Celebrated primarily for her creative literary endeavors and vibrant personality as one of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston’s work as an anthropologist tends to be overshadowed by her work as a novelist, journalist and playwright. The first African American to chronicle African American folklore and voodou, Hurston studied anthropology at Barnard in the 1920s under Franz Boas, who encouraged her interests in African American folklore. Data for her scholarly work and creative writing came from her years growing up in all-black Eatonville, Florida, and she drew upon the keen insights and observations gained from her anthropological research in crafting her fictional work. The only black student at Barnard, and the only one known to have graduated from this institution, she received a B.A. degree in 1928.
In 1929 she began a series of fieldwork trips to the U.S. South and to the Caribbean (Haiti and Jamaica). Her research was supported by Rosenwald and Guggenheim fellowships and private funding. Findings of this research are published in Mules and Men (1935), her first major anthropological work, and the first collection of black folklore by a black American. Her second major anthropological work was Tell My Horse (1938), on the materials she collected on Vodun.
Hurston’s contribution to anthropology was not merely in her superior ability to provide vivid imagery of Black culture, but also in her pioneering efforts toward theorizing the African diaspora, and her methodological innovations. As anthropologist Irma McClaurin notes ” Hurston’s research was deeply rooted in a Diaspora paradigm, which stressed an examination of the cultural continuities and differences that emerged when Blacks were scattered across the Americas and Europe as a consequence of slavery.”
McClaurin and others have also hailed Hurston’s role as “an important innovator in anthropological theory and method.” According to McClaurin,
Hurston embraced anthropology’s belief that rigorous and systematic training provided its practitioners with a unique vision of the world. And her metaphor of anthropology as a spy-glass, as an illuminating lens, still resonates today. But where she departed from convention was in her choice of subject matter. To study her own people as a native anthropologist ran counter to the prevailing intellectual winds. Further, her blurring of literary conventions with ethnographic data was a challenge of which she was keenly aware. Hurston’s willingness to go against the grain and to experiment with new ethnographic styles and methods positions her as the foremother of what is today called interpretive anthropology, or the new ethnography (Finding Zora <http://www.research.ufl.edu/publications/explore/v07n1/zora.htm>.