Narrator: In Spring 1940, Zora Neale Hurston, the celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer and anthropologist, arrived in Beaufort, South Carolina to study religious trances.
Narrator: For more than ten years Hurston had skirted danger traveling alone across the American South and Caribbean, documenting rural Black peoples’ lives and collecting their stories. Educated at Howard University and Barnard, during her lifetime Zora Neale Hurston was considered the foremost authority on Black folklore.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: , Literary Scholar: She’s interested in all elements of Black Folk. She allows that culture to be dynamic, to have a voice in modernity.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: The research that Zora Neale Hurston did in Beaufort, South Carolina represents someone who understands that for people to trust you, you have to be in it. And that’s what she does, she joins in with them.
Charles King, Political Scientist: She’s playing a drum. At the time, this seemed scandalous—that you weren’t standing off to one side with your white lab coat and your clipboard, noting down what others were doing.
IIrma McClaurin, Anthropologist: Zora studied her own people, which is not something that is supported in anthropology at that moment.
Daphne Lamothe, Literary Scholar: Anthropology understood itself to be a science. An aspect of scientific inquiry that’s really important is to be detached—and objective. She didn’t play by those rules.
Narrator: From the Jazz Age through the Great Depression, Hurston had published her extensive research in prestigious academic journals, popular magazines and ethnographic books. But it was her fiction, thick with dialect, cultural-specificity and richly-drawn characters that over time would cement her place as one of the most important writers of the 20th century.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: She was an innovator, using stylistic conventions of literature, but the content is rooted in the research that she did.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: She was driven by her own integrity. She was driven by her own passion, and she was driven by her own sense of how best to collect this folklore.
Charles King, Political Scientist: Throughout her entire life, the powerful people around her consistently thought of her as being an outsider, less than talented—a marginal figure.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: We’re talking about somebody who had an incredibly creative, fierce mind.
Maria Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: Her independent streak and her iconoclasm, you could say it was both her superpower and her fatal flaw.
Zora (VO): I was glad when somebody told me, “You may go and collect Negro folk-lore.” In a way it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism.
Narrator: As a child, Zora Neale Hurston possessed a keen interest in the stories she heard about people’s lives and customs while lingering at Joe Clark’s general story in Eatonville, Florida, one of a handful of all-Black towns in the United States.
Zora (VO): It was the habit of the men folks particularly to gather on the store porch of evenings and swap stories. Even the women folks would stop and break a breath with them at times…I’d drag out my leaving as long as possible in order to hear more…to allow whatever was being said to hang in my ear.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: She’s one of those children that people would say, “Go, go away. You know, this is grown folk stuff.” And the more they tell her that the more she wants to hear it.
Tiffany Patterson, Historian: Zora was nosy, pure and simple. She had questions. She, uh, wanted to see what was going on at the store.
Zora (VO): There were no discreet nuances of life on Joe Clarke’s porch. There was open kindnesses, anger, hate, love, envy and its kinfolks, but all emotions were naked, and nakedly arrived at. It was a case of “make it and take it.”
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: This gathering of people swapping lies, telling stories, is something that’s going to attract her because there is an innate cultural anthropologist in her curiosity about people.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Eatonville shaped Zora Neale Hurston’s worldview from the beginning, and what it did more than anything else is it showed that Black lives mattered.
Narrator: Hurston lived in an eight-room house on five acres of land with her parents, Lucy and John, and seven siblings. Religion and education were highly valued in a home ruled by her preacher father.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: Her father was very domineering. Zora had her own ideas. She said “No I’m going to do it this way. I see it this way.” And it would drive her father bananas. [LAUGHS] She was her mother’s child. Her mother gave her permission to dream, a permission to ask questions, a permission to be artistic.
Zora (VO): Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to “jump at de sun.” We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: The idea that she would strive to jump at the sun really puts into place the idea that Zora is always trying to reach someplace that may be unattainable to the ordinary person, and represents a real challenge for her—and a real opportunity.
Narrator: When Hurston was thirteen, her beloved mother became ill and died.
Zora (VO): That hour began my wanderings. Mama died at sundown and changed a world.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: That was devastating for the young Zora. She’s set adrift.
The Haunted Years
Narrator: Hurston’s father soon remarried and sent the shattered young teenager to join two siblings at Florida Baptist Academy in Jacksonville. He only paid her tuition for a short time leaving Hurston to scrub the school’s floors to finish out the year—and then she was on her own.
Zora (VO): The five years following my leaving the school at Jacksonville were haunted. I was shifted from house to house of relatives and friends and found comfort nowhere.
Zora (VO): It seemed that I had suffered a sea change. I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl. I found it out in certain ways. In my heart as well as in the mirror.
Narrator: Hurston spent another eight unaccounted years trying to find her way in the world.
Zora (VO): I wanted family love and peace and a resting place. I wanted books and school. When I saw more fortunate people of my own age on their way to and from school, I would cry inside and be depressed for days, until I learned how to mash down on my feelings and numb them for a spell. I felt crowded in on, and hope was beginning to waver.
Narrator: At twenty-six Hurston landed in Baltimore with education still on her mind. She realized, by working during the day, and shaving ten years from her age, she could attend high school for free at night. With her academic prowess evident to teachers and classmates, and sustained by jobs as a waitress, maid and manicurist, an inspired Hurston enrolled in the elite Black college prep school Morgan Academy in Baltimore and then Howard Academy in Washington, DC. By May 1919 she was a high school graduate ready to enroll in Howard University.
Charles King, Political Scientist: It’s not until she becomes an undergraduate at Howard University that Hurston feels like the gears begin to turn again, and her life restarts.
Finding Her Voice
Narrator: “You have taken me in. I am a tiny bit of your greatness.” Hurston vowed at her first college assembly in 1919, “I swear to you that I shall never make you ashamed of me.” She had initially thought that Howard was out of her league. Chartered by the United States Congress in the late 19th century to educate Black students, Howard University, the nation’s largest Black institution of higher education, often was referred to as “the Black Harvard.” A part-time student secretly years older than her classmates, Hurston formed many close relationships and joined the theater company Howard Players and the so-called “brainy” sorority Zeta Phi Beta.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: It’s almost like having Eatonville in one space again, because it’s a Black space. It’s this concentration of Black knowledge and Black talent that you’re not going to find in many other places.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: She was rubbing elbows with the developing political and cultural and social ideologies that were emerging in Black thought, and it shaped her in very important ways.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: She met Alain Locke, who was a philosophy professor, but also the midwife, if you will, of the so-called “New Negro movement.”
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: Everybody is really excited about what it might mean to be able to slough off that Old Negro, who is the product of enslavement.
Daphne Lamothe, Literary Scholar: Black people understood themselves to be creators of culture and art and literature, and make important contributions to how American society understood, thought about and related to Black people in America. One of the major projects of the New Negro renaissance, is to write about and reframe how society thinks about Black culture.
Narrator: Hurston majored in English, and penned poetry, stories, essays and plays drawing from her life in Eatonville. She wrote for Howard’s prestigious literary journal The Stylus and, in 1924, she co-founded The Hilltop, the university’s newspaper. Off-campus Hurston found inspiration, support and encouragement from a literary salon frequented by devotées of the renaissance.
Zora (VO): I was careful to do my classwork and be worthy to stand there under the shadow of the hovering spirit of Howard. I felt the ladder under my feet.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: At Howard University, Zora Neale Hurston was really encouraged to write and really was supported and in some respects, found her voice, her literary voice.
Narrator: When Charles S. Johnson, editor of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, the influential publication of the National Urban League, invited Hurston in 1924 to submit work, she sent a joyful, day-in-the-life short story that drew from her own childhood. Hurston’s translation of rural Black experiences into literature so impressed Johnson that he suggested that the young woman join the flourishing literary scene in New York.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: She had waited a long time to have her intellectual gifts recognized. At Howard, she was recognized.
