Professor McInnis’ “Zora Neale Hurston” Course

Professor McInnis and students in his Zora Neale Hurston class

Most semesters, Duke English offers single-author courses that provide students with the opportunity to study a featured author in depth. During the Spring ’23 semester, “Zora Neale Hurston: Race, Gender, Region, Diaspora,” taught by Professor Jarvis McInnis, was one of these offerings. This course examines the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the preeminent writers of twentieth-century African American literature. Though best known as a novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was also a formally trained anthropologist who wrote and experimented across a range of literary genres and cultural media. Her works exhibit the joys, vitality, and struggles of Black life in the American South and the Caribbean in the early-to-mid 20th century. This course and other offerings of this nature allow students to discuss and get to know the writer beyond the texts that made them famous.

When asked why he selected Zora Neale Hurston as the featured author for his course, McInnis answered:

Hurston was a true Renaissance woman who wrote, researched, created, and experimented across various disciplines, media, and genres, including fiction, playwriting, autobiography, anthropology/ethnography, sound recording, dance, film, and journalism. Her body of work is a wonderful way to teach students about interdisciplinary thinking and research methods. It also allows us to foreground a black woman and her oeuvre as a model for Black Studies as a discipline that is inherently intersectional and transnational. Hurston’s oeuvre lends itself to helping students grapple with overlapping identity categories (such as race, gender, sexuality, and class) as well as the relationships between the local, national, and global dimensions of black culture. Hurston was a maverick who fiercely guarded her right to individualism and was fearless in her willingness to go against the tide of public opinion. Her work provides useful opportunities to help students understand nuance, contradiction, and complexity, skills that are crucial for our increasingly polarized social and political landscape. We can champion and embrace Hurston's aesthetic and methodological innovations while critiquing and challenging the messiness and sometimes short-sightedness of her political views too.

Professor McInnis teaches this course annually.


Each year, I allow students to do a creative final project that applies Hurston's theories and methods to a contemporary issue related to the African Diaspora and utilizes a new media technology. Students have written short stories and Instagram poetry, created and performed dances, used AI and music software to remix Hurston's recordings of black folk songs, and recreated her folk medicine recipes on TikTok. Usually, students do individual projects, but this year they elected to work in small groups, which they seemed to really enjoy. It’s fun to witness students bringing their creative energies and talents to the material, and I always enjoy learning from them. Professor Jarvis McInnis

During a recent class, Professor McInnis and his students compared Hurston’s published writing with a personal letter she wrote to fellow Harlem Renaissance writer, Countee Cullen, sharing her feelings about racial matters of the day. McInnis’ inclusion of pieces of this nature allows his students to look at Hurston from a different perspective and dive into the mind of one of America’s great writers intimately. The complexity of Hurston’s writing led to students sharing their thoughts on her intended message beyond the literal words on the page, especially after learning more about Hurston, the person, not just the writer.

Throughout the semester, Professor McInnis challenged us as a class to think critically about Hurston’s work — from her politics to her prose, we considered how Hurston resisted the politics of respectability and presented a new way of understanding the fullness that is Black life. Huddled around a small table in the Allen building, we ventured on a journey to gain a deeper understanding of Hurston as a writer, choreographer, ethnographer, vocalist, cultural mediator, and “trickster figure.” In the end, I leave this course with more questions than answers. Yet, I remain ever aware of the legacy of Hurston’s literary and ethnographic career and grateful for the time we spent leaning into and unpacking the contradictions within her work. Reesey du Pont, ’25, Public Policy and International Comparative Studies majors

Students chatting with Prof. McInnis

During the session I observed, McInnis’ students were so engaged in the discussion that some remained to ask questions and express their opinions after class. Students elaborated on how elements of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing led them to think about her messages and writing style compared to some of her contemporaries and their generational and ideological differences.

Reading Hurston’s electrifying fiction and innovative (though at times messy!) ethnography has given me a new perspective on Black diasporic cultures and politics in the American South and Caribbean. I will continue wrestling with Hurston’s theories of cultural authenticity and insights into the limitations of self-governance as a horizon of liberation for some time to come. Kerinna Good, ’24, International Comparative Studies, major

Professor McInnis’ “Zora Neale Hurston” course will be offered next during the Spring of 2024. During the Fall of 2023, he will teach, “Black-South: Lit. and Pop Culture” (English 290S and 590S), which will allow students to explore contemporary representations of the Black US South in African American literature, media, and pop culture. It will include works by contemporary writers such as Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon, TV shows Atlanta and Queen Sugar; Hip Hop artists OutKast, Big Freedia, and Lil Nas X, and experimental films such as Beyoncé’s Lemonade.