The High Priestess of the Vernacular

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston; drawing by David Levine

Zora Neale Hurston, high priestess of the vernacular, was the only black student at Barnard College in 1925. She became a dedicated student of anthropology under Columbia University’s Franz Boas, the pioneer of deep fieldwork and the author of The Mind of Primitive Man (1911). Boas faulted white anthropologists for judging different peoples by values that may not be universally applicable. He argued that cultures must be evaluated according to how well people had adapted to their environments. Ruth Benedict, Elsie Clews Parsons, Melville Herskovits, and Margaret Mead also got their start under Boas.

In Hurston’s day, anthropologists for the most part saw folklore as specific to sequestered communities and as collective memory from which the shape of the past could be inferred. Folk culture back then was defined as something impossible to sustain in any environment other than an isolated, impervious locale. Literacy and migration, things normally associated in black culture with progress, choice, and getting away from the South, supposedly undermined the fabric of those locales where a folk culture flourished. Rural people were the stewards of vanishing customs and beliefs, while the past was being lost because of accelerated social transformation.

Hurston was born in Florida, and as a child of the black American culture down South that she wanted to study she greatly appealed to Boas, because his anthropological relativism stressed understanding a given culture from the inside rather than by viewing it from outside. The temperament of the observer, the degree of sympathy and the absence of condescension, were important to a method of cultural analysis that depended on descriptive information. Boas instructed Hurston to pay attention to the behavior of people when they told a story as well as to the stories being told. Hurston recognized this approach to anthropology as a way of asserting vernacular black culture’s worth, even while Boas and his students were criticized within the discipline for not being rigorous enough.

Hurston judged her first field trip down South to collect folk material in 1927 a failure. She made fun of the primness with which she, the new member of the Society of American Folk Lore, asked in “carefully accented Barnardese, ‘Pardon me, but do you know any folk tales or folk songs?'” Shortly after she returned to New York that same year, she met Mrs. Osgood Mason, a white Park Avenue enthusiast of the Negro. The elderly Mrs. Mason had long had an interest in so-called primitive cultures, going back to her youth when she collected lore among the Plains Indians. She gave money to several Harlem Renaissance artists. Hurston herself got the funds for her second trip from Mason. But their private contract also gave Mason ownership of Hurston’s material and control over where she could publish it and in what form, and stipulated that Hurston was collecting folk material on Mrs. Mason’s behalf.

In 1928, Hurston…

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