Zora Neale Hurston: Anthropologist, Writer, Woman

Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to “jump at de sun.” We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.

– Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston has been a women close to my heart since I first read her work in college (I know, way to late to be introduced to a Woman of this magnitude!). She was a trained anthropologist who studied under Franz Boas, though today Hurston is better known as a major literary figure.

We owe our “rediscovery” of Hurtson’s work to another famous feminist author, Alice Walker. In 1975, Ms. Magazine published Alice Walker’s essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” reviving interest in the author. In the time since, Zora Neale Hurston has come to be 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.

Zora Neale Hurston was a native of Eatonville, Florida. In her writings she would glorify Eatonville as a utopia where black Americans could live independent of the prejudices of white society. She was the fifth of eight children of John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston. Her father was a Baptist preacher, tenant farmer, and carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher.

In the artistic movement of the 1920s black artists moved from traditional dialectical works and imitation of white writers to explore their own culture and affirm pride in their race. Zora Neale Hurston pursued this objective by combining literature with anthropology.  She first gained attention with her short stories such as “John Redding Goes to Sea” and “Spunk” which appeared in black literary magazines.

But her family fell upon hard times during the Great Depression and eventually sought out relief work with the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP). Zora Neale Hurston was already a published writer when she began working for the Florida division of the Work Projects Administration (WPA). Curiously, she never mentioned her work with the Federal Writer’s Project in her autobiography, perhaps because of the stigma associated with the WPA’s relief programs. Having already conducted fieldwork for her own studies, Hurston worked with Herbert Halpert and Stetson Kennedy in the FWP. Her work on Florida’s turpentine camps is still considered authoritative.

After several years of anthropological research financed through grants and fellowships, Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine was published in 1934 to critical success. In 1935, her book Mules and Men, which investigated voodoo practices in black communities in Florida and New Orleans, also brought her kudos.

Radio drama of “Their Eyes were Watching God”

In 1937 Hurston’s published what is considered her greatest novel, Their Eyes were Watching God. And the following year her travelogue and study of Caribbean voodoo Tell My Horse was published. Her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road was a commercial success in 1942, and her final novel Seraph on the Suwanee, published in 1948. Her  four novels and two books of folklore resulted from extensive anthropological research and have proven invaluable sources on the oral cultures of African America.

While Zora’s writing was by and large well received by the white press, it caused  discomfort among the emerging black intellectuals, if not hostility. Her uncensored pictures of black life and speech, embarrassed some. Unlike most African Americans of that time, Hurtsons did not confront white readers with the injustice of racism. Instead Zora’s work is notably absent of white characters; she refused to write “protest novels” portraying blacks as victims. She often said that racists were simply denying themselves the “pleasure of my company” and the riches of African American culture.

In 2008, a documentary titled “Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun”  shared insights from leading scholars and rare footage of the rural South (some of it shot by Zora herself) with re-enactments of a revealing 1943 radio interview. Hurston biographer, Cheryl Wall, traces Zora’s unique artistic vision back to her childhood in Eatonville, Florida. There Zora was surrounded by proud, self-sufficient, self-governing black people, deeply immersed in African American folk traditions.

“You are right in assuming that I am indifferent to the pattern of things.  I am.  I have never liked stale phrases and bodyless courage.  I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than clink upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.”

-Zora Neal Hurston

“Jump at the Sun” letter to fellow writer

Folklore in Zora Neale Hurtson’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

Zora Neale Hurston: Fighting Jim Crow through the All-Black Community

Zora Neale Hurtson’s official website


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