The Zora Neale Hurston Syllabus Project

The Zora Neale Hurston Syllabus Project

The syllabi below have been generously donated by educators. We would like to thank them for their contributions and for passing on their enthusiasm for Zora Neale Hurston’s works on to their students.

If you would like to assist other educators by sharing your own teaching materials, please let us know.

The Complete Stories

Zora Neale Hurston’s The Complete Stories is a landmark collection of short fiction that showcases the evolution of one of the greatest American authors. Spanning from 1921 to 1955, most of the tales in The Complete Stories only appeared in literary magazines during her lifetime. Together, they attest to Hurston’s remarkable range, and introduce themes that haunt her lengthier works. Rich in literary imagery and style, with a commanding narrative voice, the collection fully establishes Hurston as a master not just of the long-form narrative, but of the short-form as well. 

Suggested Course Use

While courses on Southern short fiction often overlook the contributions of black women writers, Zora Neale Hurston’s The Complete Stories is an indispensable addition to such a course, offering an entirely   different, often marginalized perspective. A course examining the trajectory of Southern female fiction from the 19th century onwards might start with Kate Chopin’s socially progressive tales. Then, students could read Zora Neale Hurston’s The Complete Stories and selections from Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and Carson McCullers, and in doing so, examine the commonalities of mid-century female authorship in the South, as well as the differing preoccupations of black and white writers. Topics to discuss include the roles women were expected to play; the racial tensions that exist in an unequal society; the role of religion in women’s lives; and the social consequences of sexual behavior. Moving on in the century, the course could then examine rural relationships in Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories, and sexuality in Dorothy Allison’s Trash: Short Stories. All together, these short works of fiction will highlight the recurring aspects of Southern literature, from the gothic and the grotesque, to questions of religion, class, gender, race, and, most importantly, place.

Example Syllabi
Hurston & Wright: University of Michigan – Flint
Multi-Ethnic Literature: Olivet College

Dust Tracks on a Road

Dust Tracks on a Road is Zora Neale Hurston’s candid, funny, bold, and poignant autobiography, an imaginative and exuberant account of her rise from childhood poverty in the rural South to a prominent place among the leading artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance.

As compelling as her renowned fiction such as Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jonah's Gourd Vine, Hurston’s very personal literary self-portrait offers a revealing, often audacious glimpse into the life—public and private—of an extraordinary artist, anthropologist, chronicler, and champion of the black experience in America.

Suggested Course Use

Maya Angelou wrote in her introduction, “Zora Neale Hurston chose to write her own version of life in Dust Tracks on a Road,” and this makes it fit beautifully into courses that ask students to explore how women writers have depicted their lives in fiction and autobiography as they investigate feminist theories of women’s writing and consider how women have both adopted and rejected the traditions of typical autobiographies and fiction that were primarily developed by men. Combined with other classics such as Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Kingston, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Dust Tracks on a Road gives students access to the overarching themes, richness, and diversity of women’s writing and asks them to contemplate the challenges women face in writing their own lives.

Every Tongue Got to Confess

Zora Neale Hurston journeyed through the American Gulf States for an anthropological study funded by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy philanthropist. Mules and Men, Hurston’s first major anthropological text, emerged as the published result of this late-1920s study. But much more of Hurston’s collected folklore from this period was published posthumously in 2001 in Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States

Every Tongue Got to Confess features nearly 500 folktales, ranging in length from one sentence to a few pages. Together, this bittersweet, often hilarious collection weaves a vibrant tapestry of African-American life in the rural South, covertly revealing attitudes about faith, love, family, slavery, race, and community in the process.

Suggested Course Use

Hurston’s collection, written in the Southern black vernacular of the 1920s, has been used in narrative theory, ethnography, African-American literature, and women’s literature courses. It is often used in conjunction with books like Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman (and Other Tales), in order to examine the complicated concept of “oral literature,” and the process of translation, and thereby interpretation, that must occur in any adaptation from the oral to the written form.

Aside from examining what is gained and lost in this interpretation, any examination of Hurston’s work must also examine its political implications, especially when referring to the continuing conflicts between black and white Americans. Euro-American culture has traditionally validated only written works as “literature,” therefore casting African “orature” as unfit and unworthy. In light of this, many intriguing questions for your students will arise:

 • Is working within the European-framework of written literature debasing African oral tradition by suggesting that stories must be written in order to be valued?

