Women at Sea pp 245-279 | Cite as

Decolonizing Ethnography

Zora Neale Hurston in the Caribbean
  • Kevin Meehan


At the height of the Great Depression, in 1936 and 1937, African American novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti on consecutive Guggenheim grants in order to study Caribbean folk religion.1 It was during this period that Hurston produced her best known piece of writing, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.2 After her time in Haiti was cut short by a mysterious stomach ailment—caused, perhaps, by a bocor or Vodou priest who was guarding his turf against the anthropologist’s prying gaze—Hurston returned to the United States, where she completed Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, a nonfiction text based on her Caribbean fieldwork.3 Successive generations of African American anthropologists have faithfully preserved her legacy as an anthropologist and a Caribbeanist, but outside this I community of scholars the primary transcript of Hurston’s Caribbean sojourn has languished in relative obscurity since its publication in 1938.4 With the recent re-issue of Tell My Horse—in two separate editions offered by Harper Collins and the Library of America—and given signs that under the influence of feminist and colonial discourse theory a new wave of interpretive scholarship on this text may be emerging, the time for reconsidering and reclaiming Hurston’s neglected Caribbean narrative has certainly arrived.5


Black Woman Spirit Possession Social Protest Folk Religion Gender Politics 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Foreword by Mary Helen Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 1990).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. Foreword by Ishmael Reed (New York: Harper Collins, 1990). Page references will appear in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    For some sense of Hurston as a forerunner of contemporary African American anthropology, see St. Claire Drake, “Anthropology and the Black Experience.” The Black Scholar (Sept.–Oct. 1980): 2–31. See also several essays by Gwendolyn Mikell, “The Anthropological Imagination of Zora Neale Hurston.” Western Journal of Black Studies 7 (1): 27–35; “When Horses Talk: Reflections on Zora Neale Hurston’s Haitian Anthropology.” Phylon (Sept. 1982): 218–30; and especially her entry, “Zora Neale Hurston.” In Women Anthropologists: Selected Bibliographies. Edited by Ute Gacs, et. al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 160–166.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    The current intersection of feminism and the critique of colonial discourse with anthropological writing begins with the special issue of Inscriptions edited by Deborah Gordon in 1989, Feminism and the Critique of Colonial Discourse /Inscriptions 3/4 [1989]. Kamela Visweswaran’s essay, “Defining Feminist Ethnography” (Inscriptions 3/4 (1989): 27–46), which includes reference to Hurston’s work, focuses not on Hurston’s anthropological writing per se but rather on anthropological aspects of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Fran Bartkowski’s “Travellers vs. Ethnics: Discourses of Displacement” (Discourse 15.3 [Spring, 1993]: 158–176). Deborah Gordon, “The Politics of Ethnographic Authority: Race and Writing in the Ethnography of Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston.” In Modernism and Anthropology. Edited by Marc Manganaro (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 146–162, and Graciela Hernandez, “Multiple Subjectivities and Strategic Positionality: Zora Neale Hurston’s Experimental Ethnographies.” In Women Writing Culture. Eds., Ruth Behar and Deborah A. Gordon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). All offer examples of critics reassessing Tell My Horse in light of feminist and postcolonial scholarship. While Bartkowski, Gordon, and Hernandez begin the process of reclaiming Hurston’s anthropology (as opposed to her fiction) for mainstream radical theory, none of the three delves deeply enough into the narrative and institutional politics enacted by Hurston’s text.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Champaign-Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 226–231.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Thomas Fiehrer, “Political Violence in the Periphery: The Haitian Massacre of 1937.” Race and Class 32:2 (1990): 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 9.
    Léon-François Hoffmann, Essays on Haitian Literature (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    J. Michael Dash, Haiti and the United States: National Stereotypes and the Literary Imagination (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 59. Subsequent references will appear in parentheses in the text.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 12.
