Zora Neale Hurston’s Gifts to Anthropology- Pt 1


It is fitting that I end this blog on January 1, 2015. The winds of January blow with grace across Zora Neale Hurston’s memories. She died January 20, 1960 (fifty-five years ago) and January 7, 2015 will mark the 124th anniversary of Zora’s real birthday (January 7, 1891). Throughout her life, Zora shaved almost ten years off her age, even entering Barnard College at the age of 35. Her life was not only “wrapped in rainbows,” the title of the latest Hurston biography by Valerie Boyd’s, but it was also wrapped in mysteries. And the greatest mystery of all are her contributions to anthropology, which have  never been acknowledged.

Our lack of understanding is the result of several facts. Zora was an early bordercrosser. She consciously sought to emphasize the humanistic side of the  scientific objectivity  she embraced so eagerly; she was also nomadic, not by choice but by circumstances. Though a published writer, teacher and researcher, Zora barely eked out a subsistence lifestyle. In today’s terminology, she would fit the category of “the working poor.” Despite the impoverishment of trying to be a Black woman writer, anthropologist, intellectual in the 1920s and later, Zora stuck to her convictions and suffered for her determination to prove herself and independent woman.

However, always behind in rent, or having to store her belongings with others because she was in the field (turpentine and citrus camps that were institutionalized sharecropping), most of her field notes and clues to her research methodology remain hidden. Perhaps they are buried in the attics or trunks of her former friends and their descendants have yet to discover their value. And while insights into her approach as an ethnographer are elusive, they are not completely hidden from us. I have found many of Zora’s analytical gems buried in her correspondence. She would love the instantaneousness of today emails, since she was a prolific and dedicated writer whose letters carried forth her research ideas, her analysis and her vision of the Black folk culture she researched.

Chicken or Egg Dilemma

So, was Zora a writer before she became an anthropologist? From all accounts, her literary self emerged before her ethnographer self. However, Zora’s fascination for people of all types and her attraction to what she called “…the studied curiosity” that informed anthropology are in evidence even as a child. Though not she was not trained as an anthropologist until she was in her mid-thirties, Zora had a natural inclination for wanting to understand the human condition of the American Negro and to bring to light our cultural creativity. One contribution that Zora made to anthropology was that of the “native” researcher before it became popularized in the 1970s and later. Her approach to adopting and autoethnographic approach to research was deeply influenced by her experiences at Barnard and briefly at Columbia.

Trained by Boas, like Mead, Zora was an interpretivist who focused on what T. A. Schwandt has defined as “…the process by which meanings are created, negotiated, sustained and modified” (2003). Also a social constructionist to some extent, Zora was also interested in how the American Negro constructed knowledge, and she described that process with great accuracy in her letters to Langston Hughes in which she shared with him what she witnessed in the field of knowledge creation.

Rooted in what we now call reflexivity, Zora positioned herself as an “interpreter” and “co-creator of the meaning that emerged from her data collection and resisted imposing artificial explanatory theories on the people she studied. Zora also practiced “participatory research” at a time when her colleagues viewed the people they studied as mere objects and not as people who could make contributions to the research process itself.

Throughout her field work Zora anticipated theoretical and methodological approaches that would be eventually championed by Black, feminist and non-European and humanistic and some postmodern anthropologists. As an interpreter of cultures, Zora is the antecedent to James Clifford according to Lydia Hoffman-Jeep who compares Zora to the Cuban scholar Lydia Cabrerra in the essay, “Creating Ethnography.” Hoffman-Jeep writes: “…An ethnography that recreates a culture, while at the same time inscribing the self, requires from the investigator both physical distance and intense proximity.”

Zora had some distance having lived away from Eatonville for many years before she formally began her fieldwork and yet she still felt deeply connected to the place and the memories it held. Zora showed us the meaning of being able to “step in” and “step out” of cultures, including her own. She also borrowed from her literary experiences as a writer, and without question the data she collected as an ethnographer with its detailed descriptions clearly informed her literary products. We owe Zora more than thanks for showing us how to cross borders and approach ethnography as a literary genre and “write culture” decades before the publication of Writing Culture. Feminists of all hue owe her for the ethnographic critiques of social construction of women and gender in Jamaica and Haiti in Tell My Horse. Black feminist anthropologist Gwendolyn Mikkell says it best: “…In hindsight, Hurston’s work was pioneering, her methodological approaches solid and almost avant-garde.”


Irma McClaurin

Irma McClaurin is a writer and Black feminist activist anthropologist. She has been researching Zora Neale Hurston for several years. She is the author of “Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America” and editor of the award-winning anthology “Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis and Poetics.” Her career has spanned being a tenured faculty at UFlorida and UMinn, philanthropy, teaching leadership education for the U.S. government, and now working in the non-profit sector.

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