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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Southern Renaissance Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

[4565] Prentiss Taylor, Zora Neale Hurston, courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Used with the permission of the Estate of Zora Neale Hurston.

Although she would later mislead people about her age and birthplace, Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, and later moved to the small, all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. Hurston would later write that she spent the first years of her life blissfully unaware of the racial oppression experienced by the vast majority of southern blacks in that era. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston’s famous essay recounting this experience, sets the unapologetic, joyful, and defiant tone of much of her writing. Speaking about herself and her African American peers who came of age after the Civil War and the immediate turmoil of Reconstruction, Hurston writes: “No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost.” Such exuberant optimism did not please many of her fellow writers in the 1920s and 1930s, and Hurston died in poverty and total anonymity. However, Hurston’s prominent position in American literary history today suggests that perhaps she was more prescient than she could have known.

After spending the first thirteen years of her life in Eatonville, Hurston was sent to school in Jacksonville, Florida, where she was quickly initiated into the segregated, Jim Crow South. Determined to be undeterred by the experience, Hurston eventually made her way to Washington, D.C. There she attended Howard University before moving on to New York, where she earned a B.A. degree from Barnard College in 1928. At Barnard she worked with renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, and in 1927, under Boas’s direction, Hurston traveled to Louisiana and southern Florida to study and collect African American folktales. That trip produced Mules and Men, published in 1935 and celebrated as the first collection of African American folklore compiled and published by an African American. “The Eatonville Anthology,” an anthropologically based narrative, sketches vivid images of Hurston’s hometown and reveals her skill as an anthropologist.

Hurston’s short story “The Gilded Six-Bits” conveys the author’s exuberant and optimistic voice. That voice also characterizes her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel that earned her the scorn and condemnation of other African American writers of her day, notably Langston Hughes and, later, Richard Wright. But while her critics urged her to write novels that would “uplift the race” by showing white readers the oppression and degradation experienced by African Americans, Hurston instead worked to promote a vision of “racial health–a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and literature.”

Hurston’s writing won her great acclaim in the 1920s and 1930s, and her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), won an award from the Saturday Review for its contribution to positive race relations. Yet, despite her considerable success as a writer, Hurston virtually disappeared from the literary world from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. Thanks to an emerging black feminist movement and the special efforts of Alice Walker and Mary Helen Washington, Hurston was “rediscovered” in the mid-1970s. She is now widely regarded as the most important pre-World War II African American woman writer.

Teaching Tips

  • Hurston is often noted for her deft use of the South Florida African American vernacular and her masterful ability to integrate it smoothly with more standard English. Nevertheless, some students may initially be resistant to this; some might even be offended if they regard the vernacular as making Hurston’s African American characters seem ignorant or comical. The audiobook version of Their Eyes Were Watching God can help students learn to read the dialect, while a few simple questions about Hurston’s use of dialect should help your students appreciate the effect of this language. Why does Hurston have her characters talk this way? What does their language tell us about these characters? How is their use of vernacular related to the time and place about which Hurston is writing? Students should be encouraged to consult the table on Black English in Unit 8.
  • Although Hurston was trained as an anthropologist, her portrayals of southern life are not necessarily realistic. For example, in “The Gilded Six-Bits,” Joe and Missie May are portrayed as childlike and simple. While this allows for a greater contrast between the couple’s initial happiness and the estrangement that follows Missie May’s infidelity, it hardly reflects the average life of African Americans in the rural South in 1933. The ease with which the couple’s happiness is eventually restored is also not typical–infidelity was generally dealt with much more harshly in the rural South at this time. After pointing this out to your students, you might ask them to think about why Hurston chose to create characters like Missie May and Joe. What advantage is there for a writer in depicting the world as we wish it was, rather than as we actually find it? What are the disadvantages of this strategy? Such conversation should also help your students better understand the critical debates surrounding Hurston’s work–both in her own time and today.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How would you characterize the tone of the short folktales that comprise “The Eatonville Anthology”?
  2. Context: In 1933, the year Hurston wrote “The Gilded Six-Bits,” the United States was being transformed by an increasingly mobile population. As automobiles became more affordable, the national highway system developed to allow people a greater freedom of movement than they’d ever experienced before. At the same time, chain department stores, national radio broadcasts, and a mature system of motion picture distribution meant that even remote, rural towns had begun to feel the effects of the new mass culture. In Hurston’s story, Missie May and Joe seem to live a blissful and largely carefree existence, but their happiness is interrupted by the appearance of “Otis D. Slemmons, of spots and places.” If Slemmons symbolizes many of the changes described above, what does Hurston seem to be saying about those changes?
  3. Context: In “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston writes: “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you.” How does this perspective compare with the experience of other African Americans living in the segregated, Jim Crow South? Compare Hurston’s sentiments here to those expressed by Richard Wright in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.”
  4. Exploration: Both Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes were closely associated with the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance (see Unit 10). However, unlike Harlem Renaissance writers who produced writing that focused on the experience of the growing population of urban, middle-class African Americans, Hurston and Hughes chose to write about African American folk cultures and to employ more vernacular in their writing. Read Hughes’s “Mother to Son” and “The Weary Blues.” How does Hughes’s poetry complement the picture of African American life Hurston creates in “The Gilded Six-Bits”?

Selected Archive Items

[4565] Prentiss Taylor, Zora Neale Hurston
courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Used with the permission of the Estate of Zora Neale Hurston.
Photograph of Hurston dancing on couch. Known for her flamboyance and charisma, Hurston was sometimes urged by other artists to represent African Americans in more “dignified” ways.

[4566] Anonymous, Their Eyes Were Watching God dustcover (1937), 
courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Zora Neale Hurston’s best-known book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was criticized by some African American authors and leaders because it did not emphasize and critique racial oppression.

[4811] Alan Lomax, African American Child Singer for Singing Games (1935), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-130896 DLC].
Girl standing in rural scene. Zora Neale Hurston was raised in Eatonville, the first all-black township in Florida, about which she wrote “The Eatonville Anthology,” an anthropological narrative. Hurston spent the first years of her life unaware of the racial oppression experienced by the vast majority of southern blacks in the era. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston’s famous essay recounting this experience, sets the unapologetic, joyful, and defiant tone of much of her writing.

[4819] Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, Rochelle French, and Gabriel Brown, Eatonville, Florida (1935), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ61-1777 DLC]. Used with the permission of the Estate of Zora Neale Hurston.
Hurston talking with residents of her all-black hometown, Eatonville. While attending Barnard, Hurston worked with renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, and in 1927, under Boas’s direction, Hurston traveled to Louisiana and southern Florida to study and collect African American folktales.

[5342] Zora Neale Hurston, Shove It Over (1933), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [AFS 3136A:1]. Used with the permission of the Estate of Zora Neale Hurston.
Under the direction of renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, Hurston traveled to Louisiana and southern Florida in 1927 to study and collect African American folktales. This lining rhythm was collected from Charlie Jones on a railroad construction camp near Lakeland, Florida. Before mechanization, songs helped coordinate workers as they aligned railroad tracks using steel “lining bars.”

[7305] R. H. Hoffman, Anthropologist Franz Boas (c. 1945), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-93360 DLC].
One of the best-known anthropologists of the twentieth century, Franz Boas taught Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Mead. His contributions to the field include historical particularism–the idea that anthropology should focus on the uniqueness and specificity of cultures rather than universal laws.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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