The Influence of One Woman
If you ask readers to name two successful African American women writers you will probably hear Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in reply. But if you go back another generation the reply, if the respondent is savvy in history and literature, has to be Zora Neale Hurston. But she was so much more than a novelist.
Like so many women Zora was almost lost to history. Born in the 19th Century to a family with a strict father who really did not care for Zora, her teenage years were troubled as her mother died and her father and new step-mother had no time or money for the children of his earlier marriage. Though she grew up in a nurturing all black county where, with little of the racial animosity in mixed counties, had she made her way out that community without a High School diploma, and travelled between relatives and jobs. She eventually moved to Baltimore and attended Morgan Academy and then Howard Prep School and Howard University where by shaving years of her age she was allowed to finish high school and then receive an associates degree, and essentially reinvent and rebrand herself.
The draw of the Harlem Renaissance within which she was to become enmeshed, brought her to New York City and Barnard College. Founder of Barnard College, Annie Nathan Meyer, found a scholarship for Zora, who had a few small writing successes under her belt prior to attending Barnard. Fannie Hearst also supported her early efforts in New York. Through her studies there, she was able to do fieldwork in Harlem under the direction of the founder of American Anthropology, Franz Boaz , although her undergraduate degree was in English in 1928. She was the first black graduate of Barnard. She also studied with Ruth Benedict, Elsie Clews Parsons, and Gladys Reichard. With the help of Boaz and Parsons, Hurston was able to win a six-month grant she used to collect African American folklore.
She went on to do research in Jamaica and Haiti and wrote several significant anthropological works and though she won Guggenheim support for her research she never finished her PhD at Columbia.
In 1929 she began a series of fieldwork trips to the U.S. South and to the Caribbean (Haiti and Jamaica). Her research was supported by Rosenwald and Guggenheim fellowships and private funding. Findings of this research are published in Mules and Men (1935), her first major anthropological work, and the first collection of black folklore by a black American. Her second major anthropological work was Tell My Horse (1938), on the materials she collected on Vodun.
But by the time she was publishing this work, the black community which early on supported her literary endeavors, had abandoned her for recording a history and culture that they did not want to acknowledge nor preserve.
She worked for the Federal Writers Project in 1938.
Irma McClaurin says “Hurston’s research was deeply rooted in a Diaspora paradigm, which stressed an examination of the cultural continuities and differences that emerged when Blacks were scattered across the Americas and Europe as a consequence of slavery.”
The later portion of her life was one of many trials. Falsely accused of crimes. Writing from viewpoints distinct from other blacks, she did not support integration, she was isolated and impoverished. Fiercely independent she was humiliated time and again in national media. Her effects after her death were put in a bonfire, and only thanks to Pat Duval, a black deputy sheriff who put out the fire with his hands and a hose, some of her papers and her last novel were saved though soaked and scorched. She was buried in an unmarked grave. Alice Walker found her grave and put up a marker many years after Zora’s death.
Alice Walker championed a rediscovery and reinterpretation of Hurston’s groundbreaking work and rule-bending behavior in the 1970s and 80s. Thanks largely to Walker’s essay: In Search of Zora, she was rescued from obscurity as a profoundly significant literary writer, folklorist, and anthropologist.
There is a wealth of Zora, great summary of her influence on the community of Eatonville, FL.
Her best known literary work is Their Eyes Were Watching God.
She documented culture that was undocumented. Below is a bit of her ethnographic film recording her fieldwork.
Transcendent work such as Hurston’s has an ubiquitous influence that can be unappreciated or unattributed as it is mistakenly thought to be a cultural shift rather than a shift sparked by individual innovation. She is now receiving the credit she is due.