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The Harlem Renaissance produced many remarkable artists, writers, and thinkers. Today we'll talk about one of the most interesting minds of the time, Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was an anthropologist by training and spent much of her career studying and documenting the lives of Black people in the southern US. She later went on to write several remarkable novels, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, which we discussed in Crash Course Literature.

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Susan Reverby, Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
Susan Reverby ed., Tuskegee’s Truth’s: Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Penguin Random House, 2008).
“Alice Walker ~ Alice Walker Shines Light on Zora Neale Hurston | American Masters | PBS.” 2014. American Masters. January 30, 2014.
Burke, Marion C. 2012. “Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Sweat’ and the Black Female Voice: The Perspective of the African-American Woman.” Inquiries Journal 4 (05).
Hemenway, Robert E. n.d. “UI Press | Robert E. Hemenway | Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography.” Accessed June 23, 2021.
“John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Zora Neale Hurston.” n.d. Accessed June 23, 2021.
“Zora Neale Hurston | Biography, Books, Short Stories, & Facts.” n.d. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 23, 2021.
Salamone, Frank A. "His Eyes Were Watching Her: Papa Franz Boas, Zora Neale Hurston, and Anthropology." Anthropos 109, no. 1 (2014): 217-24. Accessed July 4, 2021.
Propaganda and aesthetics : the literary politics of Afro-American magazines in the twentieth century. Johnson, Abby Arthur. / Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, 1979

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CC Kids:

Hi, I'm Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course: Black American History. As we've said in previous episodes, one of the richest, most culturally generative periods in American history was the Harlem Renaissance. So many incredible artists emerged from that period, and so many writers who transformed the landscape of American letters.

And, as a writer myself, I have obsessively pored over the work of so many of these folks my entire life. I've studied how they've constructed dialogue, how they created dynamic characters, how they brought Black American life to the pages of books that we're still reading today. And one writer who has always stood out is Zora Neale Hurston. She was brilliant, she was tough, and she had a big personality. I think you should get to know her, so let's start the show.

(theme music)

Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama. Her father was a preacher, her mother was a teacher and a seamstress, and she was the fifth of eight children. During her childhood, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, which was one of the first incorporated all-Black towns in the entire United States. In fact, her father became one of the city's first mayors.

But in 1904, Hurston's mother passed away, and this made her home life a difficult one. Ultimately, Hurston left her home, and she joined a traveling theatre group. Still, she didn't give up on her education, and she was a product of historically Black colleges and universities.

To start, she completed her high school education at Morgan Academy, which was affiliated with what is now Morgan State University, in 1918. She then graduated from Howard University with her Associate's Degree. While there, she co-founded the institution's newspaper, The Hilltop. Later, she went on to become one of the first Black American women to attend Barnard College, where she obtained her Bachelor's of Arts in Anthropology on a full scholarship.

Hurston then went on to pursue two years of graduate school at Columbia University, where she studied under the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas's work helped shift the debate on race from a biologically essentialist framework to one framed around cultural relativism - the idea that cultures must be judged on their own merits and not on how they compare to other cultures. Many of Boas's ideas informed Hurston's future travels as she explored the social and cultural frameworks of Black life in America.

While in New York for school, she founded a literary magazine called Fire!! with her new friends Langston Hughes and Richard Bruce Nugent. Fire!! was met with very mixed reviews, though. The magazine was path-breaking, but some saw it as vulgar and distasteful due to the references to homosexuality and open dialogue about other taboo subjects.

But what was clear was that Hurston was shaking up how the Black experience was portrayed in literature. She and her colleagues wanted to create images that were more expansive, something that reflected the plurality and complexity of the Black experience. Let's talk about how she did this in the Thought Bubble.

 Thought Bubble (3:31)

The essay that put Hurston on the map as a new literary force was called "Sweat." It was published in 1926 in Fire!!, and it was about a woman who was in a relationship that was full of infidelity, abuse, and betrayal. "Sweat" was considered revolutionary because of its feminist themes and dialogue about the consequences of seeking independence as a Black woman.

In the 1930s, Hurston was one of many writers hired by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program created by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was able to use her anthropological training to document the experiences of Black Americans living in Florida. She received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1936 which allowed for her to travel to Haiti, where she wrote her most famous work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Published in 1937, this story was about a Black woman who was searching for love, passion, and a sense of peace in a world that rarely afforded women, especially Black women, this opportunity.

The book was criticized by many Black male writers, because they believed that Hurston did not take an explicit political stance nor did she use the book to address the impact of racism and white supremacy. Hurston, though, wasn't interested in two-dimensional depictions of Black life or in simply using her characters as pawns to make a larger political point. In her work, Hurston believed it was important to portray Black people as having hopes and desires and aspirations and failings, which is to say, she wanted to portray them as people. Thanks Thought Bubble.

 Thought Bubble Ends (5:13)

Zora Neale Hurston's work broke many barriers by combining research and folklore while centering the perspectives of Black women, and judging by how widely her work is read today, you would think that she enjoyed a similarly wide readership during her own life. Well, not quite. For much of her career, Hurston struggled to sustain a mainstream audience.

She also struggled in her personal life. She married and divorced several times and also lied about her true age. At the end of her life, she worked a series of jobs to make ends meet and later suffered several strokes. She then moved to a welfare home in St. Lucie County, Florida and lived there until she died in poverty in 1960.

Hurston's work was almost forgotten, but in 1973, Alice Walker, a prominent Black American author who is best known for her novel The Color Purple, read Hurston's novels and was inspired. Walker said that she felt a personal relationship to Hurston's work and considered her the matriarch of Black literature. After Walker found Hurston's unmarked burial place in Fort Pierce, Florida, Walker bought a headstone for the grave and had it inscribed with the words "A Genius of the South."

In 1975, Alice Walker wrote an essay entitled "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston," which ultimately lifted Hurston's writing from obscurity and turned her into the most widely published Black woman author of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker later said, "I realized that, unless I came out with everything I had supporting her, there was every chance that she would slip back into obscurity."

Other authors started to acknowledge Hurston's contribution to the American literary world, as well, like Robert Hemenway - not that Hemingway - a professor of English and chancellor at the University of Kansas. His 1977 book biography of Zora Neale Hurston helped generate even more interest.

Hurston's revival also led to the republication of many of her previously out-of-print works, and the book Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, was published posthumously in 2018. It details her interviews with Oluale Kossola, a formerly enslaved man who, at the time, was thought to be the last American survivor of the Middle Passage.

As we said before, Hurston is considered part of the Harlem Renaissance, but she took the Harlem Renaissance much further than Harlem. She used her work to elaborate on the various struggles Black Americans were experiencing all over the United States, but she was also a product of the Black South and had a specific desire to take the lived experiences and cultural expression of Black southerners seriously. Her work provided a rich literary engagement with the meaning of Black culture while it was being transformed by migration.

Hurston's work was also unique in the way that she incorporated her research methods into fiction and short stories. Her training as an anthropologist helped her portray realistic and nuanced story of Black experience, because it was based on real conversations with real people. This was the case whether she was traveling to a rural town in Florida to interview formerly enslaved people or when she traveled to Jamaica and Haiti to study religions of the African diaspora.

The great writer Toni Morrison, who is in many ways a literary descendant of Hurston, once said, "Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn't limit my imagination; it expands it." I think of this quote often when I'm reading Zora Neale Hurston. The power of her work isn't limited by writing about the experience of Black women or by being a Black woman. In writing about specific people and specific communities, she is able to tap into a set of more universal truths, the same way famous novelists from England or Russia or America do.

She documented so many stories that might have otherwise been forgotten, and she looked at Black southerners and said, "You are worthy of literature." And we're so lucky that she did that. Thanks for watching. I'll see you next time.

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