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.