Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Google is Celebrating American Folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston's Birthday Today

Google pays tribute to an African-American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston today (and I finally added her to my board of Influential Fairy Tale People as well). She was a fascinating woman who found herself overlapping in disciplines and fields of study, both in anthropology and the Arts. While it would seem anyone who dips a serious toe into the waters of fairy tale and folklore tend to do this, Ms. Hurston did this, not only with a subject that hadn't received too much serious scholarly attention till then (the subject of black American folklore), but particularly during a time in which black culture in the US was undergoing serious cultural and political changes (20's to the 50's).

I just love this brief selection of anecdotes regarding her work as it describes so much of her drive, her work and how far ahead of her time she was in her research (from the Kislak Foundation):
In 1927 a wealthy patron, Charlotte L. Mason of New York, gave Hurston a car, a camera and $200 a month to travel throughout the American South and record the folklife and lore of the people she encountered. She explored Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and gathered hundreds of folk tales, most still unpublished. The tales have been described as a "cultural window into how people lived." 
She continued her writing and research, traveling to Jamaica, Bermuda, Honduras and Haiti. In Haiti, she studied voodoo and collected Caribbean folklore that was anthologized in her book, Tell My Horse, published in 1937. The title came from Haitian Voodoo ceremonies, where a person possessed by a spirit is ridden like a horse by the spirit. The spirit speaks through the person, the horse being ridden, and may say, "Tell my horse..." She also wrote about zombie beliefs and the idea that there was a poison that certain Bokors (Voodoo Priests) knew about that produced a deathlike state in recipients. In her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) she wrote:
What is more, if science ever gets to the bottom of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than gestures of ceremony.
Almost 50 years later her theory was scientifically confirmed.
Although it has taken a while for her work to be properly recognized for a number of reasons she's had a lot of posthumous recognition and in 2002 was named in the list of Greatest 100 African Americans.

There are now a lot of resources available to read up on her life and work but to give you a brief overview (Google it!) but I'll post some quotes to get you started.

From Mules and Men, the book Roger D. Abrahams called "Simply the most exciting book on black folklore and culture I have ever read", here's the publishers blurb:

Mules and Men is the first great collection of black America's folk world. In the 1930's, Zora Neale Hurston returned to her "native village" of Eatonville, Florida to record the oral histories, sermons and songs, dating back to the time of slavery, which she remembered hearing as a child. In her quest, she found herself and her history throughout these highly metaphorical folk-tales, "big old lies," and the lyrical language of song. With this collection, Zora Neale Hurston has come to reveal'and preserve'a beautiful and important part of American culture.
Regarding her work with folklore, here are a couple of excerpts from Wikipedia:

By the mid-1930s, Hurston had published several short stories and the critically acclaimed Mules and Men (1935), a groundbreaking work of "literary anthropology" documenting African-American folklore. In 1930, she also collaborated with Langston Hughes on Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts, a play that was never finished, although it was published posthumously in 1991. 
In 1937, Hurston was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct ethnographic research in Jamaica and HaitiTell My Horse (1938) documents her account of her fieldwork studying African rituals in Jamaica and vodoun rituals in Haiti. Hurston also translated her anthropological work into the performing arts, and her folk revue, The Great Day premiered at the John Golden Theatre in New York in 1932. 
Hurston's first three novels were also published in the 1930s: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934); Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), written during her fieldwork in Haiti and considered her masterwork; and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939). 
...Hurston's work slid into obscurity for decades, for a number of cultural and political reasons. 
Many readers objected to the representation of African-American dialect in Hurston's novels, given the racially charged history of dialect fiction in American literature. Her stylistic choices in terms of dialogue were influenced by her academic experiences. Thinking like a folklorist, Hurston strove to represent speech patterns of the period which she documented through ethnographic research. For example, a character in Jonah's Gourd Vine expresses herself in this manner: 
"Dat's a big ole resurrection lie, Ned. Uh slew-foot, drag-leg lie at dat, and Ah dare yuh tuh hit me too. You know Ahm uh fightin' dawg and mah hide is worth money. Hit me if you dare! Ah'll wash yo' tub uh 'gator guts and dat quick." 
...In 2001, Every Tongue Got to Confess was published posthumously. The book was a collection of field materials Hurston had gathered in the late 1920s to create her book Mules and Men. Originally entitled "Folktales from the Gulf States", filmmaker Kristy Andersen had discovered the previously unknown collection of folk tales while researching the Smithsonian archives when they were placed in computer catalogs in 1997.
I've included images of a number of her folkloric works in the post so you can keep an eye out for them in your travels.
Happy 123rd birthday Zora!
Thanks for all the stories.
Additional links: HERE, HERE & HERE

1 comment:

  1. This is a terrific post on ZNH...thanks!