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Historical Context

"Hurston’s respect and commitment to Black folk culture and its many incarnations served far more than anthropological purposes; it provided inspiration for a prolific body of literary and dramatic work, and Spunk provides a look into her world."

Spunk:

Historical Context

Zora Neale Hurston wrote the play Spunk in 1935, 10 years after publishing a short story by the same name. In addition to significant plot changes from the story—including adding a happy ending—Hurston’s script incorporates a detailed sense of setting and local customs. The world of Spunk is informed by Hurston’s own upbringing in the rural South, along with anthropological and folklore research she conducted in the years between writing the short story and the play.

Anthropologist or Artist?

Readers in the 135th Street Library, Schomburg Room, during the Harlem Renaissance; from the New York Public Library

Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925, just in time for the literary and artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Intellectual Alain Locke, considered the Dean of the Harlem Renaissance, included the story “Spunk” in his landmark anthology of rising Black authors, The New Negro (1925). Hurston became friends with poet Langston Hughes; they both felt a strong Black identity should be founded on respect for the traditions of folk culture and vernacular. 

At the same time, Hurston enrolled at Barnard College. Upon graduating from Barnard, she began a PhD at Columbia’s Department of Anthropology under Franz Boas, a leader in the anthropology field whose work was informed by strong antiracist convictions. Hurston learned a systematic process of ethnographic research, which she practiced first on the streets of Harlem and later in Florida, Louisiana, and the Carribean. Hurston initially struggled to collect Black folklore in the South, in part because she was hampered by the scientific practices of observation dictated by Boas and the anthropology field. She eventually developed her own technique for field research, approaching her subjects not as a scientific outsider but as someone who could live and interact with them. She also began to insert her own voice into her accounts.

Stepping away from academia, Hurston found financial support from Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white patron who financed many Black artists, including Langston Hughes. Mason imposed tight control over Hurston’s work but allowed her to pursue her own methodology for collecting folklore. From 1928 to 1932, Hurston undertook field work in Florida and New Orleans. Her goal (as determined by Mason) was to gather folktales, songs, and dances for an opera to be co-written with Hughes. Although that project was never finished (Hurston and Hughes fell out with each other during the writing process), the material Hurston gathered in these years inspired an outpouring of literary work including her folk anthology Mules and Men (1935), her best known novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and arguably, the stage version of Spunk.

Back to Eatonville

Zora Neale Hurston and an unidentified man during an anthropological research trip, Belle Glade, Florida; Lomax Collection, Library of Congress

Set in an unnamed Florida community, Spunk’s locale is informed by Hurston’s hometown, Eatonville. Not far from Orlando, Eatonville was established by former slave Joseph Clarke in 1887 making it America’s first incorporated Black township. Hurston described Eatonville as “a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jail house.” Growing up in Eatonville gave young Hurston role models of Black achievement and a highly positive view of her own cultural identity. The town would provide a backdrop for many of her literary and theatrical works. In Mules and Men, Hurston recalls:

“I hurried back to Eatonville because I knew that the town was full of material and that I could get it without hurt, harm, or danger. As early as I could remember it was the habit of the men folks particularly to gather on the store porch of evenings and swap stories. Even the women folks would stop and break a breath with them at times. As a child when I was sent down to Joe Clarke’s store, I’d drag out my leaving as long as possible in order to hear more.”  

Eatonville’s inhabitants, their stories, and their songs fill the pages of Mules and Men and also make their way into Spunk. In one episode of Mules and Men, Hurston describes a “toe party,” where all the women hide behind a sheet showing only their toes, and the men “bid” on a woman who will be his date for the evening. A toe party is featured in a key scene of Spunk as well.

Polk County

A sawmill in Childs, Florida; photo by Marion Post Wolcott, Library of Congress

In his first entrance, Spunk, the titular character in both the short story and the play, says he has come from Polk County. At the time, Polk County was the center of Florida’s timber industry and a hazardous area to live and work. Poorly-paid laborers, as well as incarcerated Black men who were exploited for free labor, harvested timber in the swamps and saw mills. The swamps were filled with dangerous wildlife like snakes, alligators, and panthers. Hurston bravely immersed herself in Polk County during her research visits in 1928, earning the trust of the residents. According to historian Tiffany Patterson, Hurston discovered “a diverse community of honest workers, family men, fugitive murderers, knife-wielding good-time girls, Christian mothers (also sometimes wielding knives), hard-living gamblers, jackleg preachers, and hoodoo charlatans.” Hurston also observed the sawmills, where she witnesses the life-threatening work conditions featured in both incarnations of Spunk.

Root Work, Hoodoo, and Conjuring

The portrayal of a conjuring ritual and references to “root work” throughout Spunk also trace back to Hurston’s anthropological work. The term “root worker” describes anyone using medicinal herbs and roots for any healing purposes. Hurston devoted the second half of Mules and Men to her explorations of “hoodoo,” the American version of the West African spiritual practice known as “voudon.” Hurston biographer Valerie Boyd explains, “the terms hoodoo, voodoo, obeah, and conjure are all used to describe a set of beliefs and practices centering on an abiding conviction that human beings—trained in certain rites—can reliably call upon spiritual forces to alter situations that seem rationally hopeless.”  Although root work may be used for supernatural effects, some healers simply use the medicinal benefits of plants without any connection to hoodoo.

Hurston held a strong respect for and belief in these practices. She travelled to New Orleans to study hoodoo practices with the grand-nephew of Marie Leveau, a famous Creole conjurer from the 19th century. She was aware of sensationalized misrepresentations of hoodoo and conjuring by white authors and considered this another important aspect of Black American culture that merited serious research. Hurston later studied conjuring traditions in Haiti and Jamaica, and she wrote a full book on Haitian Voodoo, Tell My Horse (1938).

Hurston’s respect and commitment to Black folk culture and its many incarnations served far more than anthropological purposes; it provided inspiration for a prolific body of literary and dramatic work, and Spunk provides a look into her world. ♦

Read More:

History of the Play

Read More:

Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography

Read more: Timeline of Black American Theatre

Read more: Literary Ancestry Essay Series

Read more: Recommended Plays and Further Reading

REFERENCES
Anderson, Mark. From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology. Stanford University Press, 2019.

Boyd, Valerie.  “She Was the Party.” The Official Website of Zora Neale Hurston. 

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. Scribner, 2003.

Bryan, E. “Eatonville, Florida (1887– ).”  BlackPast.org. March 09, 2016.

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

Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men (1935). HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. 

Gillespie, Margaret.  “‘Not a Thing of the Past’, Zora Neale Hurston and the Living Legacy of Folklore.” Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°4, 2004, 17-30.

Haslett, Tobi. “The Man Who Led the Harlem Renaissance -- And His Hidden Hungers.The New Yorker, May 4, 2018.

Patterson, Tiffany Ruby. Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life. Temple University Press, 2005.

Peterman, Frank and Audrey. “African Americans And The Sawmills OfBig Cypress — A Brief History.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.