Zora and Performance
I am most struck, however, by Zora’s recognition and analysis of the performative nature of Black culture. Years before performance theory was born, Zora Neale Hurston had been there and done that. We will not find her insights, however, in the traditional scholarly publications. Zora’s discourses on the performative character of Black people are in essays published in the then groundbreaking anthology, The New Negro edited by Nancy Cunard. There hold a wealth of analysis and interpretation of Negro/Black performativity, and are frequently overlooked.
Many academics today have come to recognize that there is significant intellectual value in having a “public voice” that reaches broader audiences beyond those attracted to our scholarly articles. The Savage Mind blog is a good example of the multiplicity of platforms available to anthropologists to speak their piece outside of the constraints of refereed journal articles.
Zora, like her contemporary Margaret Mead who wrote for RedBook, was a “cultural commentator” or what we call in today’s parlance, a “public intellectual” of the first order. Continue reading
It is fitting that I end this blog on January 1, 2015. The winds of January blow with grace across Zora Neale Hurston’s memories. She died January 20, 1960 (fifty-five years ago) and January 7, 2015 will mark the 124th anniversary of Zora’s real birthday (January 7, 1891). Throughout her life, Zora shaved almost ten years off her age, even entering Barnard College at the age of 35. Her life was not only “wrapped in rainbows,” the title of the latest Hurston biography by Valerie Boyd’s, but it was also wrapped in mysteries. And the greatest mystery of all are her contributions to anthropology, which have never been acknowledged.
Our lack of understanding is the result of several facts. Zora was an early bordercrosser. She consciously sought to emphasize the humanistic side of the scientific objectivity she embraced so eagerly; she was also nomadic, not by choice but by circumstances. Though a published writer, teacher and researcher, Zora barely eked out a subsistence lifestyle. In today’s terminology, she would fit the category of “the working poor.” Despite the impoverishment of trying to be a Black woman writer, anthropologist, intellectual in the 1920s and later, Zora stuck to her convictions and suffered for her determination to prove herself and independent woman.
However, always behind in rent, or having to store her belongings with others because she was in the field (turpentine and citrus camps that were institutionalized sharecropping), most of her field notes and clues to her research methodology remain hidden. Perhaps they are buried in the attics or trunks of her former friends and their descendants have yet to discover their value. And while insights into her approach as an ethnographer are elusive, they are not completely hidden from us. I have found many of Zora’s analytical gems buried in her correspondence. She would love the instantaneousness of today emails, since she was a prolific and dedicated writer whose letters carried forth her research ideas, her analysis and her vision of the Black folk culture she researched. Continue reading
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.
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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Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger IRMA MCCLAURIN
I have been a practitioner of the literary arts since the ripe young age of eight—both a poet and a voracious reader. Fortunately for me, I had elementary school teachers who introduced me to Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Yet it was not until I was in graduate school (for the first time, completing a Masters of Fine Arts in English) that I encountered the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. I learned who she was through reading her short stories, novels and plays. I also caught glimpses of the rural Black southern culture that my parents had escaped when they left rural Mississippi and Alabama for the city lights of Chicago where I was born.
As I developed into a literary critic and delved into the history of the Harlem Renaissance, I was left with the distinct impression that most of the modern-day Black critics (mostly men) writing about the Harlem Renaissance cared little about (or for) Zora. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that with minor exception, most have described her with disdain and tolerance and not admiration, despite her note-worthy contributions and the “color” she added to the culture being created at that time.
Many viewed Zora as a person of considerable literary talent during the Renaissance; she was also noted for her distinctive personality and a flair for drama that sometimes grated on her Black compatriots. Whites found her amusing, much to the chagrin of some Blacks. Richard Bruce Nugent, a Black writer and painter, and Zora’s contemporary during the Renaissance once remarked: “Zora would have been Zora even if she were an Eskimo.”
What made Zora unique during this period was the way much of her writing was deeply rooted in rural southern Black culture; her literary outpouring reflected a preoccupation with the life ways and folklore of Black rural people. This fascination with “de folk” and rural Black culture was largely fueled by Zora’s experiences growing up in Eatonville, the oldest incorporated Black township in the United States, not to be mistaken for, as Zora flaunted in her autobiography, Dust Tracks, “the Black side of a white town.” In Eatonville Zora had grown up listening to culture in the making—people swapping lies on Joe’s porch, symbolic and metaphoric improvization and the creation of new meaning with language through storytelling and music.