Zora Neale Hurston’s Anthropological Legacy

Zora Neale Hurston, Belle Glade, Florida, 1935 (Picryl)

As the twentieth century shrinks in the collective imagination of American popular culture, select iconographic images and sounds remain eternal. The sculpture of Booker T. Washington lifting or lowering the veil. The photograph of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial. The video recording of the prophetic words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speech to Memphis sanitation workers. The technology afforded those moments and many others become frozen in time.

Concurrently, the witty quips of Zora Neale Hurston are emblazoned on tee shirts, posters, and magnets. Her signature three-quarter cocked chapeau is imbibed as measured coolness and defiance. That space was not always accessible to Hurston. As Jennifer L. Freeman Marshall notes, “Today Hurston’s legacy as a popular culture figure and writer seems firmly secure. However, her “twice as much praise or twice as much blame” presaged a quality of the critical reception her work in the U.S. academy” (2). Freeman Marshall’s Ain’t I an Anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston Beyond the Literary Icon, “explores [Hurston’s] popular appeal as iconography, her elevation into the literary canon, her concurrent marginalization in anthropology, and her significant, though often overlooked, contributions to American anthropology” (2). In 6 chapters, sandwiched between an acknowledgment, introduction and epilogue, Freeman Marshall explores the fictional writings, folklore, oral interviews, and intellectual pursuits of Hurston to identify and capture the authentic cultural life and expression of “Black Southern folks.”

Some academics dubbed Hurston as a “circumstantial authority to the folkloric/anthropological quality of that work” even though she studied anthropology (9).  Hurston’s undergraduate coursework would dwarf her contributions to the field because the doctorate is the terminal degree with unquestioned authority, and she was unable to complete her PhD work. Further, her choice of study was not attractive to mainstream anthropology. Hurston was determined to capture Black southern folk culture. The double burden of class and gender marked her subjects and their products as unworthy of scholarly investigation. “Hurston’s championing of the folk and her irreverent resistance to middle-class mores of respectability inform iconic portrayals of her legacy.  Hurston is not simply a chronicler of the folk; she is the folk” (10), Regardless, Hurston remained committed to “firsthand and unmitigated representation of Black culture that assumes its humanity and worth” (11).

Three chapters in this book stand out. The first chapter, “On Firsts, Foremothers and the Walker Effect,” situates Hurston’s legacy within Alice Walker’s legacy because of Walker’s role in reigniting interest in Hurston’s literary contributions. Walker pulled Hurston into new arenas of Black feminist thinkers, solidifying her literary contributions into the canon of African American literature. The second chapter, “Signifying ‘Texts’: The Race for Hurston,” provides the historiography of literary scholars who analyzed the works of Hurston. Their investigations “illuminated the larger contours of Hurstonisms” in concert with and at times diametrically apart from select confines of Black feminist literary theory. The last stand out is Chapter Four. Titled, “Ain’t I an Anthropologist,” the section is a “critical invocation of Sojourner Truth’s mythic speech” where Freeman Marshall successfully executes her thesis by weaving in the anthropological praxis of Hurston. While most anthropologists produced arid field notes or quantitative studies, Hurston wrote novels and short stories. “These readings occasion Hurston’s entry into the feminist anthropological canon as a textual innovator. As such, she is considered as either a highly experimental and problematic ethnographer or as extraordinary in her experimental approach to ethnography” (97). Through the feminist lens Hurston expands to include anthropology and literature as “resistance to erase of Black women’s thinking as both poetics and politics” (97). Freeman Marshall asserts “Hurston as not just a transferable symbol of Black feminist inclusion but also as an anthropological scholar with intellectual agency” (97).

Freeman Marshall’s work is an insightful read about how academic obscurity can pigeonhole the legacy of Black women thinkers. Hurston’s fascination, esteem, and passion to capture, preserve and return to the African diaspora their new world folk traditions used academic methods and Africana means to share our interior selves. At times the literature review reads like a dissertation in granularity, however, this might prove informative for those unfamiliar with African American women’s historiography. In closing, Freeman Marshall contends that “contextualization and a commitment to interdisciplinarity remain central” to excavating Hurston (193). This excavation serves as a prism through which collective literary and cultural works can contribute to transformative ways of reading and understanding the hybrid Black feminist agency and legacy crafted by Zora Neale Hurston by her people for her people and humanity writ large.

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Ida E. Jones

Dr. Ida E. Jones is the National Vice President for Membership for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History; Co-President National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites; Board member of the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center; Council of Advisors for the National Women’s Suffrage Monument Foundation. Her research interests are African American women, local/institutional history in archives and memory work. Finally, Dr. Jones believes deeply in the words of Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune: Who stated “power must walk hand in hand with humility and the intellect must have a soul."

Comments on “Zora Neale Hurston’s Anthropological Legacy

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    Thank you for your insight into this new work. We also share a reverence for Madame Bethune, whom I, as a child, once heard speak under the big tree at Hungerford School in Eatonville. Thanks again!

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