Narrator: After five and a half years of part-time study, Hurston left Howard with an associate’s degree, and moved to Harlem.
Zora (VO): Being out of school for lack of funds, and wanting to be in New York, I decided to go there and try to get back in school in that city. So the first week of January, 1925, found me in New York with $1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: Harlem in the 1920s is a magnet. It’s a satellite. It’s a lightning rod. It’s attracting all this great talent and energy.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: It’s a musical world. It’s a world of jazz. It’s a literary world. It’s a world of politics. And she wanted to be a part of that.
Daphne Lamothe, Literary Scholar: Harlem comes to symbolize this modernity, this newness, this dynamism, this idea of change. What you see in the Harlem Renaissance is that people are very intentional in understanding what it means to write about and represent culture, and Black culture, in particular.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: That idea of the new Negro sweeps the ethos of the black imaginary, the exciting condition of black people, who are by virtue of the Great Migration moving from the rural south to urban centers—Chicago, New York, Philadelphia—moving up and participating in the 20th century revolution of modernity.
Narrator: Just four months after arriving with hope and a bag of stories, newcomer Zora Neale Hurston gained a pivotal foothold in New York at Opportunity’s first annual literary awards.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: The Opportunity Awards introduce her to the Harlem literati of New York as it’s kind of developing, rising up in this mid-1920s moment.
Narrator: With over 300 guests in attendance, the event was a who’s who of the Harlem Renaissance—progressive New Yorkers, Black and white, from the worlds of literature, arts, education and philanthropy. Langston Hughes, the promising twenty-four-year-old writer from Missouri won the first prize in poetry, but that evening Hurston won the most prizes—two second place awards and two honorable mentions.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: Hurston was different than others; she’d come from the South—she was funny.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: She is flamboyant. She is bodacious. She is outspoken, and she also likes to be the center of attention. At that moment in time, Harlem is also about respectability. People are wanting to sort of move away from the Southern culture because it’s seen as lower class. And Zora brings her Southerness with her because she's not ashamed of it.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: She was smart. She had ideas and she was interested in other People with ideas. She fell into that world and she fit in that world.
Narrator: Prize-winner Langston Hughes later remarked, “Zora Neale Hurston is a clever girl, isn’t she? I would like to know her.”
Charles King, Political Scientist: It was at the prize ceremony where she first met Langston Hughes, and that relationship would continue to define the early part of her literary life.
Narrator: By evening’s end, Hurston also had met and impressed two influential women who would support her academic goals. Fannie Hurst, one of the nation’s most successful writers, sought out Hurston after the event to hire her as personal secretary. And Annie Nathan Meyer, a wealthy female founder of Barnard, the women’s college affiliated with Columbia University, offered Hurston admittance on the spot so that she could resume her undergraduate studies.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: She was unusually adaptable. She was somebody who could function in almost any milieu.
Irma Mcclaurin, Anthropologist: The fact that Zora is able to finagle a scholarship out of an event where she meets someone for the first time speaks to her prowess as someone who is able to engage people.
Fly in the Buttermilk
Music (“College on a Hilltop”): There’s a college on a hilltop that’s very dear to me….
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: When she enters Barnard, she enters an elite world of women’s education. And as I understand she was the only African American woman there.
Music (“College on a Hilltop”): …sing to dear old Barnard…
Irma Mcclaurin, Anthropologist: She is what my mother would call a “fly in the buttermilk” at Barnard.
Music (“College on a Hilltop”): ….And loyal be and true….
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: She was not only the only black student to be at Barnard at the time, she was pretending to be eight to 10 years younger than she was—and she was there without the privileges and advantages that almost everybody else at Barnard had. She did not have family sending her money; she was working to get every cent that she needed.
Zora (VO): I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, overswept by a creamy sea. I am surged upon and overswept, but through it all I remain myself.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: She had to make a decision about whether she was going to try to fit in or try to play up her difference. And in true Zora Neale Hurston style, it appears that she did both.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Being at Barnard I’m sure gave her both confidence as well as excitement that she was as smart as anyone in the country.
Irma Mcclaurin, Anthropologist: She’s very secure in wanting to advance herself, and she will take advantage of any opportunity to do that.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: When it came to needing to be popular, or get extra things, she let the fellow students in her class see her as special, and even exotic. But she never allowed anybody to treat her as lesser than or to minimize her.
Narrator: Something of a celebrity on campus, Hurston later remarked that she was “Barnard’s sacred black cow.” She was a published writer, friends with Fannie Hurst and part of the ambitious younger generation of Harlem’s artists which made progressive minded Barnard students eager to know her.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: She starts at Barnard looking to become a teacher, which was the expected path of an upwardly mobile African American woman at the time, except she has this brilliant creativity, and a storehouse of stories and tales from Eatonville.
Narrator: In her second semester, Hurston wrote a paper in her anthropology class that resulted in a summons from Franz Boas, the world-renowned founder of Columbia University’s Anthropology Department. It was an auspicious meeting for the aspiring writer-teacher.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: It wasn’t until she encountered anthropology at Barnard and Columbia, that she really began to see her culture as something that could be studied. She arrives in New York and at Barnard at exactly the perfect time. An arrival that is converging with transformations in anthropology.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: The idea of anthropology, the way that it was formed was to study the other. We were the objects of study, but we were not supposed to be the researchers.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Anthropology is an old discipline. It really became a professional discipline in the 1840s as a defense for slavery; if all men were created equal, well, we shouldn’t have slavery, and so if they weren’t quite men or quite human, we can justify slavery. Well, then we come into the 1890s, and we have Jim Crow after Reconstruction. Guess what? Anthropology started to support Jim Crow segregation. Anthropology in the 1890s, before Franz Boas really comes on the professional scene, construed people in terms of savage, barbarian, and civilized. There was a great deal of research trying to pigeonhole people into this evolutionary hierarchy.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: A lot of times, anthropologists didn’t actually even visit the places that they were writing about, or know the people that they were writing about.
Narrator: These scientists, later referred to as “armchair anthropologists,” formed their theories and the foundations of the discipline based on the biased writings of colonizers— explorers, missionaries, travelers and military men. Franz Boas, a German Jewish immigrant to the United States rejected their methods and conclusions.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: He was one of the first people that took living with indigenous people seriously. And he worked with the Inuits and other people. And when you live with someone for a year, guess what happens—you start seeing that they have a lot to say.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: Boas saw 19th century anthropology and the discourses that emerged as being biased representations of cultural others. He really wanted to bring more scientific accuracy in the description of other cultures.
Narrator: Boas landed at Columbia University. His methodology for disputing racial and cultural hierarchies gained traction, and he became known as the father of both modern and American anthropology. Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus became a magnet for students eager to please “Papa Franz.”
Charles King, Political Scientist: He was helping young people to explore a completely new world of ideas that he was in the process of inventing: that people don’t come prepackaged in races or ethnicities; that cultures make sense on their own terms if you spend enough time trying to understand them.
Boas (Archival Footage): The mental characteristics of a race are not an expression of bodily form. They are a reflection of cultural life.
Charles King, Political Scientist: For the young people who came into his classrooms, these were revolutionary ideas.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Zora Neale Hurston was excited to study anthropology at Columbia because so much of American society and the media did not value African American culture.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Franz Boas had a good eye for talent, and he didn’t care if they were Black, white, women, male, or the like.
Charles King, Political Scientist: Around 1920 or so, Franz Boas said that a change had come over his seminar rooms in recent years, that as he put it, “All my best students are women.”
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Ruth Benedict, Ella Deloria, Margaret Mead, and others became anthropologists under his guidance. Franz Boas becomes excited with Zora Neale Hurston because there were a number of white anthropologists that tried to understand the African-American experience, but never really got very far.
Narrator: With Boas’s encouragement, Hurston eagerly enrolled in more anthropology courses.
Charles King, Political Scientist: Hurston signed on as a research assistant to go to Harlem and do some physical anthropological, “anthropometrical,” as it was called at the time, measurements that the Boas community and some of his students are, are engaged in.
Zora (VO): I am being trained for Anthropometry and to do measuring. Dr. Boas says if I make good, there are more jobs in store for me and so I must learn as quickly as possible, and be quite accurate. Boas is eager for me to start.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: There were theories that the head sizes of different so-called races is something that was going to be able to tell us more about the level of intelligence, what kind of culture they had.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: As anthropology evolved, this data was then used to show the opposite, to show that Black people, White people, Indians were human beings with brains, eyes, ears and nose and all of that in the same place with the same capacity. But they’re operating against a very powerful ideology of the inferiority of populations.
Narrator: Hurston dutifully headed down to Lenox Avenue in Harlem to measure heads she found interesting with what Langston Hughes described as a “strange-looking” anthropological device. He was amazed that no one bawled her out.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: Black people understand that once they start measuring your head, they’re trying to prove that you’re not human. So to go out on the street corners and ask Black people to let you measure their head would have been a big ask [laugh], but, because of her gregariousness, they comply.
Narrator: In February 1927 after Zora Neale Hurston had completed most of her undergraduate coursework, she boarded a train headed to Florida to begin six months of fieldwork in the South. Boas had convinced pre-eminent Black scholar Carter G. Woodson, director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and wealthy sociologist and anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons to fund her trip.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: There was a certain amount of progressiveness in Boas’ vision about training, in deputizing minoritized people in order to go into their own cultures that wasn’t necessarily done. And there’s a certain sense of valuing these people for what they were able to help to produce.
Narrator: Hurston’s assignment: collect data on Black southerners—including their practices, beliefs, dances and storytelling ways.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: She goes off after taking a few classes in anthropology really intent on being this good Boasian anthropologist—following Boasian methods of participant observation. Participant observation required that you kind of immerse yourself in another culture in order to understand it from the inside out.
Narrator: To motor around the South, Hurston took out a car loan in Jacksonville using Boas’s name for reference—a surprise he did not appreciate—and secured a chrome-plated pistol. Set with her two-seater she named “Sassy Susie,” Hurston took off for Eatonville.
Charles King, Political Scientist: Florida, in the Jim Crow era, was the heart of darkness.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: Here is a Black woman traveling alone with an exposed revolver. She looks like a Black Annie Oakley. She couldn’t have drawn more attention to herself at a time when one of the only ways for her to be safe is to fly underneath the radar.
Zora (VO): I hurried back to Eatonville because I knew that the town was full of material and that I could get it without hurt, harm, or danger.
Narrator: Collecting did not go as planned for one of the newest members of the American Folk-Lore Society.
Zora (VO): I went about asking, in carefully accented Barnardese, “Pardon me, but do you know any folk-tales or folk-songs?”
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: Black people are suspicious, I think. And they’re gonna look at you like, “what’s wrong with you? Okay, you’re acting like white people.”
Zora (VO): The men and women who had whole treasuries of material just seeping through their pores looked at me and shook their heads. “No, they had never heard of anything like that around there. Maybe it was over in the next county. Why didn’t I try over there?” I did, and got the selfsame answer.
Narrator: Her reports back to Boas failed to impress; in May, he sent a stern critique: “I find that what you have obtained is largely repetition of the kind of material that has been collected so much.” Hurston had come home, but her education made her an outsider. She needed a methodology that would bring her back inside.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: The assumption behind participant observation was always that you were studying, as the anthropologist, a different culture. When she approached the people as an outsider, she encountered what she called the “featherbed resistance.” The idea that they’ll let you in only so far, but really you’re not going to get at the truth of what the culture holds.
Narrator: An unexpected encounter with Langston Hughes in Mobile, Alabama in July brightened Hurston’s mood. She agreed to drive Hughes back to New York, and he accompanied her on fieldwork in Alabama and Georgia—the pair bonding over their shared interest in rural folk culture. Hughes told her he would put in a good word with his New York patron. In autumn, Hurston returned North to write her reports and face her mentor.
Zora (VO): I went back to New York with my heart beneath my knees and my knees in some lonesome valley. I stood before Papa Franz and cried salty tears. He gave me a good going over.”
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Historically, folklore has been an integral part of anthropology because people wanted to understand individuals’ worldviews. It has been a way of analyzing systematically how people make sense of the world.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: It was anthropology that really showed Hurston that she could write about her culture and imagine a career where that could really be the source of her literary imagination.
Zora (VO): Folk-lore is not as easy to collect as it sounds. I found out later that it was not because I had no talents for research, but because I did not have the right approach.
Charles King, Political Scientist: Hurston had learned that if you’re trying to collect folklore, you had to get people to trust you.
Narrator: Charlotte Osgood Mason, the white, wealthy member of old New York society who was Langston Hughes’s benefactor, offered Hurston a way to resume her research.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: Charlotte Osgood Mason was somebody who believed deeply that white American civilization was bankrupt and washed out, and that the key would come from what she considered “primitive peoples.” That they had the childlike energies and the childlike insights that would reinvigorate white American society.
Narrator: Mason supported other writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, including Howard professor Alain Locke. Mason, whose grandmotherly appearance belied her imperious ways, insisted that her beneficiaries call her “Godmother.”
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: Oof, Mason, ah, was a handful. She had lots of money. She liked having people of color around her. She first was very interested in Native Americans.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: She is someone who believes that she has the authentic interpretation of what Black culture, Negro culture is about.
Narrator: When Zora Neale Hurston arrived at Mason’s Park Avenue penthouse on December 8, 1927 she was presented with a one-year contract. The document deemed Hurston an “independent agent” hired “to seek out, compile and collect all information possible, both written and oral, concerning the music, poetry, folk-lore, literature, hoodoo, conjure, manifestations of art and kindred subjects relating to and existing among the North American Negroes.”
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Zora Neale Hurston was an employee. She was employed to collect for Charlotte Osgood Mason.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: She signs a contract that she will not share any materials with anyone or publish anything outside of Mason’s approval. But she’s still connected to Boas, and she still wants to stay in Papa Franz’s good graces.
Narrator: Six days after signing with Mason, Hurston boarded a train heading to Alabama with a guarantee of 200 dollars a month, money to purchase a car, and a plan for year long fieldwork in the South. She also had a motion picture camera, a rare and expensive tool for anthropologists, that would allow her to capture scenes of rural Black life. Zora Neale Hurston felt excited and for once—financially secure.
Zora (VO): Godmother dearest, you have given me my first Christmas. I mean the first Yule season when reality met my dreams. The kind of Christmas that my half-starved child-hood painted. Thank you.
Capturing the Folk
Narrator: Hurston’s new methodological approach was apparent once she arrived at the Alabama home of Cudjo Lewis, one of the last known surviving Africans of the Clotilda, thought to be the last American slave ship. Hurston used his African name, Oluale Kossola, to greet the man who had vivid memories of his capture.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Interviewing an enslaved person that came from Africa was compelling for her. Zora Neale Hurston was genuinely intrigued and interested in mapping and understanding the relationship between African traditions and African American traditions.
Narrator: Over several months she spent time with Lewis, who was in his late eighties, in Africatown, the community he co-founded after the Civil War with other West Africans. Hurston brought him gifts of food and drove him to complete errands. Though she captured twenty-four minutes of Lewis with her camera, it was her extensive, detailed notes of his memories and speech that were the priority for Hurston and her anthropological research.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: As an academically trained anthropologist, getting Cudjo Lewis’s voice exact was very important—that ethnography should record with accuracy not with translation.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: He’s created his own language. It’s a fusion of both southern Negro dialect and as well as some African words thrown in there.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Hurston’s intimacy and support of his African authenticity enabled him to open up to her in an authentic way.
Narrator: From Alabama, Hurston headed off to Florida where men worked at felling pine trees, manning sawmill camps, boiling turpentine and mining phosphate.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: She was very interested in documenting what she called “the Negro farthest down.”
Zora (VO): My search for knowledge of things took me into many strange places and adventures. My life was in danger several times.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: She was often the only woman for tens of miles around with a camera, with her own car, with a gun on her hip, collecting stories.
Zora (VO): If I had not learned how to take care of myself in these circumstances, I could have been maimed or killed on most any day of the several years of my research work.
Narrator: To win the trust of the men, she made up stories about her life.
Zora (VO): I took occasion to impress the job with the fact that I was also a fugitive from justice, “bootlegging.” They were hot behind me in Jacksonville and they wanted me in Miami. So I was hiding out. That sounded reasonable. Bootleggers always have cars. I was taken in.
Music (Archival, Hurston singing “Shove It Over”): Shove it over! Hey! Hey! Hey! Can’t you line it? Ah shack-er-lack-er-lack-er-lack-er-lack-er-lack-er-lack! Umph! Can’t you move there. Hey! Hey! Hey…
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: She realized that no one was going to share songs with her or even let her into these incredibly rich spaces where people were exchanging stories and song and card playing games, if she didn’t bring something herself to the table.
Narrator: “I had to prove that I was their kind,” Hurston recalled. She sang and danced with them at their bi-monthly payday parties. In return, they told her stories, sang work songs and played blues riffs on the guitar. Hurston often wrote Langston Hughes of her work from the road; the pair, with Mason’s support, were supposed to be collaborating on a folk opera.
Zora (VO): July 10th 1928. Dear Langston, In every town I hold one or two story-telling contests, and at each I begin by telling them who you are and all, then I read poems from “Fine Clothes.” Boy! They eat it up…You are being quoted in railroad camps, phosphate mines, turpentine still, etc.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: Folks began to respond to her, and even repeat back verses of Langston Hughes’s poetry to her. They even began calling it “da party book,” and asking for her to bring out the party book and read something else from it.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: Not only do they like it, they pick up a guitar and they start putting it to music. That kind of spontaneous creativity is amazing given the harsh conditions in which people were working.
Zora (VO): Everybody joined in. It was the strangest & most thrilling thing. They played it well too. You’d be surprised. One man was giving the words out-lining them out as the preacher does a hymn and the others would take it up and sing. It was glorious!
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: She was using this contemporary poetry that was written up in New York, bringing it down south and then the the southern folkloric tradition would take it, turn it up on its head and make it anew, and so she was documenting how folklore and culture was actually being created in front of her eyes.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Much of the impetus for cultural anthropology, ethnography was called “salvage ethnography.”
Charles King, Political Scientist: Salvage anthropology was the idea that one of the goals of the anthropologist was to rush in and collect things before they were all destroyed by modernity. On the one hand, this was a very noble pursuit, that you wanted to grab things before they disappeared. On the other hand, it could lead you to believe that you were visiting so-called primitive societies that existed in a permanent present. That they had no past; they had no future.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: And that was believed by a lot of people, but Zora Neale Hurston understood that culture was not being replaced as much as it was emerging and on a continuum. And that was super sophisticated.
Zora (VO): I am getting much more material than before because I am learning better technique. Am keeping close tab on expressions of double meaning too, also compiling lists of double words. They – to give emphasis – use the noun and put the function of the noun before it as an adjective. Example, sitting-chair, suck-bottle, cook-pot, hair-comb. I have about enough for a good volume of stories.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: She may be our first Black female ethnographer documentary filmmaker. She uses that expensive and rare film equipment to document the lives of ordinary, everyday Black children, and Black women, and Black communities providing for us some of the earliest footage we have of the everyday visual lives of Black southern Americans.
Narrator: Hurston next traveled to New Orleans. With Mason’s support for another year, she was able to rent a three-room house. She devoted most of her time to fieldwork on a topic that she perceived White folklorists to be sensationalizing and misrepresenting—“Hoodoo” and conjure: folk religion and practices created by enslaved African Americans.
Daphne Lamothe, Literary Scholar: Hurston’s the daughter of a preacher. And, I think that Hurston had a strong investment in the spiritual life of Black people and Black women, in particular.
Charles King, Political Scientist: The closest that Boas and his students had gotten to participant observation would be to sit in on, uh, a ritual or religious practice and, and watch it and note down what happened. For Hurston, you had to jump off the high dive. If you’re going to study Hoodoo or Voodoo, you had to do it from the inside, and so, she went through at least four initiation rituals.
Narrator: One Hoodoo doctor asked her to chase down a Black cat in the night, boil it in a cauldron and suck on its bones. Another had her lie naked and fasting for sixty-nine hours, experiencing strange and altered dreams. The ceremony ended with the painting of a red and yellow lightning bolt down her back.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: That she succeeded is a testament to her resilience, her willingness to do whatever she had to do to get her work done.
Zora (VO): I am getting on in the conjure splendidly.I have been going to every one I hear of for the sake of thoroughness. I am knee deep in it with a long way to go.
Two Masters and the Self
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: There was this real mismatch between the goals of Charlotte Osgood Mason and the goals of Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was collecting folklore to demonstrate the legitimacy and the sophistication of Black vernacular, Black folk life, of African American rural culture. Charlotte Osgood Mason was employing Zora Neale Hurston for the opposite because she thought it was primitive.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: Zora is collecting what she thinks Mason wants to see, and she’s also collecting what she wants to get.
Narrator: Mason found Hurston’s material promising and continued her patronage. Amidst her travels Hurston had been collecting love letters for a book she wanted to write about Black love which she hid from Mason. She discussed her plans with Langston Hughes, imploring him to not tell Godmother.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: There is a complex positionality that Hurston had to adopt in order to do what she wanted to do. So she does this, um, very, I would say, opportunistically.
Zora (VO): July 25th 1928. Dearest, little mother of the primitive world, take care not to overtire yourself abroad. I am attempting a volume of work songs with music for piano and guitar…I shall send you the first song as soon as I get it finished to see if you like it.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: During the period when she’s collecting some of her greatest anthropological and ethnographic work, Hurston is collecting material she doesn’t have legal claim to.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: Charlotte Osgood Mason also controlled Hurston’s expenses. She had to list everything that she purchased with Mason’s money down to feminine quote, unquote, feminine products.
Narrator: Hurston once confided in Hughes how Mason’s detailed oversight and periodic angry outbursts affected her.
Zora (VO): It destroys my self respect and utterly demoralizes me for weeks. I do care for her deeply. That is why I can’t endure to get at odds with her. I don’t want anything but to get at my work with the least possible trouble.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: She is agreeing to certain strictures on the Osgood Mason side, and while at the same time reaching out to Boas and keeping those fires lit.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: He’s a very important voice. He is the gatekeeper of anthropology who also is an influential and an important antiracist. Mason was a profoundly anti-academic person. She had these notions of folklore that it had to be kept pure and kept away from the academics.
Zora (Vo): My dear Dr. Boas, I was very proud to hear from you. I have wanted to write you but a promise was exacted of me that I would write no one. Of course I have intended from the very beginning to show you what I have, but after I had returned. Thus I could keep my word and at the same time have your guidance. The experience that I had under you was a splendid foundation. I know where to look and how.
Narrator: Four months later from a small, secluded cottage she rented in Eau Gallie, Florida, Hurston updated Boas writing, that she was “sitting down to write up” the “more than 95,000 words of story material, collection of children’s games” and conjure and religious material.
Zora (VO): Dear Langston, I am just beginning to hit my stride. I not only want to present the material with all the life and color of my people, I want to leave no loop-holes for the scientific crowd to rend and tear us.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: Zora also wants to write for the folk. She’s thinking of how to take this data that she’s collecting as part of her formal research and then translate it into a form that is then going to be accessible to the people she got it from originally.
Hurston (Archival VO): A railroad rail weighs 900 pounds. The men have to take these lining bars to get it in shape to spike it down. And while they’re doing that, they have a chant. They use the rhythm to work it into place. They don’t have to look at the rail ‘cause that’s the captain’s job to see when it’s right. Whatever song he starts if it has a fast rhythm then they work fast and if it’s a slow one well they work you know a little slower but they get just as much work done singing somehow or another. And then the boss hollers “bring on the hammer gang” and they start to spike it down.
Zora (VO): Darling Godmother, At last “Barracoon” is ready for your eyes. I pray so earnestly that I have done something that can come somewhere near your expectations.
Narrator: In 1931 with Mason’s continued support, Hurston finished a book-length manuscript based on the interviews she had conducted three years before with Cudjo Lewis. Hurston began submitting Barracoon to publishers.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: Zora was very committed to authenticity. She wrote that book in dialect. She tried to replicate Cudjo’s own language. Publishers wanted her to translate it for white readers into Standard English, and she refused.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: That was the authenticity, that was scientifically valid and genuine. And she did not want to go against that. I think that was an important form of resistance.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: That speaks to her belief that there was value in the way that Cudjo had created his own form of communication, that value did not need to be diluted, or translated for a white audience.
Narrator: Hurston had other publishing successes. Her ethnographic writing debuted the previous year in The Journal of American Folk-Lore. With Godmother’s approval, she had submitted “Dance Songs and Tales from the Bahamas” based on three months of fieldwork in the country.
Man (Archival VO): How do you learn most of your songs?
Hurston (Archival VO): I learn ‘em. I just get in the crowd with the people if they’re signing, and I listen as best I can and I start to join in with a phrase or two and then I finally get so I can sing a verse and then I keep on until I learn all the songs, all the verses, then I sing them back to the people until they tell me that I can sing them just like them and then I take part and try it out on different people who already know the song until they are quite satisfied with that I know it and then I carry it in my memory.
Narrator: In 1931 the Journal printed Hurston’s one-hundred-page article, “Hoodoo in America,” which began cementing her as the American authority on the topic.
Narrator: When she wasn’t trying to find a home for Barracoon, Hurston spent much of 1931 focused on theater including her play The Great Day. It was a showcase of Black culture that incorporated her Bahamian ethnographic research. Mason very reluctantly supported the production—and the stakes for Hurston were high.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: Most of the great artists of the Harlem Renaissance had their money in Black fiction. Hurston believed deeply that it was going to be Black drama brought to wide audiences that was going to do more to counter racism than anything else.
Hurston (Archival VO singing “Crow Dance”): Oh Mama Mama come see that crow, see how he fly, Oh mama come see that crow see how he fly, This crow this crow gonna fly tonight, See how he fly….
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Zora Neale Hurston really believed that you could not just read the folklore on the page. She believed that you had to perform it, that you had to see it, you had to hear it, you had to feel it. All your senses need to be engaged in this beautiful creation.
Hurston (Archival VO): But what they’re talking about is what we know in the United States as the buzzard, and they’re talking about it and the buzzard comes to get something to eat and they are talking about it and they dance it.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: She was running up incredible debt. Everybody was opposed to what she was trying to do.
Narrator: On January 10th 1932 The Great Day premiered on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre.
Hurston (Archival VO singing “Halimuhfack”): You may leave and go to Halimuhfack, but my slow drag will bring you back…
Narrator: The New York Herald Tribune praised her production as “the real thing; unadulterated and not fixed and fussed up for the purposes of commerce.”
Hurston (Archival VO): Oh well you may go, but this will bring you back…
Hurston (Archival VO singing “Crow Dance”): …Oh Mama come see that crow, CAAAWW!
Narrator: Despite the show’s promising reviews, no producer picked it up.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: It was an enormous disappointment for her—one of the heartbreaks of her life. She thought it was going to be the artistic production that told people who she was.
Narrator: Sick, exhausted and bankrupt, in April Hurston reached out to Mason for financial help as she packed up to relocate to Eatonville.
Zora (VO): One other item of expense, Godmother. I really need a pair of shoes. You remember that we discussed the matter in the fall and agreed that I should own only one pair at a time. I bought a pair in mid-December and they have held up until now. My big toe is about to burst out of my right shoe and so I must do something about it.
Narrator: Hurston’s relationship with Mason—almost five years of support—had soured over time. Mason paid Hurston’s theater bills and came through with six dollars for the new shoes, money for a one-way ticket and $75 in spending money.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: Charlotte Osgood Mason was unable to control Zora Neale Hurston. It would be like trying to get a shooting star into a mason jar. And Charlotte Osgood Mason could not be controlled by Zora Neale Hurston.
Narrator: Hurston’s last check from Mason arrived in October 1932, just as the nation was heading toward record unemployment. The Great Depression had dashed the dreams of many Americans. Hurston had hoped for a teaching position in Florida that did not materialize. Income from periodic writings never secured her enough money on which to live.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: It wasn’t just that Zora Neale Hurston lost a meal ticket. She honestly did lose somebody she saw as a kind of spiritual mother.
Narrator: Hurston had not just lost her relationship with Mason. A year earlier, her friendship with Langston Hughes had ended on very bad terms in part over their collaboration Mule Bone, a comedic play based on one of Hurston’s unpublished Eatonville tales.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: He and Zora Neale Hurston were enormously important to one another in every sense: emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually. And when their relationship exploded, they were both profoundly wounded by it.
Narrator: When Hurston’s mentors at Columbia failed to facilitate funding for her research, she turned to the Guggenheim Foundation. On July 25th 1933, Hurston submitted an application for a fellowship focused on “anthropology” to continue the work she had begun in New Orleans.
Zora (VO): My ultimate purpose as a student is to increase the general knowledge concerning my people, to advance science and the musical arts among my people, but in the Negro way and away from the white man’s way.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: “The Negro way” means in a way that is respectful, that is set on debunking Black inferiority. I think it speaks to her, again, desire to participate in the knowledge production of anthropology.
Charles King, Political Scientist: Hurston is an early practitioner of what would later come to be called native anthropology. That is to say, she’s someone from the communities that she is studying.
Narrator: Hurston chose long-time mentor and Journal of American Folk-Lore editor Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas and three others—people she felt supported her goals—to submit recommendations.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: Most of the letters in her file are extremely problematic.
Narrator: “Papa Franz” wrote, “On the whole her methods are more journalistic than scientific and I am not under the impression that she is just the right caliber for a Guggenheim Fellowship.” Benedict assessed that Hurston had “neither the temperament nor the training to present this material in an orderly manner when it is gathered nor to draw valid historical conclusions from it.” And added in a separate letter, “I don’t think she is Guggenheim material.”
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: Basically, you send her to go in and collect, but have somebody who’s trained write up the material, trained, meaning credentialized. And I think that’s probably the hardest hurdle that she has to get over: that she’s not just a vessel for the Academy to get into these specific cultures.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: She does not yet have the academic credentials that are considered appropriate for Guggenheim. Which is not to say the Guggenheims only go to people with doctorates, but it remains an issue to this day: “What kinds of credentials are assumed to have to go along with that kind of recognition?” Did Franz Boas consider her lack of a Ph.D. an issue? Probably.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Even as liberal, and as important and empowering as Franz Boas and, and some of the professors were, there was still some implicit bias that there was not equality of intellectual engagement, if you will.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: That doesn’t mean whatever relationship they had was inauthentic, but I don’t think that the Academy imagined Hurston as ever being part of the knowledge it produced, or a knowledge producer in her own sake.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: At the moment that Zora is claiming her space as an anthropologist, anthropology doesn’t know what to do with Black folk. They didn’t know what to do with Zora, and I think it was a level of gatekeeping.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: She was remarkably forbearing, much more forbearing than most people could be in the circumstances she faced as a Black woman in mostly White society, in mostly sexist society, in mostly racist society, in mostly Northern and urban society.
