Today is the birthday of the great folklorist, anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). The daughter of an Alabama sharecropper and preacher, Hurston’s life’s journey took her to a degree from Barnard and international recognition for her work as a scholar and artist.
Hurston has been called a “cultural preservationist” — someone who worked to capture the cultural folkways of her people for the benefit of future generations. Her work along those lines grows more valuable as every day passes. A key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, she conducted field studies in the American South and Caribbean, publishing her findings in non-fiction works like “Hoodoo in America” (1931), Mules and Men (1934), and the recently published slave narrative Barracoon, which we wrote about here. Hurston also wrote shorts stories, plays, and novels, the most famous of which is Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which was made into a 2005 movie.
Politically, Hurston was in most ways what we now call a “libertarian”, a passionate anti-communist, but at the same time a non-interventionist in foreign affairs (and a supporter of the Presidential campaign of Robert Taft in 1952).
She is an endlessly fascinating figure, and, I feel, one of America’s greatest writers, with chops that could encompass black dialect (which she is sometimes criticized for), to dispassionate academic-speak, to soaring passages of the King’s English, as in these comments on the subject of religion, from her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, which remind me of Emerson:
…The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn is glory enough for me. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space…
I have written two additional posts about Hurston. For my 2016 piece on the New Federal Theatre’s biographical play about her go here. And for my 2019 post on her masterpiece of fieldwork Barracoon, go here.
For more info, check out http://zoranealehurston.com/
And here’s a snippet of a documentary on her: