Portrait of an African America
By Gabriel Blanchard
One aspect of American culture sailed here in the Mayflower; another, in the Amistad.
Three years after the birth of their fifth child, John and Lucy Ann Hurston decided to leave their home state of Alabama for a newly-founded town in Florida, called Eatonville. This town was among the first all-Black enclaves in the United States, and it is easy to see why it appealed to the Hurstons: not only had both sets of parents been born into slavery—a system that, at the time, was only about as far back as the Cold War is for us—but Mr. Hurston, despite being a Black Baptist minister, was also obliged to work first as a sharecropper and then as a carpenter to support his growing family. In Eatonville, they could live simply as people and not be under anyone’s thumb. This fifth child, a daughter, accordingly grew up in a much more hospitable and peaceful environment than many of her approximate contemporaries, like James Baldwin or Martin Luther King Jr. Her name was Zora.
In 1917, Zora began her college career, attending first Morgan College in Baltimore and then Howard University in Washington DC. Both schools are on the list of historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs; these are institutions of higher learning founded before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that swam against the current of their day not only by admitting Black applicants (something many colleges refused to do at all), but by not restricting the number of acceptances to suit a determinate racial quota—such quotas were then a common tactic of the schools that did admit some Black students, but wanted to make sure they remained a minority. While at Morgan and Howard, Hurston studied anthropology, and also made the acquaintance of Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, names we shall revisit a bit later. After her time at Howard, Hurston received a scholarship to attend a women’s college at Columbia University, where she presumably experienced at least a little culture shock as the only Black student! In any case, she received her baccalaureate in 1928, and remained at Columbia for two more years as a graduate student in the same field.
She then embarked on the work that formed the bulk of her career. Traveling throughout the American South and the Caribbean, Hurston documented the folklore of the Black populations there. Piecing together the history of the community, from its beginnings in Africa to its long sojourn in the Americas, was no easy task. Thanks to the determination of much (albeit certainly not all) of the white South to perpetuate racial class distinctions and, as far as possible, continue the fact of slavery even if they had to do without the name, education was severely restricted in much of the region, by both legal and criminal means; this, in turn, meant that the accounts and legends of the community had all been primarily oral material for hundreds of years. Hurston’s work—a type of study known as ethnography, similar in many respects to the descriptions of foreign nations in Herodotus—brought the history and material of this American subculture into the realm of scholarship. She covered African-American mythology, music, social status and history, and other customs.
These notably included Hoodoo, also occasionally called conjure. This tradition is difficult to define; it might be termed “folk wisdom,” as it is a blend of set stories about the world and how it works, rudimentary medicine, purported spells and amulets, and the like. To illustrate by parallel, “folk wisdom” familiar to Americans of European descent might include: what parts of the cosmos were made on which of the seven days of creation, that we all have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, where to look for dock leaves when stung by a nettle, that ghosts linger due to “unfinished business” of some kind, how to play “Bloody Mary,” and a brief explanation of why either girls or boys—accounts vary—go to Jupiter. Many of these ideas are, of course, strictly false or superstitious, and many of them contradict each other. If pursued with sufficient interest, any of them might lead a vigorous inquirer to some formal academic discipline such as theology, botany, or psychology. But the level these things actually operate at is more along the lines of “I don’t know where it comes from, everybody just knows that,” and is not so much learnt as picked up, often from relatives or other children. Who our relatives and coevals are, however, defines whom we think of as “everybody,” and thus colors the folk wisdom any given person possesses.
Though her principal work was as an anthropologist, Hurston was also a novelist, and it is for her novels that she is most remembered today. These often incorporate elements learned in her anthropological field work. Moses, Man of the Mountain is her retelling of the book of Exodus, casting Moses as a conjure man and focusing on themes that many Bible-readers overlook, as well as introducing new motifs of her own. The former include Moses’s complex double identity (born a Hebrew yet raised as an Egyptian) and the tension that is felt by many people between the strictness of his thoroughly un-democratic authority over the Israelites and the liberation from enslavement which he brings them to. Arguably the most famous of her titles is Their Eyes Were Watching God, which chronicles the life of a young Black woman named Janie, who chases independent happiness and fulfillment through one miserable and demeaning marriage and a second that, flawed but happy, concludes in tragedy.
It was thanks to books such as these that Hurston came to be included in the circle of writers known as “members” of the Harlem Renaissance. This was an event, or group, considered as the period (or people) which produced much of the finest and, well, classic works of Black American literature, pieces of music and styles of dance, journalism and political thought, scholarship, art, and fashion. The Harlem Renaissance roughly overlapped with the 1920s; it also included the aforementioned writers, Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, as well as musician Louis Armstrong, actress Ethel Moses, painter Aaron Douglas, and poet Claude McKay. Hurston was something of an oddball among this crowd*: she was not a leftist, or even particularly sympathetic to the ideas of the Left; in an era—before Stalin!—when many progressives (of all races) were praising the Soviet Union and looking to it for moral leadership on the world stage, Hurston criticized Communism, and even the New Deal. She supported the conservative “long way around” approach to civil rights and equality taken by Booker T. Washington; a staunchly libertarian individualist, she was warier of federal power to fix things than of local power to break them.
Hurston also differed both from many fellow artists of the Harlem Renaissance and from her own family in being an atheist. Although interested by religion as a form of human behavior (and one highly productive of the sorts of behaviors anthropologists tend to be interested in), she had little use for it herself. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she wrote:
Prayer seems to be a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws. … It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me. Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels.
Hurston died in 1960. Her work remains celebrated and widely studied, particularly by scholars of women’s, Black, and American literature.
*There seem to be oddballs—”misfits among the misfits,” as it were—among many influential minority groups in history. If we think of the Protestant Reformers, we might point to Luther himself, who stubbornly maintained the doctrine of the Real Presence in the face of almost every other Protestant leader; if we think of Roman generals, we might name the brilliant and incorruptible Stilicho, who was a Vandal by birth, one of the few tribes whose very name became a byword for pointless destruction and rage. Why this should be is hard to say, but perhaps it’s just that being odd is recursive.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD, and has a bachelor’s in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Started in the summer of 2016 the CLT Journal is now home to hundreds of short essays on the men and women of our Author Bank, the history of what Mortimer Adler called “the Great Conversation,” theoretical and practical questions about traditional education, and much more. We hope you enjoyed this post, and thank you for reading!
Published on 13th February, 2023. Page image from the cover art of the first edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God.