Wrassling Up a Career
Narrator: Zora Neale Hurston was determined to have a career; “I shall wrassle me up a future or die trying,” she had once written to Mason.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: Hurston worked across many different disciplines, many different fields, many different kinds of artistry. She worked in drama; she worked in writing; she worked in academia; she worked in teaching. Often she was working on her own. She was not somebody who could work well for very long for anybody else.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: She alienated a lot of people. Zora is the kind of person you either love her, or you hate her.
Charles King, Political Scientist: She could be insufferable. The truth was, she was in many ways undisciplined.
Narrator: She had once written to her friend, the poet Countee Cullen, complaining about the “regular grind at Barnard”: “Don’t be surprised to hear that I have suddenly taken to the woods. I hate routine.”
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: Once she was done with something, or someone, often she was completely done, and she couldn’t look back.
Narrator: No longer beholden to “Godmother,” or “the Park Avenue dragon,” as she once referred to Mason in a letter, Hurston could freely pursue fiction. She had been sketching out a story loosely based on the lives and experiences of her parents in Eatonville.
Hurston (Archival VO): I didn’t even have a typewriter then. I got $20 from, ah, Story magazine for this short story. And so on the strength of that, I decided to sit down and write a novel. It took me about, uh, seven or eight weeks to write the book.
Narrator: Hurston’s instincts paid off. In May 1934, that novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, was published to good reviews. “Miss Hurston…has made the study of Negro folklore her special province. This may very well account for the brilliantly authentic flavor of her novel and for her excellent rendition of Negro dialect,” gushed The New York Times Book Review. The title was immediately selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club.
Narrator: Also that year, white, wealthy shipping heiress Nancy Cunard, a regular fixture in Harlem society, published Negro Anthology, an extensive, groundbreaking collection of music, poetry, historical studies and examinations of racism. The book featured seven of Hurston’s ethnographic writings.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: Those pieces are evidence of her theorizing. She’s really articulating a theory of how she views Negro culture at that moment in time.
Zora (VO): [T]he Negro is a very original being. While he lives and moves in the midst of white civilisation, everything that he touches is reinterpreted for his own use. He has modified the language, mode of food preparation, practice of medicine, and most certainly the religion of his new country.
Narrator: That summer Hurston wrote Boas about her manuscript for Mules and Men—a book about her early anthropological forays into the South. She hoped that he would like the ethnographic-focused work, despite her publisher’s request to add additional material to appeal to a more general audience. The revisions resulted in Hurston weaving the folklore stories into a first-person narrative.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: She wanted a much more comprehensive and much more scientific sort of tone, including a lot of religion, and the children’s games, and sort of almost an encyclopedia.
Zora (VO): Dear Doctor Boas, I am full of tremors, lest you decide that you do not want to write the introduction to my “Mules and Men.” I have inserted the between-story conversation and business because when I offered it without it, every publisher said it was too monotonous. Now three houses want to publish it. So I hope that the unscientific matter that must be there will not keep you from writing the introduction.
Narrator: Hurston headed to Chicago in October 1934 to stage a version of her production of The Great Day, now titled Singing Steel. Her arrival was met with a blur of invitations to dinners and speaking engagements. The Daily News advised, “The fascinating Zora Neale Hurston,” is “too good to miss.”
Narrator: Hurston received an early Christmas present when her production so impressed the Rosenwald Fund that the philanthropic organization, focused on African American education, offered her a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D.
Zest for a Doctorate
Zora (VO): Dear Dr. Boas, Great news! I have wanted the training very keenly and tried very hard to get Mrs. Mason to do it for me. She would give money for everything else but that. I realize that this is going to call for rigorous routine and discipline which everybody seems to feel that I need. So be it. I want to do it.
Narrator: The Rosenwald Fund had agreed to provide $3,000 over two years to support Hurston’s doctorate. “The major problem…as I see it” Hurston wrote in her application, “is the collection of Negro folk material in as thorough a manner as possible, as soon as possible. In order to see it objectively one must have great preparation, that is if to be able to analyze, to evaluate what is before one.” For the first time since childhood, Hurston would be able to focus on being a student.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: There was rarely a moment that she didn’t have to worry about money, that she didn’t have to borrow or work more than two or three jobs.
Zora (VO): I have been on my own since fourteen years old and went to high school, college and everything progressive that I have done because I wanted to. I have had people say to me, why don’t you go and take a master’s or a doctor’s degree in Anthropology since you love it so much? They never seem to realize that it takes money to do that.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: Columbia at that moment, has organized all of its courses around salvaging information about indigenous Native Americans. What Zora wants to do is create what I call an independent Ph.D. in Negro studies. We would call it Black Studies. She convinces Boas that she should do this independent Ph.D. He agrees.
Narrator: But just one month after awarding Hurston the fellowship, the Rosenwald Fund rejected the long-term plan that she and Boas developed for her study, and informed her that they would only support one semester for a total of $700. Frustrated and stressed, she lodged a soft appeal.
Zora (VO): This is not to over-persuade you in the matter of the two-year plan. I am not being trained to do a routine job. I am being trained to do what has not been done and that which cries out to be done.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: They decide, and this is the language that is in some of the correspondence, that “Zora Neale Hurston is like a rough piece of iron that needs to be honed into a fine piece of steel.” And they want to insist that she follow the curriculum at Columbia, which has absolutely nothing to do with what she wants to study.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: This is after she had already been a novelist and had been a member of the American Folk-Lore Society, and the American Anthropological Association. And she had published for the American Folk-Lore Society.
Narrator: Hurston agreed to the new terms, enrolled, and began attending classes, but after a few months she reconsidered.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Zora Neale Hurston did not want to be in another relationship dependent like, um, Charlotte Osgood Mason, so she was like, “Peace out. Like, we’re not going to do this, because I’ve been there before.”
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: They have already decided what she can and can’t do. And she resists, as she has resisted most of her life against the conventions of gender and race—and now intellectuality. It would have been easy. She could have gone, studied those courses and everything and gotten a Ph.D. She chose not to.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: She was never going to be the nice and silent and acquiescent, ah, Black woman ever. This is not who she was.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: It’s an unwillingness to be disciplined in the sense of academic disciplines—anthropology, and disciplined in the sense that she won’t be contained.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: There were very few Black women with doctorates of any kind in the 1930s. And it would have drawn even more attention to her and mostly positive attention.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: Benedict and Boas went out of their way to ensure that Margaret Mead was able to get a Ph.D. So we have to ask ourselves, what other aspects of her difference played into this lack of support?
Narrator: Hurston, who was likely forty-four-years-old by then, decided to stop attending classes and focus on her own writing instead. Her book Mules and Men would soon be published. “Working like a slave and liking it,” she wrote a friend in Florida. “But I have lost all my zest for a doctorate.”
Mules and Men
Music (Archival VO singing/clapping): … Catch this guy. Never come back ‘til the Fourth of July… Come pay the money… Come pay the money…
Narrator: Hurston headed South mid-June 1935 to the Georgia Sea Islands, Eatonville and the Everglades on a job to collect folklore. Her latest travels were to facilitate the work of two white folklorists recording Negro folk songs for the Library of Congress, but it wasn’t easy. Sensitive to Black stereotyping, at one point Hurston adamantly stopped one of her colleagues from photographing a young boy eating a watermelon. And due to segregation laws in Southern towns, Hurston frequently slept in her car while her colleagues rested in a motel.
Hurston (Archival VO singing): Blue bird, blue bird through my window…
Narrator: Sometimes the researchers captured Hurston’s own singing.
Hurston (Archival VO singing): Blue bird, blue bird through my window. Blue bird, blue bird through my window. Oh…
Narrator: That Fall Mules and Men hit the stands. Hurston opened her story explaining how she had known folklore since she was a child.
Zora (VO): But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn't see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: It is Zora’s first formal collection of stories, folklore, and it cements her as a native anthropologist.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: Why a text like Mules and Men is so important is that she resists the simple extraction, cultural extraction. It becomes an opportunity for her to tell what she feels to be a more authentic story of that Black experience.
