Photograph of Zora Neale Hurston. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten collection.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory Collection.
In the years since Alice Walker's famous "rediscovery" of Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston's work has received new and richly deserved attention from high school English teachers. Hurston's work is lively, lyrical, funny, and poignant, but this consummate literary craftsperson was also a first-rate ethnographer, conducting fieldwork for Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, and for the Works Progress Administration.
It is not surprising, then, that Hurston's fictional output sings (sometimes literally!) with the sounds, songs, and stories of the Southern black folk tradition. Their Eyes Were Watching God, often acclaimed Hurston's masterpiece, is perhaps the richest beneficiary of her work as a folklorist: its evocation of picking in the jook joint, playing the dozens, and petitioning root doctors offers a compelling synthesis of ethnological reality and lively characterization and setting.
In tribute to Hurston's fusion of social science and the author's art, this lesson plan focuses on the way Hurston incorporates, adapts, transforms, and comments on black folklife in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Students will read the novel, explore Hurston's own life history and collection methods, listen to her WPA recordings of folksongs and folktales, and compare transcribed folk narrative texts with the plot and themes of Their Eyes. Along the way, the history of black autonomy in the post-Civil War South (especially the town of Eatonville, where Hurston grew up and which is the setting for much of the novel) is available for interdisciplinary connections or simply as a potent reminder of the vital relationship between place, tradition, history, and story. In short, the idea is to understand, both as formal analysts of voice and style and as historians of literature, the crucial role of oral folklore in Hurston's written canon.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to do the following:
7-8 class periods