As an extension of our discussions of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” and Mules and Men, I want
to introduce a WPA project that Hurston worked on in the 1930s. The Works Progress Administration
(WPA) was a Great Depression relief program initiated during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.
From 1933-1943, the WPA worked with local and state governments to design projects for the unemployed.
These projects ranged from improving infrastructures, such as roads and schools, to humanities-driven
initiatives like the Federal Music Project and Federal Writers’ Project. You may read more about the WPA
It is also important to note that African Americans received more relief funding than white populations.
This was exacerbated by segregation and Jim Crow laws.
During the 1930s, the Florida Writer’s Project sought to capture the sights and sounds of Florida folk life.
Stetson Kennedy, a student at the University of Florida, led teams of archivists throughout Florida to record songs
and stories. Zora Neale Hurston, both writer and ethnographer, was one of the archivists on Kennedy’s team. Hurston and
Kennedy traveled separately due to Jim Crow laws and she regularly sent envelopes of her work to Kennedy, postmarked Eatonville.
A brief NPR story about this project may be found using this
Hurston recorded several stories and songs during her work on the WPA project, and she often sang the selections
for the recordings. Hurston’s recordings in the Library of Congress collection include work songs from industries,
such as the railroad, sawmill, and turpentine camps, and “jook” songs, which are social entertainment selections.
Many of the songs originated in the Bahamas. Hurston often describes the purpose of a folksong before singing it or
comments on its structure. Hurston sang all of the recordings in our reading assignment.
Stetson Kennedy quotes Zora Neale Hurston as describing folklore as “the boiled-down juice, or potlikker,
of human living.” Discuss Hurston’s metaphor for folklore. What is the “treasure” that Hurston and Kennedy
are hunting in this WPA project, and why is it important?
In the “Songbag Miscellany” section of his essay, Kennedy explains that he told field workers “not to
overlook any of the geography, climate, flora, fauna, peoples, and occupations to be found in Florida.”
How do the recordings of these folksongs convey an understanding of place?
Kennedy’s advice to his field workers was to “write it down, not up” (“Root-Hog-or-Die Days”). What
does this mean? How might this approach follow (or even extend) the stated role of this WPA project?
In “No Longer Denied,” Maxine Jones discusses the evolving role of black women’s labor in Florida between
1920 and 1950. Thinking about Jones’s essay and Hurston’s “Sweat,” how is African American labor gendered?
What particular labor challenges do black women face in Florida?
Comment on one or two of the folksong recordings from the reading assignment. How do these recordings describe
relationships between place, gender, race, and/or labor?