Little did Zora know that moving to New York from Washington, DC, where she was a student at Howard University, would forever change the trajectory of her life. When Zora landed in Harlem, she became the latest arrival to what would become enshrined in history as the Harlem Renaissance. Zora’s dramatic flair and need for attention attracted the likes of the actress Fanny Bryce who hired her as a secretary and, after discovering Zora had few secretarial skills, kept her on as erstwhile chauffeur and travel companion. She also caught the eye of a trustee from Barnard College who paved the way for Zora to complete the education she had begun her college career and pay for it as well. At the age of 34, a fact she kept hidden, Zora enrolled in Barnard as a college student. With an Associate degree from Howard University, Zora would complete her Bachelor’s degree in anthropology and become the first Black woman to graduate from the institution. During this period, the seeds were sown for the making of a Black anthropologist with deep roots to the southern culture of the American Negro and who would influence the direction of folklore and ethnography.
At Barnard, Zora discovered the “spyglass of anthropology” taught by the revered Frantz Boas. Today Boas is recognized as the father of “American Anthropology” with its four-field approach. While he might not have garnered as much fame in 1926, he certainly mapped out the structure of Columbia’s anthropology department specializing in American Indians from the multiple viewpoints of cultural, biological, archaeology and linguistic anthropological perspectives, and training some of the discipline’s most illustrious anthropologists of the 20th Century. This “holistic” approach to doing anthropology, as well as Boas’ emphasis on intensive fieldwork, would shape the future of American anthropology and influence generations of leaders in the field.
According to McGee and Warms in Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History, “Boas pioneered the concept of cultural relativism in anthropology.” This meant trying to understand cultures from their own (insider/emic) perspective. From beginning Boas was a maverick who challenged conventional understandings about race and society. In his research on immigrant children, he emphasized the the fact, according to a Wikipedia entry, “…that biological race was not immutable, and that human conduct and behavior resulted from nurture, rather than nature.”
While at Barnard, Zora took courses from Boas and Melville Herskovits, a former student of Boas. The most noted contribution of Boas to the development of American anthropology was his emphasis upon intensive field work, cultural relativism and “historical particularism” (named so by the late Marvin Harris). Boas believed that the key to understanding how cultures developed was to view them through their own particular historical past.
One of Boas’ student Melville Herskovits was writing about “Negro Africanisms” in the 1920s, and even published in Alain Locke’s The New Negro in 1925. His most definitive work of the 20th Century on the American Negro, The Myth of the Negro Past, was published in 1941. In these writings, Herskovits moved away from dominant interpretations of Negro culture as poor mimicry of white (European) culture. Instead, he argued that contemporary Negro culture was an example of cultural adaptation and syncretism (the blending of different cultural traits) resulting in what he termed “American Negroisms.” These were the intellectual perspectives Hurston would encounter when she enrolled as a student at Barnard.
To the outside, she appeared as youthful as her white Barnard classmates, but truthfully at the age of 34 Hurston had already accumulated a wealth of lived and writing experiences to draw upon. What attracted Hurston to anthropology was the objective perspective it afforded her—a new way of viewing the culture with which she was so familiar.
Years later, after becoming the first Black woman to graduate from Barnard and with a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology, Hurston would describe her attraction to the field in the seminal folklore collection, Mules and Men (1936). She wrote that anthropology gave her a unique lens with which to view her culture that she described as a “tight chemise.” She wrote: “…I couldn’t see it [culture] 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 the spyglass of Anthropology to look through at that.”
Anthropology introduced Zora to the perspective scientific objectivity. She would fuse this with her own detailed insider’s knowledge of her own culture and people to forge a unique “native” anthropological perspective. Upon graduation from Barnard, Zora was sent into the field by Boas supported by a Carter G. Woodson grant. It would be the beginning of her fieldwork experiences—some successful and others not so successful. The challenge in writing about Zora’s approach to ethnography, the method of first-hand detailed data collection championed by Boas and his students, is that few examples of her field notes survived. The closest illustrations of how she collected data and her analysis of the same can be found in letters to Langston Hughes primarily.
Various anthropologists (Mikell and McClaurin) and writers (Dutton, Hemingway, Kilson, Hoffman-Jeep, etc.), including Hurston’s niece Lucy, have contributed to our insights of Zora Neale Hurston the anthropologist largely through reconstruction of what can be gleaned from her autobiography—itself a reconstruction of sorts—her ethnographies, her literary works, and primary documents.
Anthropology clearly left a definitive mark on Zora , but she also elevated ethnography to a new level and contributed methodological approaches as a “native” anthropologist from which we are still learning—a debt that the discipline of anthropology has yet to acknowledge properly.