Friday, January 7, 2011

In History: Zora Neale Hurston

This is the 59th post in a weekly feature here at Spare Candy, called "In History." Some posts might be little more than a photo, others full on features. If you have any suggestions for a person or event that should be featured, or would like to submit a guest post or cross post, e-mail me at rosiered23 (at) sparecandy (dot) com.

Zora Neale Hurston, who was born on this day, Jan, 7, in 1891, was an American folklorist, anthropologist, and author during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Of her four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, she is best known for her 1937 novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

In 1918, Hurston began undergraduate studies at Howard University, where she became one of the earliest initiates of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and co-founded "The Hilltop," the University's student newspaper. Hurston left Howard in 1924 and in 1925 was offered a scholarship to Barnard College, where she was the college's sole black student. Hurston received her B.A. in anthropology in 1927, when she was 36. While she was at Barnard, she conducted ethnographic research with noted anthropologist Franz Boas of Columbia University. She also worked with Ruth Benedict as well as fellow anthropology student Margaret Mead. After graduating from Barnard, Hurston spent two years as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University.

As an adult, Hurston traveled extensively in the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research. In later life, in addition to continuing her literary career, Hurston served on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in Durham, N.C. She also established, in 1934, a school of dramatic arts "based on pure Negro expression" at Bethune-Cookman University (at the time, Bethune-Cookman College) in Daytona Beach, Fla. In, 1956 Hurston was bestowed the Bethune-Cookman College Award for Education and Human Relations in recognition of her vast achievements, and the English Department at Bethune-Cookman College remains dedicated to preserving her cultural legacy.

Hurston's literary career was storied. When Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925, the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak, and she soon became one of the writers at its center. Shortly before she entered Barnard, Hurston's short story “Spunk” was selected for "The New Negro," a landmark anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays focusing on African and African American art and literature. In 1926, a group of young black writers including Hurston, Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, calling themselves the Niggerati, produced a literary magazine called "Fire!!" that featured many of the young artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

By the mid-1930s, Hurston had published several short stories and the critically acclaimed "Mules and Men" (1935), a groundbreaking work of "literary anthropology" documenting African American folklore. In 1930, she also collaborated with Langston Hughes on "Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts," a play that was never finished, although it was published posthumously in 1991.

In 1937, Hurston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct ethnographic research in Jamaica and Haiti. "Tell My Horse" (1938) documents her account of her fieldwork studying African rituals in Jamaica and voudon rituals in Haiti. Hurston also translated her anthropological work into the performing arts, and her folk revue, "The Great Day," premiered at the John Golden Theatre in New York in 1932.

Hurston's first three novels were also published in the 1930s: "Jonah's Gourd Vine" (1934); "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (1937), written during her fieldwork in Haiti and considered her masterwork; and "Moses, Man of the Mountain" (1939). In the 1940s, Hurston's work was published in such periodicals as "The American Mercury" and "The Saturday Evening Post." Her last published novel, "Seraph on the Suwanee," notable principally for its focus on white characters, was published in 1948.

Hurston's work slid into obscurity for decades, for a number of cultural and political reasons. Many readers objected to the representation of African American dialect in Hurston's novels, given the racially charged history of dialect fiction in American literature. Her stylistic choices in terms of dialogue were influenced by her academic experiences. Thinking like a folklorist, Hurston strove to represent speech patterns of the period which she documented through ethnographic research. Several of Hurston's literary contemporaries criticized Hurston's use of dialect as a caricature of African American culture rooted in a racist tradition. More recently, many critics have praised Hurston's skillful use of idiomatic speech. In particular, a number of writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance were critical of Hurston's later writings, on the basis that they did not agree with or further the position of the overall movement.

An article, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston", by Alice Walker was published in the March 1975 issue of Ms. magazine. This article revived interest in her work. The reemergence of Hurston's work coincided with the emergence of authors such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Walker herself, whose works are centered on African American experiences.

Hurston died on Jan. 28, 1960. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest cemetery in Fort Pierce. In 1973, Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried and decided to mark it as hers.

There are many online reference materials available on Hurston's life and works, including audio recordings. Check the links here.

Photo source.

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