934. Jonah’s Gourd Vine. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1935. Mules and Men. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1937. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1938. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1942. Dust Tracks on a Road. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1944. My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience. Negro Digest 2 (June): 25–26.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1948. Seraph on the Suwanee. New York: Scribner’s.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1950a. The Conscience of the Court. Saturday Evening Post (March 18): 22–23, 112–122.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1950b. What White Publishers Won’t Print. Negro Digest 8 (April): 85–89.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1981. The Sanctified Church: The Folklore Writings of Zora Neale Hurston. Berkeley: Turtle Island.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 2001. Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States. New York: HarperCollins.
- Hurston, Zora Neale, with Langston Hughes. 1991. Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, edited and with introductions by George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991).
- Bordelon, Pamela, ed. 1999. Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston from the Federal Writers’ Project. New York: Norton.
- Boyd, Valerie. 2003. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner’s.
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1990a. Afterword, Selected Bibliography :, and Chronology. In Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston, 207–229. New York: Perennial Library.
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1990b. Afterword, Selected Bibliography :, and Chronology. In Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, Zora Neale Hurston, 301–311. New York: Perennial Library.
- Kaplan, Carla. 2001. Introduction. In Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States, Zora Neale Hurston. New York: HarperCollins.
- Kaplan, Carla, ed. 2002. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York: Doubleday.
- McClaurin, Irma. 2000. Belle Lettres: “Dear Langston, Love Zora.” FlaVour: Black Florida Life and Style (Autumn): 16–19.
- McClaurin, Irma. 2003. The Politics of “Being”—Zora Neale Hurston. Unpublished Paper presented (with an interpretation by Tracey Graham) at the conference Jumpin’ at the Sun: Reassessing the Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston, Barnard College, October 3, 2003.
- Walker, Alice. 1975. In Search of Zora Neale Hurston. (March): 74–79, 85–89.
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