Zora and Performance
I am most struck, however, by Zora’s recognition and analysis of the performative nature of Black culture. Years before performance theory was born, Zora Neale Hurston had been there and done that. We will not find her insights, however, in the traditional scholarly publications. Zora’s discourses on the performative character of Black people are in essays published in the then groundbreaking anthology, The New Negro edited by Nancy Cunard. There hold a wealth of analysis and interpretation of Negro/Black performativity, and are frequently overlooked.
Many academics today have come to recognize that there is significant intellectual value in having a “public voice” that reaches broader audiences beyond those attracted to our scholarly articles. The Savage Mind blog is a good example of the multiplicity of platforms available to anthropologists to speak their piece outside of the constraints of refereed journal articles.
Zora, like her contemporary Margaret Mead who wrote for RedBook, was a “cultural commentator” or what we call in today’s parlance, a “public intellectual” of the first order. Through newspaper articles and editorials, Zora shared her sociocultural observations on people and culture elevating Negro/Black life to heights worthy of contemplation and scholarly interests. Through performing plays based on her field work and writing short stories and novels greatly influenced by her ethnographic data, Zora modeled for us how to write outside the academy and build public awareness and interest in anthropology. Her deployment of different strategies to inscribe anthropology into the everyday offers us many lessons that some anthropologists have used: plays, novels, dialogic ethnographies, etc. And the language she used in these new spaces was geared to reach public audiences, which included “the folk” she studied. She wanted them to read what she wrote.
Anthropology-It’s Not too Late
As the struggle continues in the 21st century for the diversification of anthropology—in its departments, which are disproportionately white and male still, in the tenure game where for scholars of color the process is still a baptism by fire, in the publishing arenas where our ideas are appropriated and not cited—it will take a reframing of the field wherein the contributions of anthropologists of color and other historically marginalized or underrepresented voices are recognized and treated as foundational to the ongoing development and future of anthropology.
A good start towards radical change and a concrete way to make amends for past neglect is for anthropology to embrace Zora as a strong contributor and intellectual antecedent to humanistic anthropology. Anthropology, love is being able to say you’re sorry; it’s not too late. Now is the time to be transformative and honor Zora Neale Hurston as a mover and shaper of modern American anthropology. It’s about time.