To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
contact us | site guide | search
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachers
The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Community

Zora Neale Hurston, 3 April 1938
Zora Neale Hurston
Community and the Folk
- Zora Neale Hurston, "Spunk," short story, Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, June 1925

Langston Hughes maintained that true black culture could be found among the "low-down folk." Where better to find them than in the rural communities of the South? Often represented through folklore or folkloric approaches to fiction, evocations of the Southern past were tinged with nostalgia. Responding to life in the urban North, where the spirit of community tended to break down, writers sometimes romanticized the old home, where community remained central for the sake of survival.

Zora Neale Hurston's (1891-1960) brief tale "Spunk" originally appeared in the magazine Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Hurston traveled extensively, documenting the expressions of southern black "folk," and her works reflect a lifelong fascination with the black folk community—most notably her own Eatonville, Florida, birthplace, famously recreated in her now-iconic 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her fiction contains elements of folklore, yet it is her 1935 collection Of Mules and Men which presents the widest range of folktales, spirituals, sermons, and work songs. Exploring black folk life was one way to follow Alain Locke's injunction to create art out of Negro experience, and, indeed, he included "Spunk" in his anthology The New Negro.

"Spunk" might readily be categorized as a folk tale. While related through third-person narration, elements of the story get told and retold by the townspeople, raconteurs in their own right. Through the sounds and speech of this rural populace, the prose possesses a remarkable oral quality. Interestingly, "Spunk" makes no reference to whites, a deliberate and meaningful omission given the story's Southern setting. It thus represents a "private community," one not exclusively responsive to white oppression. Throughout this humorous, entertaining piece, Hurston reveals an independent black community governed by its own traditions, lore, and superstitions. (5 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What folk tale elements are present in "Spunk"?
  2. How does Hurston create a sense of a community in the story?
  3. What role does this community play?
  4. What values does the community uphold?
  5. What does the character Spunk represent?
  6. Why would this community be especially concerned about masculinity and marriage?
  7. What is the relationship between the narrator and the village?
  8. Despite her use of vernacular expressions, how does Hurston preserve the dignity of her characters?
  9. In what ways do conjure and superstition occupy prominent roles in the stories?
  10. What function does gossip serve in "Spunk"?
  11. Who is the hero in Hurston's tale?
  12. What might a proponent of the New Negro Movement identify as being distinctively "Negro" in this story?
  13. How does this story reflect the spirit of the New Negro Movement?
  14. Where would you locate this story in the art-or-propaganda debate between W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke (see Theme III: PROTEST, #10).

Framing Questions
  •  How has the African American community defined itself?
  •  How has the African American community functioned in the lives of its members?
  •  How have changing notions of African American identity affected definitions of African American community?

"Spunk": 5 pages
Supplemental Sites
Zora Neale Hurston, resources website from the estate of Zora Neale Hurston and HarperCollins, Inc.

Zora Neale Hurston, biography, bibliography, and links, in Voices from The Gap: Women Artists and Writers of Color (University of Minnesota)

The Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress, in American Memory (Library of Congress)

Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men, folklore collection, e-text from American Studies at the University of Virginia

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Zora Neale Hurston, 3 April 1938, photograph by Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, LOT 12735, #543.

1. Community as Place   2. Community on Film
  3. Community & Self-Help   4. Image, Community 1939   5. Race as Community
6. Community & the Folk   7. Community & Memory
8. Community & Culture   9. Image, Community 1968   10. Global Community

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: August 2007