 • Or, are Hurston’s written folktales spreading these stories to a wider audience, celebrating them in the process?

• Alternatively, in writing these stories down in the black vernacular, is Hurston compelling those of European backgrounds to become complicit in the oral tradition as well, as reading the vernacular is easiest when the words are sounded out and pronounced out loud?


Jonah’s Gourd Vine

“A bold and beautiful book, many a page priceless and unforgettable.”—Carl Sandburg

Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel Jonah's Gourd Vine, published in 1934, is based on the story of her parents’ marriage. Here, John Pearson—country preacher and unfaithful husband, steps into the role of Zora’s father. Lucy, his long suffering wife, is his true love, but there is also Mehaley and Big ’Oman, as well as the scheming Hattie. Even after becoming the popular pastor of Zion Hope, where his sermons and prayers for cleansing rouse the congregation’s fervor, John has to confess that he is a “natchel man.” In this portrait of a man and his community, Zora Neale Hurston shows how faith, tolerance, and good intentions cannot resolve the tension between the spiritual and the physical.

Suggested Course Use

In courses on literature and religion, Jonah's Gourd Vine, paired with works from various historical periods and cultures, will focus students on concepts such as good and evil, self and self-realization, oppression and tolerance, spiritual quest, love and friendship, family, and authenticity. A course that included Jonah's Gourd Vine, Antigone, excerpts from Moby Dick, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Il’ch, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, and contemporary works such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams and Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine would allow students to discern common problems, values, and aspirations that all humans share across time periods as they are introduced to various literary modes.

Rich in wordplay and proverbs, Jonah's Gourd Vine will help students imagine themselves into Southern life in the early 20th century—a world that is disappearing—yet is still accessible through Zora Neale Hurston’s works. For a course on Southern literature that includes a variety of genres from novels, short stories to plays and autobiographies, pairing Jonah's Gourd Vine with such works as The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain, William Faulkner's As I Lay I Dying, Celia, A Slave by Melton A. McLaurin, Tennessee Williams's A Street Car Named Desire, and Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter will allow students to explore how class, race, gender, sexuality,  religion, and slavery and its legacies have factored into southern literary writing.

Example Syllabus
Progress, Race, and Regionalism in American Literature: University of South Carolina

Moses, Man of the Mountain

“A narrative of great power. Warm with friendly personality and pulsating with . . . profound eloquence and religious fervor.” —New York Times

In the 1939 novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, based on the story of the Exodus, Zora Neale Hurston blends the Moses of the Old Testament with the Moses of black folklore and song to create a compelling allegory of power, redemption, and faith. Narrating in a mixture of biblical rhetoric, black dialect, and colloquial English, Hurston traces Moses’s life from the day he is launched into the Nile in a reed basket, to his development as a great magician, to his transformation into the heroic rebel leader, the Great Emancipator. From his dramatic confrontations with Pharaoh to his fragile negotiations with the wary Hebrews, this very human story is told with great humor, passion, and psychological insight—the hallmarks of Hurston as a writer and champion of black culture.

The Biblical story of Moses has always resonated with the African-American community—and it became a staple of African-American sermons. In the African kingdom of Dahomey, Moses with his staff of power was worshipped as the serpent god. In the Haitian pantheon, the highest god is identified as Moses. So, all across Africa, American, and the West Indies, there are tales of the prowess of Moses.

Suggested Course Use

With themes of oppression and its effects on a people's and an individual’s psyche, freedom, and the cost of freedom, and the novel’s blending of the Moses of the Old Testament with the Moses of black folklore—Moses, Man of the Mountain works beautifully in any number of classes—from literature and religion, folklore, African-American studies and literature.

The novel works especially well in African-American Studies courses and courses on the African Diaspora. A syllabus that began with Moses, Man of the Mountain that also included such classic works as Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and more contemporary works such as Juan Williams’s Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns—a history of the decades-long migration of Black Americans from the South to the Northern and Western cities—would give students new insights into Black social thought, political protest,  and the struggle to initiate social change.

