Black History Makers: Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston beating the hountar or mama drum in 1937.

Zora Neale Hurston is most famous as a fiction writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Her most famous book became the 2005 movie of the same name: Their Eyes Were Watching God. Yet this remarkable, and controversial woman was also a notable cultural anthropologist — and a student of the “father of American anthropology” Franz Boas — whose contributions have only recently begun to be appreciated. 

Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, but was raised in the all-Black community of Eatonville, outside of Orlando, Florida. Her life is a study in persistence: while working, she attended night school, achieved her high school diploma at age 27, and after earning her associates’ degree, she was accepted to Barnard University (an all-female college associated with Columbia University) at age 34. She studied anthropology, and became the first Black woman to graduate from Barnard, with a bachelor’s degree. 

To fully understand Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy, you should understand that modern anthropology — the study of humans and culture across time and space — was in its infancy in the United States in the late 1920s and 1930s. Franz Boas, a German-born American anthropologist, adhered to a holistic perspective that examined culture in terms of archaeological, linguistic, biological, and current cultural aspects. At the same time, the ideas of cultural relativism and participant observation were seen as integral parts of research into modern cultures. These ideas together meant that the anthropologist should strive to set aside their personal biases and immerse themselves as active participants within the group they sought to study. 

And so, Ms. Hurston returned to Florida, and other areas of the South, to undertake research on folklore and ethnography within the Black community. Controversy followed. 

In the 1930s, there were numerous prominent Black voices seeking to convince dominant White culture that Black individuals were not simple or ignorant or primitive. Zora Neale Hurston, in her research, insisted on a method often used today, which is to use dialect to “let the person tell their own story” without any attempt to interpret or make the language fit the norms of standard English. 

To many, her use of grammatically incorrect language reinforced the stereotypes that the Black community as a whole were fighting against. To Zora, it allowed her to share authentic stories, with joy, grief, struggle, and survival. Her interview with Cudjoe Lewis is one example: the book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” failed to find a publisher, only seeing light in 2018, because of her use of dialect to capture Mr. Lewis’ voice. 

In New Orleans, Zora Neale Hurston studied hoodoo and voodoo, fully participating in rituals and earning her participants’ trust and respect. From there she went to Jamaica. She felt an urgency to record aspects of Black culture before they disappeared, or were distorted by “white folks.” As a Black woman from the South, a “native” to the field she was studying, she was ahead of her time. 

Along with her anthropological studies, and very much informed by her academic background, Zora Neale Hurston published folk tales and stories. She looked beyond the tendency of other research or stories to focus on the misery or struggle of Black life, controversially sharing stories of joy or pride or celebration. Rather than simple, Zora Neale Hurston demonstrated the complexity — and completeness — of Black individuals. 

Hurston’s life continued to court controversy, and eventually led to her burial in an unmarked grave in Florida in 1960. Her books fell out of print for 35 years. And while her literary contributions have been introduced and celebrated by a new audience, it’s taken longer to appreciate what she gave to the field of anthropology. Zora Neale Hurston was a force ahead of her time, and I’m so glad she’s being recognized as the complex, complete, strong, and intelligent Black woman that she was. 

Amy East is a freelance copyeditor, wannabe homesteader, and recovering archaeologist living in Cass County. She loves her family, her menagerie of animals, and her garden, although depending on the day, the order of those may vary.