University of Illinois Press, 2023, 272 pp.
I discovered Zora Neale Hurston’s work as a teenager. Disaffected and alienated in my predominately white Catholic high school, I sought a connection to myself and my own African American communities’ texts in a national chain bookstore, where I stumbled across Their Eyes Were Watching God. In college I studied anthropology, and while I cannot link my interest in this discipline to my early exposure to Hurston, I further plunged into her anthropological work with the fervor of a student whose mind was recently awakened by new knowledge. I devoured Hurston’s ethnographies Mules and Men and Tell My Horse as well as her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road and her essays and letters. I reveled in Hurston’s beautiful descriptions of Black rural working and religious worlds in the United States and the Caribbean. She provided for me a model of a Black woman making her way through the African Diaspora aided by the “spy-glass of anthropology,” even though she appeared infrequently on the syllabi in my undergraduate and graduate anthropology classes. Ain’t I an Anthropologist: Zora Neale Hurston Beyond the Literary Icon by Jennifer L. Freeman Marshall, argues that the scholarly context of reception is critical to understanding how Hurston ascended in the field of literature and was marginalized in anthropology. Freeman Marshall examines Hurston’s invisibility in anthropology but also centers her as an important figure in the anthropology of race and African American life.
For many, Hurston is a beloved and complicated figure known for her lively writing and fearless expression of her ideas and provocations. Yet, how did Hurston come into visibility to assume this position? In the first chapter, Freeman Marshall follows the work of Alice Walker to resurrect Hurston, who died in poverty and obscurity in 1960, with much of her work eventually falling out of print. Walker located her unmarked grave, placed a marker on it, and proceeded to write essays and deliver lectures on Hurston’s work beginning in the 1970s. Walker along with critics, scholars, and writers positioned Hurston as a Black literary foremother who provided a model for other Black women writers to survive both inside and outside of the academy.
Chapters Two and Three take up Hurston’s reception in the field of literary study. Poststructuralism reigned as the dominant interpretive strategy, which conditioned Hurston’s ascendance in that field. Her use of Black vernacular English marked her work as theoretically significant for offering “new critical readings of voice, subjectivity, and questions of difference” (55). Freeman Marshall takes readers through the literary debates and criticism, and while certain sections can read like a literature review, they point us to how Black feminist literary critics and scholars centered Hurston in a Black literary tradition. Hurston’s background as an anthropologist bolstered her legitimacy in the area of literature in its signaling of her direct engagement with the folk. However, Hurston’s ascendance in literature was not without criticism. Many scholars noted the risk of Hurston standing in for all Black women as well as the issue of her novels emphasizing the American South, the folk, and the United States, thus obscuring the North, industrial workers, and Black people outside of the United States. While her training as an anthropologist lent her authority in the literary field, her literary acumen did not provide the same power in anthropology.
Freeman Marshall examines the reception of Hurston’s work in anthropology, particularly by feminist anthropologists. Poststructuralism ushered in an emphasis on the politics of making texts in anthropology, but excluded feminism from such discussions. Feminist anthropologists pushed for defining and acknowledging a feminist tradition of experimental ethnography. Freeman Marshall perceptively argues that feminist anthropologists centered the writing strategies and the authorial presence of Hurston in her texts, while failing to explicate her ideas and conceptual offerings to anthropology, thus contributing to her marginality. Hurston consistently drew attention to herself in her ethnographies and included the dialogue of her interlocutors, thus eschewing the objective and distant narrator perspective. This less common writing strategy anticipated later debates about ethnographic descriptions, but her work also presented innovative ideas about African American life and culture.
Freeman Marshall takes up where feminist anthropologists left off and spends the final chapters excavating Hurston’s ideas presented in her ethnographies Mules and Men (chapter five) and Tell My Horse (chapter six). Mules and Men presents an ethnography of Black workers in a Southern town as well as beliefs and practices of Hoodoo in New Orleans. Tell My Horse chronicles Vodoun religious practices in Haiti as well as the occupation of Haiti by the United States. These works offer an interpretation of Black culture as dynamic, changing, and complex, which challenges how, at the time of the books’ publications, “reading audiences, both in literature and in social science, often found it hard to believe that people of African descent acquired wisdom, possessed human feelings, and could express sophisticated thoughts” (135). Hurston’s work challenged notions of Black inferiority by describing the distinct and original cultural practices, expressions, and community formations of Black folks.
Hurston set off on her own path as an ethnographer of the African Diaspora and an essay writer who relied on her wit, humor, and creativity to deliver straightforward viewpoints about racism and Black life. While Hurston’s work fell into obscurity, Freeman Marshall deftly draws our attention to the contexts of its reappearance that conditioned her status as literary icon and marginalized her in anthropology. As the public, scholars, writers, and creatives continue to engage with Hurston through ongoing book releases, studies, documentaries, and festivals, Freeman Marshall’s work provides an important intervention that calls us to think about how we reconstruct and deploy Hurston as not only a talented storyteller and incisive ethnographer but also a consummate intellectual.
Reighan Gillam is an ethnographer of Black visual culture. She is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. Her research examines media at the intersection of racial ideologies, anti-racism, and protest.