Mule Bone

In 1930, two giants of African-American literature, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, joined forces to create a lively, insightful, often wildly farcical look inside a rural Southern black community—the three-act play Mule Bone. In this hilarious story, Jim and Dave are a struggling song-and-dance team, and when a woman comes between them, chaos ensues in their tiny Florida hometown. This theatrical work broke new ground while triggering a bitter controversy between the collaborators that kept it out of the public eye for sixty years.

This edition of the classic features Zora Neale Hurston’s original story, “The Bone of Contention,” as well as the complete recounting of the acrimonious literary dispute that prevented Mule Bone from being produced or published until decades after the authors’ deaths.

Suggested Course Use

Women have been writing plays for centuries—but most of your students will be able to name only a very few female playwrights. A course entitled "Women in the American Theater" should correct this, and the curriculum will also allow students to study women’s history in the United States as well as feminist and gender theories as they have influenced and been reflected back by American theater.

Anchoring the class with Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins’s Women in American Theatre will give students insight into the heritage of women in American theater through interviews and essays that address the contributions of women to theater as well as the problems and successes they have encountered in developing their careers.

In addition to Zora Neale Hurston’s Mule Bone, plays such as Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, Marsha Norman’s Getting Out, Alice Childress’s Wedding Band, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, and Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive will allow students to become familiar with women who have been instrumental in American theater; further understand the ways in which gender, class, race, and politics have influenced women's access to careers in the theater; and contemplate how women in American theater have challenged conventional attitudes towards women.

Mules and Men

Mules and Men is a treasury of black America’s folklore as collected by Zora Neale Hurston, the storyteller and anthropologist who grew up hearing the songs and sermons, sayings, and tall tales that have formed an oral history of the South since the time of slavery.

Returning to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, to gather material, Zora Neale Hurston recalls “a hilarious night with a pinch of everything social mixed with the storytelling.” Set intimately within the social context of black life, the stories, “big old lies,” songs, Voodoo customs, and superstitions recorded in Mules and Men capture the imagination and bring back to life the humor and wisdom that is the unique heritage of African Americans—and throws into relief the amalgamation of African and European tradition which is key to understanding African-American history and culture.

Suggested Course Use

For those who want students to understand the most important concepts, beliefs, and practices in African cultures and philosophy, Mules and Men provides deep insight into its continuing influence on African-American culture and literature. Anchoring the syllabus with a text such as Perspectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History and Representation edited by Roy Richard Grinker, Stephen C. Lubkemann, and Christopher B. Steiner will give students an introduction to the diverse cultures of Africa and a history of the interpretations of those cultures. With traditional folktales woven into the novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart can be used to familiarize students with traditional African (Nigerian/Igbo) philosophy and the essential values of the Igbo. Students should take note that these folktales disappear from the narrative with the arrival of the Christian missionaries. More recent African views can be explored in Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure—which addresses a critical issue—the collision of Islamic African values and Western culture. 

Next, with Zora Neale Hurston and Mules and Men as their guide, students can explore the culture and literature of the African diaspora as they journey into the rural African-American towns of the South in the 1930s.  As they hear “the big old lies” that capture the humor and wisdom that is the unique heritage of African Americans, Zora Neale Hurston invites students to the parties, front porches, jooks, and into the lives of the storytellers. They’ll even learn a few Voodoo spells along the way. And, since this is a wonderful oral tradition—you might want your students to listen to the audio edition, which is read by Ruby Dee.

To end on a contemporary note, the stories in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck take place in Nigeria and American as they explore the ties that bind men and women, parents and children, Africa and the United States.

Example Syllabus
African-American Writers: Spelman College

Seraph on the Suwanee

Acclaimed for her pitch-perfect accounts of rural black life and culture, Zora Neale Hurston explored new territory in her novel Seraph on the Suwanee—a story of two people at once deeply in love and deeply at odds, set among the community of poor white Southerners  at the turn of the 20th century. Full of insights into the nature of love, attraction, faith, and loyalty, the novel follows young Arvay Henson, convinced she will never find true happiness, as she defends herself from unwanted suitors with hysterical fits and religious fervor. But into her life comes bright and enterprising Jim Meserve, who knows that Arvay is the woman for him, and nothing she can do will dissuade him.

Alive with the same passion and understanding of the human heart that made Their Eyes Were Watching God a classic, Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee masterfully explores the evolution of a marriage and the conflicting desires of an unforgettable young woman in search of herself and her place in the world.

