Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art

Investigating Americanness

Zora Neale Hurston

As an artist and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston broke new ground in fiction, non-fiction, and drama. Her skill as a fiction writer gave narrative power to her anthropological writing. The stories she collected during her fieldwork in southern Florida and New Orleans are elegantly recounted in her folktale collection Mules and Men.  In turn, her fieldwork and personal history both inspired her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a coming-of-age story now recognized as a modernist masterpiece.

Born in 1891 to a prominent, nurturing family in the prosperous, entirely African-American town of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston was suddenly thrust into an independent life after she lost her mother at an early age. After studying at Howard University, she moved to Harlem (see Harlem Renaissance) in 1925. Because of her writing success in Harlem, a wealthy patron offered her a scholarship to Barnard College. During her studies there, she wrote an anthropology paper that impressed the preeminent anthropologist, Franz Boas, and she was invited by him to study at Columbia University.

Boas revolutionized American anthropology by directing it away from 19th-century views that had declared dark-skinned peoples as less evolved, and towards a position that sought to understand and value every culture’s point of view. Boas encouraged Hurston to collect African-American folklore to explore the imaginative roots of black American culture. Traveling through the South, she recorded ghost stories, fantastic tales, and studied "Hoodoo" in the Louisiana swamps. The story of her initiation into the Hoodoo religion is a harrowing account of deprivation and isolation.

In spite of her education and accomplishments, Hurston suffered frequent poverty. Her inability to establish herself professionally reflected the challenges that gifted African-American women faced in 1920s America. A brilliant woman who elegantly articulated what it was to be a black and American, Hurston died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her belief in the power of art to build a bridge of understanding between the races is an unwavering theme throughout her work.

Photograph of Zora Neale Hurston
Photograph of Zora Neale Hurston
Carl Van Vechten

After Hurston had worked briefly for her patron, the novelist Fannie Hurst, the two carried on a lengthy correspondence. Hurston's inscription to Hurst on this portrait refers to a passage in her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, in which the blessed are ...

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