    Lynn A. Bolles, “Anthropological Research Methods for the Study of Women in the Caribbean.” Women in Africa and the African Diaspora. Edited by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Sharon Harley, Andrea Benton Rushing (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1989), 65. An African-American anthropologist herself, whose own research follows Hurston’s by analyzing the organizing and agency of working-class Caribbean women, Bolles offers this incisive critique of anthropology as a discipline: “Established in the late nineteenth century, during the height of social Darwinism, anthropology has been used to serve the colonization efforts of the British, to document the U.S. government’s maintenance of Native American reservations, and to romanticize the exotica of black America” (65–66). At the same time, Bolles argues for the progressive potential of anthropology as a form of knowledge that is “at once wholistic, comparative, particularistic, and general.” Thus, Bolles also claims the following: “Despite its less than constructive history, however, anthropology has the ability to serve as a positive social force for advancing equality among people” (66). My contention in this essay is that Hurston manifests both the liberating and oppressive tendencies in anthropological research and writing, though I argue that ultimately she places more emphasis on decolonizing strategies and techniques in Tell My Horse.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    See The Trial Record of Denmark Vesey. Introduction by John O. Killens (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), xi, xv, 13.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Quoted by Philip Foner in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol 4: Reconstruction and After (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 132.Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (New York: Viking, 1933), 344ff.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    James Weldon Johnson, “Self-Determining Haiti.” In Speech and Power: The African-American American Essay and its Cultural Content from Polemics to Pulpit, Vol 2. Edited by Gerald Early (New York: Echo, 1992), 214. Originally published in Nation 111, 4 parts, (August 28–September 25, 1920). Johnson dignifies the urban poor and peasants in Haiti, comparing both groups favorably to their U.S. and European counterparts. In Johnson’s view, Port-au-Prince slums “are no less picturesque and no more primitive, no humbler, yet cleaner, than similar quarters in Naples, in Lisbon, in Marseilles, and more justifiable than the great slums of civilization’s centers—London and New York, which are totally without aesthetic redemption” (212). Johnson sounds a similar note when describing a typical scene in the countryside. Peasant dwellings, he writes, “rarely consist of only one room, the humblest having two or three, with a little shed front and back, a front and rear entrance, and plenty of windows. An aesthetic touch is never lacking—a flowering hedge or an arbor with trained vines bearing gorgeous colored blossoms. There is no comparison between the neat plastered-wall, thatched-roof cabin of the Haitian peasant and the traditional log hut of the South or the shanty of the more wretched American suburbs. The most notable feature about the Haitian cabin is its invariable cleanliness” (213).Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    James Weldon Johnson, “Haiti: What Are We Really Doing There?” (unsigned article). The Crisis (July, 1926): 125–127.Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    Brenda Gayle Plummer, “The Afro-American Response to the American Occupation of Haiti, 19151–1934.” Phylon 43:2 (1982): 125–143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 22.
    Christopher Columbus, The Letter of Christopher Columbus on the Discovery of America (New York: Trustees of the Lennox Library, 1892), 2–3. All subsequent quotations in this paragraph are from pages 5 and 6.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    Médéric-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint Méry, Description topographique, physique, civile, politique, et historique de la partie française de l’île Saint-Domingue (Paris: Guerin, 1875). Moreau himself is a complicated figure in the history of Caribbean travel writing. Actually a native of the region, he was born in the French Caribbean island of Martinique and lived and worked for many years as a jurist in Saint-Domingue. Moreau was active in politics in France and achieved some notoriety as the person who distributed arms to the revolutionary militia before it stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789. As a travel writer, Moreau also stands out as a commentator on the United States, where he lived and journeyed after fleeing France under threat of being guillotined. His Voyage aux Etats-Unis de l’Amérique, though unpublished in any form until this century, preceded Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic text by three decades. Despite his Caribbean roots, Moreau’s lascivious fascination with mulatta women and his contempt for the culture of the enslaved black majority mark him as an outside, European-identified commentator.Google Scholar