Suggested Course Use 

Zora Neale Hurston’s Arvay and Jim are part of a Western literary tradition that features a couple overcoming obstacles in order to marry and to stay married—making Seraph on the Suwanee a wonderful addition to any course that focuses on marriage and gender roles. Hurston's novel will help students explore questions such as: Why has marriage been central to so many modern Western narratives? How has the cultural construction of marriage changed over time? What part has literature played in informing as well as reflecting these constructions? What does marriage represent? What are the politics of marriage? Does marriage mean different things to men and women? Are our expectations of marriage realistic?

To give students some historical perspective, the reading list might begin with Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, which will remind students that marrying for love is a very new development. Next, Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well could be followed by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Jane Austen’s Emma, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee, and, to end on a contemporary note, Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, or Ben Greenman’s forthcoming novel The Slippage.

The syllabus might also add or substitute the film adaptations of some of these novels, and include films such as George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty.

Tell My Horse

“Vivid, sometimes lyrical, occasionally strikingly dramatic, yet simple and unusual and intensely interesting book richly packed with strange information.”—New York Times Book Review

Zora Neale Hurston is most often remembered for her inspiring and heartbreaking novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God—but many people don’t know that she graduated from Barnard with a degree in anthropology, and that she spent a great deal of her life and literary career exploring this intellectual pursuit.

In 1929, she began a series of research trips to the American South and the Caribbean, funded in part by Rosenwald and Guggenheim fellowships. These trips resulted in Hurston’s major anthropological works, including Tell My Horse, a first-hand account of the mysteries of voodoo. Based on her personal experiences in Haiti and Jamaica, where she participated as an initiate rather than just an observer of voodoo practices, this travelogue into an unknown world paints a vividly authentic picture of ceremonies and customs and superstitions of great cultural importance. Tell My Horse is groundbreaking in its efforts towards theorizing the African diaspora and examining the cultural continuities and differences that emerged as Blacks were scattered across the Americas and Europe as a result of the slave trade.

Suggested Course Use

Tell My Horse has been adopted in anthropology, religion, Caribbean and women’s studies courses at colleges and universities across the US, including Tufts University, Wesleyan University, Macalaster College, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Wyoming, and University of Florida, among others. Most often, it is paired with Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola in ethnography studies courses.  In classes examining post-colonial works, it is often taught with Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and Aimee Cesaire’s A Season in the Congo. Together, these works provide a vigorous examination of the damning psychological effects colonization wrought, as well as the ways that the colonized sought to subvert colonial order—voodoo being one of them.

Tell My Horse has also been adopted in courses using literature and film to explore the African Diaspora. In such a course entitled “African Diaspora Religions: Voodoo, Pop Culture, and the Culture Wars,” a Tufts professor chose to assign Hurston's work along with the films Divine Horseman, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Skeleton Key, and The Princess and the Frog in order to demonstrate the ways in which contemporary films have distorted scholarly and anthropological accounts of voodoo, creating and maintaining cultural and racial boundaries in the process.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

“There is no book more important to me than this one.”—Alice Walker

One of the most important works of 20th-century American literature, Zora Neale Hurston’s beloved 1937 classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an enduring Southern love story sparkling with wit, beauty, and heartfelt wisdom. Told in the captivating voice of a woman who refuses to live in sorrow, bitterness, fear, or foolish romantic dreams, it is the story of fiercely independent Janie Crawford, and her evolving selfhood through three marriages and a life marked by poverty, trials, and purpose.

The P.S. section contains two essays by Valerie Boyd, Hurston’s biographer. A short biography of Zora Neale Hurston entitled “She Was the Party,” and “A Protofeminist Postcard from Haiti” gives students candid insights into the writing of this acclaimed novel.

Example Syllabi
African American Literature: University of Michigan - Flint
American Literature: Spring Arbor University
American Novel: Sam Houston State University
Black Women Writers: Smith College
Harlem Renaissance: University of Oklahoma
History of the Image: Washington College
Introduction to Ethics: Indiana University Southeast
Learning from New Orleans: University of Wisconsin - Madison
Literature of Self Discovery: Rivier University
Teaching Literature: University of Massachusetts - Boston
The Everglades: Florida International University
Women’s Literature: University of Kentucky