Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life

Article excerpt

Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. Pp. 228. Paper $22.95.

Tiffany Ruby Patterson's book suggests that Zora Neale Hurston's fictional works and ethnographic studies provide excellent sources for analyzing the experiences of African Americans in the South. For Patterson, this source material is especially useful for those who would gain a better understanding of the histories of the racial worlds that were created in the more than sixty black towns founded in the American South by the end of the 19th century. There is perhaps no other 20th-century writer who is more qualified than Hurston to offer us this view of African American life. Patterson is convinced that Hurston's extensive knowledge of the North and the South makes her an expert witness to the dramatic history that unfolded in those regions and its relationship to developments in the rest of the nation.

Hurston played numerous roles in this 20th-century American drama. Armed with training from Morgan Academy, Howard University, and Barnard College, Hurston worked as an anthropologist, folklorist, novelist, journalist, and librarian, among other things. In the wake of her passing, the world gained an even greater appreciation of her literary talents, including her manipulation of historical information and the creative use of her imagination in relation to the story of her personal life. Born in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891, Hurston often claimed that she was born in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town founded in 1887 that figured so prominently in her writing about southern black life and culture.

Like Hurston, Patterson strives to examine African American history and culture from the inside out. Relying somewhat on traditional historical sources, including newspapers and census reports, this book is based primarily on the critical analysis of Hurston's published fiction, her autobiographical accounts, collected folktales, essays, and other writings. These sources are further supplemented by oral histories collected by Patterson from residents in some of the black communities that found their way into Hurston's literary world. Patterson's methodology, therefore, allows her to identify the corroborating evidence that is often required if historians are to make the best use of oral sources. Rather than dismissing black sermons, gossip, and other oral sources as being too subjective, Patterson draws upon oral and written materials to write a social history of the black South, in all its beauty and horror.

This is no minor point, since African Americans were frequently the creators of both the beautiful and horrific scenes described in the book. Patterson's "bottom-up" approach to telling the story of the past offers readers an intimate picture of black family and community life that devotes as much attention to individual households as it does institutions, including black churches, schools, and places of employment. …