Edited by Jahna Hampshire
Art by Fatima Seck
After close to two years of studying anthropology, Zora Neale Hurston has yet to appear on any of my reading lists. This is a great shame, not only because it exemplifies the erasure of black women in academia that is all too common in higher education, but because her work specifically has so much to offer to new anthropology students.
While reading Mules and Men, Hurston’s ethnographic text on black communities around the American South, I was first struck by her confident centring of self. In great contrast to the majority of other ethnographic texts I have read, Hurston actively recognises her own place in the context of her fieldwork, making no attempt to hide herself in her ethnography. Rather, Hurston makes personal experience an equally valid and visible dimension of her ethnographic exploration, an approach whose significance I explored in a previous Myopia article (projectmyopia.com/toyin-odutola). In Mules and Men, Hurston unapologetically presents her jovial disputes with her research participants, casual banter with old friends and new acquaintances, and even being mocked and criticised by the people whose presence she was in. These honest and colloquial dialogues are not means to the ethnographic material, but the qualitative data itself… arguably, creating a richer picture that authentically describes the extent to which the presence and identity of the anthropologist affects the relationship between ethnographer and ethnographic subject; and the knowledge that is chronicled as a result.
Yet my call to introduce Hurston’s work to our canon goes beyond the cognisant subjectivity of her ethnography. One of the greatest issues I had with our tokenistic, two-lecture long introduction to race in the first year of my studies was its attempt to describe race a-culturally and a-historically, with the idea that this standpoint is somehow more anthropological. The reality of race, however, is that it is the reflection and outcome of a complex interaction between history, society, culture and economics — failing to sufficiently recognise these relationships is not anthropological but myopic, and irresponsible in the context of pedagogy. Mules and Men which at once captures the dynamism of Southern black communities and the rich folklore and history that has created them, can serve as in introduction to race that demonstrates to students how the specificity of ethnography and the breadth of formative paradigms can interact.
Finally, without dismissing Hurston’s relevance as a novelist and creative writer, it is important we interrogate why she is more readily considered a literary author than an anthropologist. Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod argues that anthropology attempts to retain its identity by constructing and reproducing a concept of ‘culture’ reliant on the notion of non-Whites or non-Westerners as other (1993). This centralisation of ‘other’ enables a “tacit understanding that anthropologists study the non-West”, and produces an anthropology that is “practiced as the study by an unproblematic and unmarked Western self of found ‘others’” (Abu-Lughod, 2006: 468). Anthropology needs to be its own discipline, one that is staunchly separate from sociology, literature or history, which currently has confined the scope of anthropology to what a typically white anthropologist can materially observe about an ‘other’ community. Furthermore, it reveals that inherent to anthropology is a dismissive quality, wherein the value of anthropological knowledge is determined on the basis of its status as the acquisition of non-Western knowledge by a Westerner, rather than its merit as a study of people and social relationships.
The question of what ‘makes’ anthropology is an important one, and as an anthropology student I often question why I felt compelled to study anthropology over literature or sociology. What I dispute, however, are the methods by which the mainstream anthropology academy has chosen to distinguish itself. I feel that the interdisciplinary nature of Hurston’s work is precisely its strength, particularly when it comes to understanding the profundity of race or the nuances of a racialised community. Perhaps decolonising anthropology necessitates recognising the study of society, social relations and humanity to be inherently interdisciplinary, and producing a study whose distinctiveness lies in its multifaceted approach. Introducing Mules and Men to our canon would not only allow for a more comprehensive introduction to race in entry-level anthropology, but could constitute a reform to anthropology and the terms in which it is defined.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. ed., (1991). Writing Against Culture. In: Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present. Sante Fé: School of American Research Press, p. 467-479.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. (2006). Writing Women’s Worlds. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press
About the author
Fatima Seck is a second year student of social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. She’s interested in human-centred design, as well as the relationship between sociocultural identities and works of art.