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.