Charles King, Political Scientist: Hurston is reporting on a set of experiences that she had, using the first person. Whether it’s a juke joint or a turpentine camp or a lumber mill or a hoodoo initiation ritual, she’s taking you as a reader into a society that she as a scientist is desperately trying to understand.
Zora (VO): I went outside to join the woofers, since I seemed to have no standing among the dancers. I stood there awkwardly, knowing that the too-ready laughter and aimless talk was a window-dressing for my benefit. His laugh has a hundred meanings.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: Part of what she’s trying to tell us is that your very presence changes the dynamic, and so you have to account for your presence in the data that you’re collecting as well. This idea that you are objective, when you go, and observe and participate in these cultures, is really a misnomer.
Charles King, Political Scientist: And that is a way of doing social science that we now take as kind of normal. At the time, this was a revolutionary, and as Ruth Benedict would have put it, an “undisciplined” way of doing social science.
Narrator: Boas, declining to write a major introduction, submitted just three paragraphs.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: He didn’t write a full scale introduction and treat her work with that kind of seriousness.
Narrator: The inclusion of Boas’s text nevertheless helped the publisher promote the critically-acclaimed book.
Hurston (Archival VO singing - Mule on the Mount): Cap'n got a mule. Mule on the Mount Call him Jerry. Ha! Cap'n got a mule...
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: I think it’s really both endearing but also telling that Zora Neale Hurston, in Mules and Men begins to blend her fiction with her science and her science with her fiction. And I think Mules and Men is one of the best examples and the first examples of that.
Hurston (Archival VO singing): I out had told her He must be the hell fired captain's Ha! He had blue eyes lawd lawd he had blue eyes. Oh don't you tell hear them a coo coo bird...
Zora (VO): March 7th 1936: I think I must be God’s left-hand mule, because I have to work so hard. The press of new things, plus the press of old things yet unfinished keep me on the treadmill all the time.
Hurston (Archival VO singing): I got a rainbow wrapped and tied around my shoulder. Hey! I got a rainbow wrapped and tied around my shoulder. It look like rain, lawd, lawd, it look like rain.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Narrator: With the success of her books, Hurston streamlined her focus, deciding that her “life work” was literature. But she remained committed to exploring and documenting Black lives.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: She said, “I have to keep going and answer the questions about my people.” And to her, she's talking about the diaspora. She's talking about Black culture, not just in the United States, but in the Caribbean, as well.
Narrator: Hurston again looked to the Guggenheim Foundation for support. In this new application, she indicated a unique description of her field of learning: “literary science.” And this time, she only asked one anthropologist to serve as a recommender. Melville Herskovits, a prominent former student of Boas, wrote, “I think it is not saying too much to state that Miss Hurston probably has more intimate knowledge of Negro folk life than anyone in this country.” Hurston won a Guggenheim in March—the first of two. And by the next month she was off to Jamaica and Haiti.
Movie Trailer: Join a cult whose roots go back to darkest Africa. Exotic, barbaric, the cult of voodoo!
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: She wants to remedy, to a certain extent, the sensationalism that Americans are consuming Haitian culture and voodoo. She feels like she can go in and tell a story about that religion that is free of the sensationalism.
Narrator: Zombies existed in the minds of western society as part of a forbidding, sexual and mysterious culture associated with Haiti.
Daphne Lamothe, Literary Scholar: When it comes to Haiti and Jamaica, the Caribbean space, she is very much an outsider.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: It’s where Zora steps into the traditional anthropology, where she’s studying the other. She is not a member of that society. She doesn’t belong, so she has to figure out how to get inside of it.
Daphne Lamothe, Literary Scholar: I think that Hurston had an understanding that at the root of it, whether people in Haiti thought about and talked about zombies as a kind of folklore, or a phenomenon that actually existed, that at the heart of it, this kind of fascination with the zombie is really about freewill.
Charles King, Political Scientist: She’s saying that if you need a category for someone who is both living and dead at the same time, that is deeply revealing about the society that you’re from. And for Hurston herself, having grown up in Jim Crow Florida, she knew what that category meant for someone to be fully, wholly alive but socially dead, socially invisible to the people she was surrounded by.
Narrator: Months of fieldwork in the Caribbean had distracted Hurston from an intense romantic relationship with a younger man. But she could no longer ignore the narrative that had been welling up inside her. She mixed memory, history, personal experience, fiction, and research into a story told through the eyes of a southern Black American girl-turned-woman named Janie Crawford, who lives part of her life in Eatonville.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: It’s now what we call autoethnography, because it’s rooted in some of what she has lived herself, but also what she’s researched in her own community.
Narrator: In September 1937, her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was on its way to becoming a mainstream critical success. It is a “lovely book,” stated a review in The New York Herald Tribune, praising Hurston as “an author that writes with her head and her heart.”
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: That book is a great illustration of Zora blending her literary skills and talent as a writer, and also her skills and talent as an anthropologist and ethnographer.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: Janie’s a storyteller. She has this full life experience. She’s a survivor in a variety of ways, and she goes home to tell her girlfriend.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: Zora is doing a gender analysis. She’s really telling us about the conditions of Black women and what they have to confront against social norms, against a patriarchal society.
Zora (VO): Uh woman by herself is uh pitiful thing,” she was told over and again. Besides she liked being lonesome for a change. This freedom feeling was fine. These men didn’t represent a thing she wanted to know about.
Daphne Lamothe, Literary Scholar: There are scenes where some of the very stories that she collected when she was doing fieldwork in Eatonville are incorporated into the plot.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: She’s also depicting the ways in which people interact. That’s what anthropologists do. They observe social interaction and document that, and so the novel is rich with how people gossip and how they make judgments about things. The language is so rich.
Zora (VO): The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: We call it in anthropology “thick description,” which is throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Zora (VO): All night now the jooks clanged and clamored. Pianos living three lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot. Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour. Work all day for money, fight all night for love. The rich Black earth clinging to bodies and biting the skin like ants.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Mules and Men was science informed by fiction, and Their Eyes Were Watching God was fiction informed by science because there’s very little distinction between the signifying happening on Joe Stark’s porch and Joe Clarke’s porch. They’re the same thing.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: Their Eyes Were Watching God is to me the most personal of all of her books. I think she’s really laying it out there. I feel like she knows it’s going to be an important book.
Tell My Horse
Narrator: Despite her publisher’s robust promotional campaign and rave reviews in national publications, Their Eyes Were Watching God did not sell well. What surely did not foster African American support were negative reviews from Hurston’s Black male contemporaries. Writer Richard Wright attacked Hurston’s book stating that it “carries no theme, no message, no thought” and continued what he described as “the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.” And Alain Locke’s critique in a one-paragraph review suggested that she was drawing on old literary traditions.
Narrator: Hurston was livid, and she wrote that Locke knew “less about Negro life than anyone in America. I will send my toe-nails to debate him and I will come personally to debate him on what he knows about literature on the subject.” Her scathing response was never published.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: The critical reception of her work by the Black intelligentsia is extremely disappointing, and does smack of sexism. When the novel is dismissed as a romance or a love story, or even worse, as a kind of dialect novel in some cases, what I think is lost there is the incredibly complex vision of power and oppression and racism that is presented in that novel.
Daphne Lamothe, Literary Scholar: The 30s was really understood to be the protest era, where the fiction was much more explicit in addressing questions of interracial conflict, of racism, and their impact on Black people. By the time Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937, the Harlem Renaissance had really kind of reached its peak and was on the wane.
Narrator: For Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, published the next year, Hurston drew on the material she had collected during her back-to-back Guggenheim fellowships. She filled this second ethnographic book with photographs, lists, music and essays exploring religion, history, politics and culture of Black people in both countries.
Daphne Lamothe, Literary Scholar: The most compelling parts of it are the sections where she’s writing about Haitian Vodou: its rituals, its cultures, its meaning in the lives of the people who are practitioners. The political commentary that she provides, the social commentary is much more problematic. Her Americanness really comes through in how she writes that work. There are so many sections of it that don’t really center Haitian perspectives about their own culture in the way that she does with her ethnographies that are centered in the American South.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: I just don’t think the American reading public was interested in the critical assessment of Caribbean history and history of dictatorship and colonialism. Although they were interested in the zombies.
Narrator: Though her publisher promoted the most sensationalistic aspects of her research, Hurston’s Tell My Horse was not a commercial success.
Narrator: Most reviews were mixed or negative. One very positive review must have warmed Hurston’s heart: “The judges who select the recipients of Guggenheim fellowships honored themselves and the purpose of the foundation they serve when they subsidized Zora Hurston’s visit to Haiti. I hope the American reading public will encourage her further wanderings. She ought not to be allowed to rest.”
Narrator: Back in Florida, Hurston continued writing for herself and for others—including a position with the federal Works Progress Administration’s Florida Writers’ Project. In 1939 she released another novel and took a job teaching theater at North Carolina College for Negroes. The next year, her friend anthropologist Jane Belo asked her to conduct research on religious trances in Beaufort, South Carolina. Hurston eagerly quit teaching mid-semester to get back into the field. At Hurston’s insistence, a camera crew documented the services.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: That image of her playing the drum. You feel like she’s coming around full circle. You can see her as a vivid participant observer. You can see that she is at home at this church.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: The research that Zora Neale Hurston did in Beaufort, South Carolina represents the culmination of her work as an authentic anthropologist.
Narrator: “We’ve been shooting, shooting, and shooting,” the film crew reported. “If the gods of anthropological investigators are with us we have some swell fotos and films…Without Zora most of it would have been impossible.
Dust Tracks on a Road
Zora (VO): What will be the end? That is not for me to know. Life poses questions and that two-headed spirit that rules the beginning and end of things called Death, has all the answers.
Narrator: At first Hurston resisted her publisher’s desire for her to write an autobiography.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: I think she said, “It is difficult to discuss what the soul lives by.” I’m not sure she wanted to do that, was ready to do it, but she needed to write something because that’s how she made money.
Narrator: In 1942 Dust Tracks on a Road was published to great fanfare. Hurston promoted the work, which helped establish her as a prominent literary figure.
Irma Mcclaurin, Anthropologist: Zora’s autobiography is complex. There are those who argue that she wasn’t authentic, that she didn’t tell everything because the notion of an autobiography is that it traces the life from the beginning to the end. There’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff that we really don’t have access to.
Zora (VO): I am supposed to have some private business to myself. Whatever I do know, I have no intention of putting but so much in the public ears.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography is itself, “featherbed resistance”: she’s wearing a mask; it’s a pack of lies. On the other hand, it is the truth as she saw it. It is a memoir, and you get her spirit, you get the feeling of her, her life.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: What I find really fascinating about that book is her admissions—they’re very stealthy, that some of the folklore she collected, she collected actually when she was seven years old, nine years old, when she was a child growing up in Eatonville, immersed in this culture that she later collected.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Dust Tracks on a Road is highly edited. She had some biting lines about the United States and the role of freedom abroad versus freedom here. But the editors, they took it out, and I guess Zora was looking forward to that royalty check and didn't want to fight for it.
Narrator: The book with its strong sales validated the significance of her anthropological study, but success still did not translate into funding for her continued fieldwork. Though she never stopped writing articles, reviews and opinion pieces—she would get by working at a variety of jobs—sometimes as a teacher, librarian, and journalist.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: She still has a lot she wants to do. I think Hurston had a lot of courage to put her ideas out there, but she was also getting older.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: It’s also the period of time where she’s falsely accused of having improper relations with a minor. People abandoned Zora Neale Hurston. That accusation is dropped. It turns out that the woman had a vendetta against Zora, but the people who abandoned her never really come back into her life.
Narrator: When it was discovered in 1950 that she was serving as a maid, Hurston played it as if the work was just part of her research.
Daphne Lamothe, Literary Scholar: She’s having a really difficult time finding people who are interested in publishing her work.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: She’s an aging Black woman, with no children and no husband. The Negro is no longer in vogue. And so you just watch what happens to Black women who almost always live in precarity in this society.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: By the last 10 years of her life, she has all of the ailments of older Black women. high blood pressure, gaining weight. She’s still desperately trying to get enough money to continue her work, and it’s slipping through her fingers.
Narrator: Hurston’s tendency to speak her mind entangled her in the emerging national civil rights debates. Her opinion on the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that ended legalized racial discrimination in schools put her at odds with many Americans.
Zora (VO): How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: People cite her letter to the editor where she disparages Brown versus the Board of Education as retrograde, as anti-Black. But she understood that just having proximity to White people did not make Black people smarter, better, more valuable, we needed equality and equity, and financial support.
Zora (VO): It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: She was articulating something where her investment in a particular version of Blackness was not valued.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: She ends up back in the community of Black people.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: The Fort Pierce community in which she lived, loved and adored her. But her struggles as a woman and her struggles as a Black person in racist society were profound.
Narrator: Zora Neale Hurston died from heart disease after a stroke on January 28th, 1960, shortly after her 69th birthday in a segregated nursing home in Fort Pierce, Florida. She was working on at least one novel at the time. At her funeral over a hundred people, the vast majority African American, attended. One of the ministers remarked, “the Miami paper said she died poor. She died rich. She did something.” Zora Neale Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: As the story goes, when you die in a poor house they burn your stuff. And a Black deputy sheriff comes along and he remembers that this woman was someone. And he literally snatches materials, her belongings, out of the fire and hangs on to them.
Charles King, Political Scientist: She had thrown herself into the world to try to rescue, redeem the things that were held by outsiders to be unimportant about marginal societies, and it was somehow fitting that the last act of her papers, her own legacy, was itself an act of rescue.
Narrator: Zora Neale Hurston fell into obscurity until the 1970s. After writer Alice Walker read Their Eyes Were Watching God, she began a journey into Hurston’s life, work and death that catalyzed another Hurston rescue—this one led by literary scholars, Black women.
Irma McClaurin, Anthropologist: I think anthropology hasn’t acknowledged her enough, not only for her writing style, but also the fact that she put herself into that ethnographic landscape: how she impacts, how she’s impacted, how people see her as well as what she’s collecting. And that’s unique.
Eve Dunbar, Literary Scholar: That is what she modeled very early, and what the discipline at that point wasn’t ready for. I think it gives a lot of minoritized people access and legitimacy to the work that they most value, which is to go into their own communities.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: One of the few anthropologists that were doing work in the ‘20s that would sort of hold up to the integrity and the ethics of contemporary anthropology is Zora Neale Hurston.
María Eugenia Cotera, Modern Thought Scholar: People are invested in saying she was a Black anthropologist, but another part of me wants to disinvite anthropology from her recuperation because there were so many moments when folks work behind the scenes not to support her, and so that is very painful.
Carla Kaplan, Literary Scholar: She’s somebody who succeeded against all the odds and whose life was marred by lack of resources, who could have done five times as much if she had had the financial wherewithal she so richly deserved.
Charles King, Political Scientist: We now recognize her as being not only critical to the canon of American literature, but a figure whose work as a prose writer, as a social scientist, is closer to what we would now think of as good, self-aware, self-critical social science.
Lee D. Baker, Anthropologist: Sometimes when you’re ahead of your time, you’re also an outlier. You are marginalized and seen as, sometimes a little crazy, but in many respects people that are ahead of their time, are geniuses, and indeed she was a genius.
Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Historian: Hurston left us beautiful novels. She left us her vision of the legitimacy of Black people as a people, as a culture. She fought for us in her writing. She fought for Black women in her writing, in her anthropology. She believed in our worth, and she said so over and over again. She jumped at the sun.
Zora (VO): Negro reality is a hundred times more imaginative and entertaining than anything that has been hatched up over a typewriter. Go hard or go home.
Text: After 87 years, Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon was published in 2018 and became a bestseller.