Gender and Culture in Hurston’s Anthropology Works

Zora Neale Hurston lived an unusual life. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, a town with a rural black community. Due to this factor, she was proud of her race and did not experience intolerance. She grew up with traditions of the southern Black culture. With her parents being the active members of the community, she was brought up with much confidence in herself. The experience of powerful role models helped her in adult life and work.[1] A student of Franz Boas, who is often called the father of contemporary anthropology, Zora Neale Hurston, contributed to the change of treatment of culture and gender in the 20th century. Although more famous as a writer, Hurston had a degree in anthropology. As a writer, she traveled a lot. She was collecting snippets during her trips around the American South and the West Indies Islands. Among many female anthropologists, the personality of Zora Neale Hurston appeals to me most of all. Her origin contributed to her writing style and the interpretation of cultural concepts within the anthropologic study.

Zora Neale Hurston is well known as a writer. Still, it should be mentioned that she was the first black woman who obtained a degree in anthropology. She contributed to the development of this field with her selection of African American folklore, the book Mules and Men. The work Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica analyze the spiritual traditions she observed in Haiti and Jamaica. Her works concentrate on the problems of race, class, and gender within the scope of African-American history in the United States. Nevertheless, her literary works are not limited to these topics. [2]

At that time, male supremacy was observed in all the spheres. Anthropology was not an exception. Men were dominating; thus, the aspects of life were highlighted from the male’s point of view. Consequently, the gender components of the traditional communities were not discovered properly. Only in the 1970s, due to the feminist movement, and feminist anthropology appeared. Its primary task was to intensify the female anthropologic writing. Feminist anthropologists aimed to discover the category of gender. They tended to reveal the cross-cultural status of women and the factors that could influence it, historical, cultural, and economical. In fact, female anthropologists wanted to figure out the role of a woman in the context of time and culture. Hurston often addresses gender dynamics in her short stories as well.

Within thirty years of her career, Hurston published two books of folklore, four novels, plays, articles, and short stories.[3] The majority of black authors who arose at times of the Harlem Renaissance depicted the black population as oppressed by the whites. On the contrary, Hurston showed blacks independent and proud of their culture. This approach is, of course, the result of her childhood in Eatonville, where she could observe the life of the black community and their possibilities. Still, such depiction was not typical at that time. It provoked the criticism of Hurston’s works. It is obvious that Hurston dedicated most of her writer’s and anthropologic career to depicting the uniquely African American folklore. [4] It was done in her particular narrative and dialogical style.

On the whole, some of Hurston’s works present African American Folklore. These are: Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mules, and Men, Man of the Mountain, Tell My Horse, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, and Moses. The critics claim that Hurston had two main reasons for black folk culture application in her works. On the one hand, it was political. Hurston neglected the black population’s sufferings because of racism and injustice. On the contrary, she emphasized that they were happy within their authentic culture. On the other hand, personal and historical reasons were also included. In her childhood, she did not experience racism or extreme need. However, it was a part of the everyday life of many other black writers.

In one of her best-known novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston examines the influence that gender and race have on personality formation. It is often a problem for a person to identify oneself due to the conflict between personal identity and the one created by society. Thus, Janie, the main character of the novel, cannot neglect the society’s opinion before she experiences all the disadvantages of being a black woman. The symbols used by Hurston (the mule or pear tree in blossom) represent the becoming of Janie’s freedom and womanhood together with her victory over the men.

Usually, when it comes to discrimination, the matter is connected with race and people being oppressed due to their skin color or eye shape. However, racism is not the major theme in Their Eyes Were Watching God. It may seem to be because of Hurston’s background, but it does not have the leading role. Nevertheless, the concept of race is essential in the book. The peculiar feature of Hurston’s novel is that the attention is not concentrated only on blacks or whites. It is obvious when Janie is prejudged by the representatives of both races. It is due to the fact that there are some white roots in her family. As a result, features of both races are recognized in her appearance, which led to some discrimination.

The intricate issue of racism can be observed through the image of Mrs. Turner. She is black herself and a racist against blacks at the same time. [5] It leads to the conclusion that race or skin color does not indicate the difference. If a person feels superior to the others and wants to accentuate it, he or she will find the reason and the way to show this superiority. In fact, racism in Their Eyes Was Watching God can be treated as a series of absurd biases of society. Sometimes it looks like Hurston treats racism as an illness that people get and which cannot be cured due to various reasons. It is impossible to neglect the existence of racism. However, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, it is just one more barrier that Janie needs to crush to find her identity and live in peace with herself.

Hurston discovered the idea of inner-race discrimination when class or gender become discriminating factors. In the all-black community of Eatonville described in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s gender has more influence on her perception by society. It was normal to speak of a woman only in connection with her husband. It is the evidence of the mistreatment of women characteristic of 1930s society. Hurston’s novels depict the unjust approach to women, which was particularly evident after the marriage. This fact is another example of discrimination but on the grounds of gender.

