In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Zora Neale Hurston

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Major Works
  • Primary Sources
  • Biographies
  • Anthologies, Bibliographies, and Reference Guides
  • Children’s Books
  • Films, Film Commentary, and Visual Anthropology
  • Literary Criticism, Modernism, and Postmodernism
  • Performance Studies
  • New Directions in Hurston Scholarship

Anthropology Zora Neale Hurston
Oneka LaBennett
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0160


Zora Neale Hurston was a dynamic interdisciplinary writer and ethnographer who earned acclaim during the Harlem Renaissance, whose brilliant works of fiction were marginalized from popular and academic discourses until the 1970s, and whose pioneering contributions to anthropology and folklore are championed by 21st-century anthropologists of the African diaspora. Most scholars now agree that Hurston was born on 7 January 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, but for decades she obscured her place and date of birth. She claimed her childhood home of Eatonville, a black township in Florida, as her birthplace, and it inspired her masterful command of what was then termed “Negro folklore,” tall tales, or “lies” as Hurston put it. Eatonville also served as one of Hurston’s multiple ethnographic and folklore collecting field sites. Hurston’s first publications, however, were in fiction, not anthropology. She began accumulating literary successes while studying at Howard University, and after her first nationally published short story appeared in 1924, she was prompted to join Harlem’s “New Negro” movement.” She transferred to Barnard, a women’s college affiliated with Columbia University. After training there with Franz Boas, Hurston would, in 1928, become Barnard’s first black graduate. Under Boas’ tutelage and supported by the patronage of white benefactors, Hurston traveled throughout the US South and to Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Honduras, documenting cultural and religious traditions. Hurston’s famous quote, from her study of African American folklore, Mules and Men, sums up what drew her to anthropology: “It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings that I could see myself like somebody else . . . Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that” (p. 3). Inventive across numerous genres, Hurston’s constant genius was her unmatched ability to impart the oral traditions of rural black southerners, using their voices to advance Boas’s salvaging mission, blur the borders between fiction and ethnography, and maintain that black expression was worthy of anthropological analysis. Hurston’s later life was plagued by controversy, poverty, and isolation. Although she fearlessly celebrated black culture at a time when its most sympathetic proponents viewed it as exotic, Hurston’s political beliefs were sometimes at odds with black political movements—she opposed the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. After a false allegation of sexual misconduct against a minor—although the charges were dropped—Hurston’s reputation was damaged, and her increasingly conservative politics contributed to her exclusion from literary circles. Upon her death on 28 January 1960 she was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her work was out of print for thirty-five years when in 1975, author Alice Walker revitalized interest in her with an essay that established Hurston as Walker’s literary ancestor and recounted Walker’s excursion to place a gravestone where she believed Hurston was buried. Although Hurston’s work has not been canonized in anthropology, her oeuvre demonstrates early innovations in numerous areas including “native” anthropology, autoethnography, and African diasporic studies, and her citations reveal an indelible mark on feminist and black anthropologists.

General Overviews

Most of the extensive writing on Hurston falls within the confines of literary criticism, Gates and Appiah 1993, Lowe 1996, or literary biography Hemenway 1980 (cited under Biographies) and Boyd 2003 (cited under Biographies). The efforts of writers and scholars such as Walker, Robert Hemenway, Mary Helen Washington, Carla Kaplan, Henry Louis Gates, and Anthony Kwame Appiah have helped to establish Hurston’s place in the literary canon. In anthropology, Irma McClaurin has been a tireless proponent of recognizing Hurston’s contributions. The following overview reveals that Hurston’s interdisciplinary approach to fiction, folklore, and autobiographical writing has had immeasurable influence on a host of writers and scholars working in fields as diverse as anthropology, fiction writing, literary criticism, religious studies, and African and African American studies. Hurston’s corpus of fiction, ethnography, folklore, plays, and short stories reveals that no matter the disciplinary entry point of the analyst, one cannot discuss Hurston’s fiction without acknowledging her ethnographic perspective. Concomitantly, one cannot assess her ethnographic contributions without situating them alongside her fiction. These overlapping approaches have meant that her work resonates with and has informed scholars from multiple disciplines. As McClaurin 2001 and Visweswaran 1994 (cited under Black Feminist and Women of Color Anthropology) reveal, Hurston deeply impacted feminists and black anthropologists. Yet, Hurston’s anthropological work remains outside the field’s canon, which is still largely centered on the legacy of white men. Although Hurston’s contemporaries criticized her for explicitly keeping politics out of her work and for neglecting to engage directly with racism, McClaurin 2001 notes that a generation of feminist and black anthropologists working within the realms of scholar-activism, native anthropology, and applied anthropology have traced their lineage through Hurston. Experimental trends in feminist anthropology in the late 1990s drew on Hurston to explore blurred lines between fiction and ethnography, and the possibilities of “autoethnography”(blending autobiography and ethnography). Visweswaran 1994 (cited under Black Feminist and Women of Color Anthropology) argues that Hurston used autobiography and fiction to enrich her anthropological studies, while also using ethnography to perfect a novelistic voice that drew on the cultural worlds of real-life African Americans. Like Hurston’s own approach, the vast scholarship drawing on her work crosses genres and disciplinary scopes—thus, in many ways, defying categorization. Although the citations that follow are not placed in multiple categories, the sections are often porous and have a good deal of overlap.

  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. 1993. Zora Neale Hurston: Critical perspectives past and present. New York: Amistad.

    Collects reviews of and essays about Hurston’s work in publications from her time period, including The Crisis, New Republic, New York Times Books Review, and New York Herald Tribune. Includes reviews of Hurston’s seven books. While most of the essays are literary in their approach, one by Francoise Lionnet-McCumber explores the autoethnographic qualities of Dust Tracks on a Road, another by Lillie Howard addresses the often-neglected Seraph on the Suwanee.

  • Lowe, John. 1996. Jump at the sun: Huston’s cosmic comedy. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    Definitive text examining the comic elements in Hurston’s fiction, traced from multiple sources including her letters, essays, and autobiography, to illustrate her critical role in identifying African elements in black American culture and the wider significance of humor in African American literature.

  • McClaurin, Irma, ed. 2001. Black feminist anthropology: Theory, politics, praxis, and poetics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    An essential text for anthropologists interested in Hurston’s contributions to the field, McClaurin’s introduction to the volume counts Hurston as a key figure in the genealogy of black feminist anthropologists. Hurston is interpreted as a pioneering proponent of interdisciplinary uses of ethnography; her novels were ethnographically grounded, and her books and essays on folklore were literary. In addition to her prominence in the introduction, subsequent essays also spotlight Hurston as a precursor to black feminist anthropology and as an innovator in autoethnography.

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