Thursday, March 4, 2010

Zora Neale Hurston: Folklorist & Anthropologist

Zora Neale Hurston's love of African-American folklore and her work as an anthropologist are reflected in her novels and short stories--where she employed the rich indigenous dialects of her native rural Florida and the Caribbean. In her foreword to Hurston's autiobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Maya Angelou wrote, "Her books and folktales vibrate with tragedy, humor and the real music of Black American speech."

A published short story writer by the time she came to New York in 1925, Hurston studied anthropology at Barnard, where she was the college's first African-American student. After graduation, Hurston pursued graduate work at Columbia with renowned anthropologist Franz Boas. She left New York to conduct research in Florida and in Haiti and Jamaica, and her field work resulted in the folklore collections Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938). Her classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937.

Still, Hurston never received the financial rewards she deserved. (The largest royalty she ever earned from any of her books was $943.75.) So when she died on Jan. 28, 1960--at age 69, after suffering a stroke. Her neighbors in Fort Pierce, Florida, had to take up a collection for her February 7 funeral. The collection didn't yield enough to pay for a headstone, however, so Hurston was buried in a grave that remained unmarked until 1973. In 1975, Ms. Magazine published Alice Walker's essay, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" reviving interest in Hurston's work. Thanks to Alice Walker's efforts, Hurston's grave now has a fitting epitaph: "Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South."

Today, Zora Neale Hurston is considered one of the pre-eminent writers of twentieth-century African-American literature. Hurston was closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance and has influenced such writers as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Gayle Jones, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara.

For today's students, it's nearly impossible to attend high school or college without reading Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God for a literature class. However, because the book takes a such a thoughtful look at female independence, love, and relationships--it is often used in courses on feminist theory and sociology. In fact, Lucy Anne Hurston, Zora Neale Hurston's niece and a professor of sociology, assigns the book to her students at Manchester Community College for her course on marriage and relationships.

Hurston's Mules and Men was the first great collection of black America's folk world. In the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston returned to her "native village" of Eatonville, Florida to record the oral histories, sermons and songs, dating back to the time of slavery, which she remembered hearing as a child. In her quest, she found herself and her history throughout these highly metaphorical folk-tales, "big old lies," and the lyrical language of song. With this collection, Zora Neale Hurston revealed and preserved a beautiful and important part of American culture.

For those teaching courses on Caribbean literature and culture, Hurston's Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica provides an authentic picture of ceremonies and customs and superstitions because it is based on Hurston's personal experiences in Haiti and Jamaica, where she participated as an initiate rather than just an observer of voodoo practices during her visits in the 1930s. The New York Times Book Review said, "Strikingly dramatic, yet simple and unusual and intensely interesting book richly packed with strange information."

The Boston Globe called Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States (2001) "an extraordinary treasure." Collected in the late 1920s, these hilarious, bittersweet, often saucy folk-tales--some of which date back to the Civil War--provide a fascinating, verdant slice of African-American life in the rural South at the turn of the twentieth century. In the foreword, author John Edgar Wideman discusses the impact of Hurston's pioneering effort to preserve the African-American oral tradition and shows readers how to read these folk tales in the historical and literary context that has--and has not--changed over the years. And, in the introduction, Hurston scholar Carla Kaplan explains how these folk-tales were collected, lost, and found, and examines their profound significance today.

For a complete list of Zora Neale Hurston's work, visit the official Zora Neale Hurston website. And while you are there, be certain to hear Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis read from Hurston's works.

If you've decided to adopt one of these titles for your class, please request a desk copy.

If you're looking for teaching materials for Zora Neale Hurston, here are some terrific teaching guides and resources:

Meanwhile, here's a taste of "Jump at the Sun"--a documentary about Hurston's life. Lee Baker of Duke University said, "[Finally] a high-quality documentary to demonstrate the complex and important life of Zora Neale Hurston. This documentary will be eye-opening to students." Educators may purchase the DVD here.

Author photo by Carl Van Vechten

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