  18. 24.
    Joan Dayan, “Codes of Law and Bodies of Color.” Penser la créolité. Eds., Maryse Condé and Madeleine Cottenet-Hage (Paris: Karthala, 1995), 41–67. 42Google Scholar
  19. 25.
    John Candler, Brief Notices of Hayti: With Its Condition, Resources, and Prospects (London: Thomas Ward & Co., 1842), 144. Subsequent references will appear in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar
  20. 28.
    Melville Herskovits, Life in a Haitian Valley. Introduction by Edward K. Brathwaite (New York: Octagon, 1975). Subsequent references will appear in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    Henry Schwarz, “Provocations Towards a Theory of Third World Literature.” Mississippi Review 49/50 (1989): 178.Google Scholar
  22. 30.
    Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (London: Hutchinson, 1987), 198.Google Scholar
  23. 31.
    When Hurston published Tell My Horse in 1938, colonial networks were still very much the order of the day, despite cracks in the system and constant resistance in the colonies. Far from criticizing close links between the production of ethnographies and the restructuring of capitalist empires, be they British, French, or Yankee, many anthropological luminaries, such as Evans-Prichard in East Africa, were actively enlisting indigenous populations in service of European or U.S. global militarism (see Edward Evans-Prichard, “Operations on the Akobo and Gila Rivers, 1940–41,” quoted at length in Clifford Geertz’s Works and Lives. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988, [50 ff.]). Moreover, while Hurston’s mentor, Franz Boas, created a progressive—even avant-garde—niche in the Anthropology Department at Columbia University, Boas’s doctrine of cultural relativism (one of the keys to subverting the triumphalism of European and North American writing on the Caribbean) has its ideological limits. Eric Ross critically assesses the way in which cultural relativism resituates on the terrain of “culture” the biological determinism of earlier evolutionary social theories. The result, in Ross’s view, is a kind of cultural separatism that winds up reproducing, at the level of ideas, the deterministic views that Boasians initially sought to escape (see his “Introduction.” In Beyond the Myths of Culture: Essays in Cultural Materialism. Edited by Eric B. Ross [New York: Academic Press, 1980], xx–xxi). In practice, meanwhile, Boas and his students did not always exercise the respect for ethnographized cultures that their ideology proclaimed.Google Scholar
  24. 32.
    Armand Mattelart, Transnationais and the Third World: The Struggle for Culture (South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey, 1983), 14, original emphasis.Google Scholar
  25. 33.
    In 1963, for instance, prior to his much-praised study on the Balinese cockfight, Clifford Geertz authored one of these CIA-funded monographs on social organization in Indonesia (Peter Dale Scott, Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror [New York: New Directions Books, 1988], 118–122. In Works and Lives, Geertz conveniently places the end of what he calls anthropology’s “scholars in uniform” phase in the 1950s.Google Scholar
  26. 35.
    Johannes Fabian, “Presence and Representation: The Other and Anthropological Writing.” Critical Inquiry 16:4 (Summer, 1990): 767.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 37.
    The best critique of Hurston’s treatment of Erzulie—a loa whose manifestations also include the vengeful Petro loa Erzulie-gé-Rouge—is given by Joan Dayan, who insists that we see the class/caste subtext in these two different Erzulies, and digest the fact that Hurston’s account emphasizes the bourgoise/mulatta Erzulie Freda. See Dayan’s “Caribbean Cannibals and Whores.” Raritan XI:2 (Fall, 1989): 64–65.Google Scholar
  28. 38.
    Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Haiti: The Citadel Breached (Boulder, CO: West-view, 1990), 22–29; Gerald Murray, “Population Pressure, Land Tenure, and Voodoo: The Economics of Haitian Peasant Ritual.” In Beyond the Myths of Culture: Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed., Eric B. Ross (New York: Academic Press, 1980), 300; David Nicholls, Haiti in Caribbean Context: Ethnicity, Economy and Revolt (New York: St. Martin’s, 1985), 121–129.Google Scholar
  29. 43.
    This work has begun with Deborah G. Plant’s new publication, Every Tub Must Sit On Its Own Bottom: The Philosophy and Politics of Zora Neale Hurston (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Ivette Romero-Cesareo 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kevin Meehan

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations