Published: February 6, 2018
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The first African-American to chronicle African-American folklore and voodoo.
Women of Discovery: Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston may be well-known today as one of the prominent voices of the Harlem Renaissance, but few realize that she was the first African-American to chronicle African-American folklore and voodoo.
After gaining respect as an author, in 1927 Hurston received a research fellowship to work with Franz Boas, a well-known anthropologist. Under his tutelage, she traveled to Florida to collect folklore. Though this trip was not particularly productive, she learned the most important aspect of her anthropological research: the importance of immersing herself in the community she studied. Her next trip to the South provided her with a wealth of African-American tales.
Hurston decided upon a logging community in the Everglades as her first experiment in covert research. To explain her fancy car and manners, she passed herself off as a bootleggers woman on the run. She quickly won over the few women in the camp and spent hours speaking with both the men and women, collecting tales, songs, folk-stories, even lies. This provided the basis for her first anthropological work, Mules and Men. She was eventually run out of the camp by a knife-wielding foe.
The next year, Hurston found herself in New Orleans collecting not only folklore, but conjure-lore, also known as hoodoo. A form of local magic, hoodoo can be used to settle disputes and love affairs, cure diseases, even to cause the death of an enemy. During this time she learned how to be a hoodoo doctor. To do this, she had to lie nude on a couch for three days, without food and water, her navel on a snakeskin beneath her. She underwent hallucinations and what she called psychic experiences while fasting. It was so powerful that Hurston was never able to write about those three days in detail.
Her anthropological research became an integral part of the fiction she was to continue to write for the rest of her life.
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