Although Hurston does not only stand up to the whites and the blacks; she pays more attention to the relations inside one race and the problems of living in a single-race community. Hurston and Janie have a common feature. They both grew higher than the society thought they could and became the women they wanted to be.

Speaking of Mules and Men, this work is considered the first biggest anthropological writing by an Afro-American woman. It is mainly dedicated to the cultural and historical issues of the black population. Still, some stories at the beginning of the book are dedicated to men and women, thus representing the gender aspect. Mules and Men is also special because of the author’s attitude. Hurston, being an academic, does not position herself as a neutral researcher. She is the participant of the events which are the part of her life. The folk stories are written in dialect and mostly in the form of dialogue, not a narration.[6] It gives a better cultural image, that is bright and vivid. The stories reveal the social issues, like slavery or racial inequality.

In fact, in Mules and Men, Hurston demonstrates the narrow vision of women on their lives. Men feel free to comment on the nature of women and tell sexist stories. The tale of Mathilda Moseley Why Women Always Take Advantage of Men gives the example of men and women relations. In the beginning, men and women are equal. Then God gives men more power and refuses the same question from women. Thus, women had to get the strength from Satan. This is the case of subjective approach which also associates the female power with evil.[7] In general, Hurston presents the black woman as the mule of the world. Still, this woman is strong enough to abandon the burden put by the people and live her own independent life.

Despite the problems with publishers who demanded a different treatment of the problems discussed by Hurston, she managed to include the components of uncompromising social analysis into her novels. For example, a famous novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is usually considered to be dedicated to racial and gender identity. Nevertheless, the issues of racism, sexism, and capitalism connections can be traced in it as well. Hurston constantly accentuates the gender differences which describe the relations between women and men in her novels.

On the whole, Hurston was much criticized both by the black literary community and the publishing companies. She was still writing some articles, but her work will be worthily regarded only after her death. Zora Neale Hurston is a worthy representative of anthropology. She is not widely recognized by the literary critics or and cultural historians. Still, her contribution to the research of African American folk traditions and the gender representation in folklore should be considered. She had a certain influence on the further gender researches. While reading a book by Martha Ward and Monica Edelstein A World Full of Women, I noticed some similar ideas. The book also has some elements of descriptive ethnography. It touches gender theory and attempts to present a contemporary picture of a woman’s life.[8] It reveals the problem of class and culture, their interconnection and the influence they have on every part of female’s life like marriage, job or health. For example, one of the chapters in A World Full of Women represents the work distribution in a particular area.

Thus, women in Newfoundland spend life worrying about their men who go fishing to make a living. [9] Worrying becomes a kind of work, a part of being a wife of a fisherman. In fact, the division of labor on gender basis has been observed in most anthropological researches. Gender influences all aspects of work. [10] However, Ward and Edelstein stress that all women work although this work is not always paid or noticed. Women work as wives and mothers; they take care of the family. These roles are traditionally considered female and are often underestimated. The problem becomes even more complicated in the developed countries since women get almost equal job possibilities with men. Consequently, their roles of mothers and wives move to the second shift. This fact leads to the change in women’s priorities. Young ladies prefer to think more about the career and health issues than the family life. However, it is characteristic of the developed societies, thus the influence of culture is evident.

Summarizing the mentioned above facts, it can be concluded that the influence of race, gender, and culture has long been influencing the development of a woman. At present, partially due to the feminist movement, this impact is not so evident. Women have more freedom from prejudices and opportunity to decide on their lives. Still, it depends on the society. Hence, there will be more material for anthropology studies on gender and culture in the future.


Cotera, Maria Eugenia. Native Speakers. Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, Jovita Gonzalez, and the Poetics of Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.

Fradin, Judith Bloom, Fradin, Dennis Brindel. Zora!: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.

Jones, Sharon L. Critical Companion to Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009.

Kaplan, Carla. The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

King, Lovalerie. The Cambridge Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Mascia-Lees, Frances E., Black, Nancy Johnson. Gender and Anthropology. 2nd ed. Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc., 2016.

Ward, Martha, Edelstein, Monica. A World Full of Women. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindel Fradin, Zora!: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), IX.

Sharon L. Jones, Critical Companion to Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009), 7.

Maria Eugenia Cotera, Native Speakers. Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, Jovita Gonzalez, and the Poetics of Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 17.

Carla Kaplan, The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 103.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 141-145.

Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 8.

Lovalerie King, The Cambridge Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 50.

Martha Ward, Monica Edelstein. A World Full of Women (New York: Routledge, 2015), 17-36.

Martha Ward, Monica Edelstein. A World Full of Women (New York: Routledge, 2015), 17.

Mascia-Lees, Frances E., Black, Nancy Johnson. Gender and Anthropology. 2nd ed. (Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc., 2016), 41.

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