In the late nineteenth century in the United States, thousands of blacks fled the South as racial segregation became more entrenched. To cite only one example, Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark decision in 1896, said the racial segregation of public transportation was legal. This only added to the feeling that blacks were not welcome in the South, and made absolutely clear few opportunities for advancement were available.
At the beginning of World War I (1914-1918) this migration of blacks to Northern cities only increased; the white men who fought in the war left jobs which needed to be filled in a booming, wartime economy. By the end of this period, about one million Southern blacks had emigrated North. By the end of the war, 100,000 had settled in Harlem, NY.
Although other cities were also destinations for these Southern blacks, Harlem was especially attractive, as New York was often seen as the largest and most cosmopolitan of cities. Harlem and New York quickly became home to many of the most important African American cultural and political groups, including the NAACP. In addition, the 1920s in Harlem was a decade of extraordinary creativity in the arts by African Americans, and is popularly referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. This remarkable period of artistic production included poetry, fiction, drama, music, dance, painting and sculpture. Although some scholars date the Harlem Renaissance as continuing through to 1940, the crash on Wall Street in 1929 and the Great Depression was the beginning of the end for the movement.
Zora Neale Hurston was, in some senses, a product of the Harlem Renaissance and one of its most extraordinary writers. She was also part of this migration: Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida (the setting for Their Eyes Were Watching God) and attended Howard University in Washington D.C. She arrived in Harlem, New York City in 1925, at the tail end of what is commonly called "The Great Migration." She attended Barnard College, where she studied with the famous anthropologist Franz Boas, who cultivated her interest in folklore. Boas also convinced her to pursue a graduate degree in anthropology at Columbia University. Hurston then returned to the South to conduct anthropological research for what would become Mules and Men (1935), which is generally regarded as the first collection of African American folklore to be compiled and published by an African American.
Interestingly, rather then setting her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in a Northern city, she sets it back in the South. In Eatonville, she created (or perhaps simply represented, Eatonville as a real place) a self-sufficient all-black community - Harlem, but on a much smaller scale. Instead of addressing the issues around urban living, she instead focuses on African American folktales and folk culture in her careful representation and examination of the traditional stories, language and culture of African Americans in the rural South.
Although today Hurston is celebrated for her depictions of black communities and for her strong portrayals of women, Hurston was harshly criticized by many of her peers in the 1930s. Many condemned her for celebrating black folk culture in art and folklore instead of engaging in overt political protest against the racial oppression of blacks, especially in the urban centers where they converged.
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