The Wellspring of Zora Neale Hurston’s Creative Imagination

In her stories, plays, poems and songs, Zora drew the words out of her Eatonville memories, the wellspring of her creativity, elevating dialect to new literary heights. As early as 1919, well before her first short stories were published, she wrote poetry in dialect (“In de evenin when I’m alone/ And thinkin jes o’ you…) as well as standard English (“I do not grieve that I no more behold thee,/ Nor press thy lips, nor lie upon thy breast;…). In elevating rural Black culture to the heights of literature, Zora was moving against the grain of writers who would eventually become her urbane contemporaries, and whom she dubbed the “Niggerrati.” In choosing to write in dialect, almost six years before she would venture to Harlem and seven years before she encountered anthropology, Zora demonstrated in her own work the linguistic innovations she later concluded (after much research) was illustrative of a core aspect of Black culture. As her niece Lucy Hurston writes in her book, Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston: Zora wrote stories [and poetry] the way she’d heard them all her life –in the idiom of the black American South.” To Zora, Black language, Black dialect, was not “poor” English, it was an example of Black ingenuity and Black folk’s ability to not only modify the language imposed upon them by slavery, but to invent something completely new and unique. Zora would return to Black language later in her research and view it through a linguistic anthropological lens; she would come to view it not only as a rich resource for her literary works, and certainly not poor mimicry of whites as some scholars argued,  but as evidence of  the cultural adaptive capabilities of  Black folk.

By the time Zora arrived in Harlem in 1925, at the urging of Charles S. Johnson, then editor of Opportunity Magazine who saw promise and talent in her , the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. In her autobiography, Dustracks…, Zora described the moment this way: “So I came to New York through Opportunity, and through Opportunity to Barnard.”

Zora’s admission to Barnard College and her subsequent introduction to Franz “Poppa” Boas and Ruth Benedict as professors would have a profound impact. It was not the end of her life as a writer, but the beginning of a new chapter, one best characterized as “the making of an anthropologist.”

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Irma McClaurin is a writer and Black feminist activist anthropologist. She has been researching Zora Neale Hurston for several years. She is the author of "Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America" and editor of the award-winning anthology "Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis and Poetics." Her career has spanned being a tenured faculty at UFlorida and UMinn, philanthropy, teaching leadership education for the U.S. government, and now working in the non-profit sector.