A Genius of the South

“I love myself when I am laughing … and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.”

—Zora Neale Hurston


Writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston was born 128 years ago, give or take a week (January 7 or January 15, 1891 may be her birthday). She will have been dead 59 years later this month (January 28), that much is certain. Hurston is a literary and scholarly light to many, myself included.

Her unmarked grave, rediscovered by writer Alice Walker in 1973, bears the epitaph which Walker selected for her idol’s tombstone: “A Genius of the South.” Hurston died alone and poor in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home, a fate she did not deserve and one, unfortunately, not singular for writers (cue Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Herman Melville, to name a few). By the grace of Hurston’s friend and St. Lucie County deputy sheriff, Patrick Duval, he put out the fire of her remaining property, which had been ordered burned, thus preserving charred photographs and a copy of her manuscript of Seraph on the Suwanee, now in the University of Florida’s collection.

In the late 1990s, when I studied anthropology and journalism and almost everyone asked what I was going to “do” with such studies, I would offer up Hurston as the original literary trailblazer to use participant-observation research methods to write about the lives of Southern rural African Americans. Hurston also celebrated black female sexuality in print (the first African-American woman writer to do so in Hurston’s portrayal of Janie in Their Eyes Are Watching God) in a way that incensed Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Alain Locke. To quote the comeback, reinvigorated by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s clapback last week, “don’t hate me cause you ain’t me, fellas.” There were, of course, more nuanced reasons for the feud between Wright and Hurston.

Hurston stopped short of earning her Ph.D. in anthropology under the advisement of renowned German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, who taught Hurston at Barnard and later Columbia, after he “sent Hurston to Harlem with phrenology calipers to measure the skulls of pedestrians and give lie to the notion of Negro inferiority,” wrote Chantel Tattoli in The Paris Review last January. Hurston’s role as a cultural anthropologist and her fieldwork in the Black South greatly influenced her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, reportedly written in seven weeks.

And if you have never read Hurston, take a moment to read her short story, “Sweat” whereby Chekhov’s gun becomes an abusive, unfaithful husband with a rattlesnake, or listen to Hurston sing and explain a lively rendition of the railroad-construction camp ballad, “Shove It Over” in a 1939 audio clip for the Library of Congress. “Can’t you move it?” she sings. “Can’t you try?”

Hurston was and is a complicated and fascinating cultural figure. Ultimately, Hurston’s many interests and talents coalesced to create “a more ethnographic tone to literature,” as well as highlighted her commitment to shifting power and privilege from the narrator to “the subject [being] allowed to speak for her or himself,” as anthropologist Frank A. Salamone wrote in Anthropos. Hurston’s commitment to encouraging others to speak influenced countless anthropologists and writers. Her legacy as a writer, folklorist, and anthropologist endures, despite not receiving the send-off she deserved.