- Scholarship and the Modernist Public: Zora Neale Hurston and the Limitations of Art and Disciplinary Anthropology
In perhaps the most famous scene in Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnography Mules and Men (1935), the character “Zora” stops conducting her research and flees a Florida sawmill camp when a violent fight breaks out in a bar whose clientele is an unsavory mix of outlaws and prostitutes. Zora is forced to abandon her detached participant-observer stance when Lucy, a local woman, suddenly attacks her with a knife, thinking she is attempting to steal her man; another woman named Big Sweet intercedes at the last moment, allowing her to escape. The scene makes palpable the scholar’s vulnerability and confusion, as she finds herself unable to make sense of, or remain apart from, the cultural practices in the field: “Curses, oaths, cries and the whole place was in motion. Blood was on the floor. I fell out of the door over a man lying on the steps, who either fell himself trying to run or got knocked down. I don’t know. I was in the car in a second and in high just too quick.”1 Although this moment of epistemological breakdown is circumscribed by Hurston’s own authoritative voice, which, in turn, is framed by a foreword written by the father of professional cultural anthropology in America, Franz Boas, it raises important questions about the limits of professional inquiry and the relationship between professionals and the public.2 In a letter to Boas, who had still to decide whether he would add his imprimatur to Mules and Men, Hurston blamed its unscholarly and unorthodox literary scenes on her publisher Bertram Lippincott, who was, she explained, insisting she deliver “a very readable book that the average reader can understand.”3 [End Page 471] Although this was true, it also conveniently aligned with her own project that sought to put scholars and the general public into conversation with one another and to critique the growing specialization of scholarship that she believed resulted in work that was dismissive of folk knowledge.
In Hurston’s second ethnography, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938), the sense of chaos and uncertainty so carefully contained by authoritative judgment in Mules and Men subsumes all claims of professional knowledge. Hurston researched the book during 1936 and 1937 while in Jamaica and Haiti on a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed her to complete fieldwork disrupted several years earlier when the Rosenwald Foundation rescinded its offer to fund her doctoral studies in anthropology at Columbia University. Although now free to explore her literary interests without the constraints of disciplinary anthropology, ethnography and literature would be forever intertwined in her mind.4 From her earliest encounters with scientific methodologies at Columbia as an undergraduate, she had ambitions to incorporate literary techniques into her anthropological scholarship so that she could reach a popular audience. Thus she explained on her Guggenheim application that she hoped “to collect for scientific scrutiny all phases of Negro folk-life and to personally produce or create fiction . . . that shall give a true picture of Negro life . . . at the same time that it entertains.”5 Although Tell My Horse was hardly the success that she had hoped it to be, it succeeds, like Mules and Men, in modeling a self-reflexivity with respect to ethnography that considers the ethics of professional knowledge gathering and suggests that a broader public must participate in knowledge production.6
At its best, Tell My Horse argues that we misunderstand professional power if we focus our gaze solely on first-world professionals from elite institutions like Columbia. The text grants professional power to both marginalized nations and the marginalized sex by ethically representing organic intellectuals who are specialists in their own right. Hurston’s representations of professionals are ethical inasmuch as they are partial; that is, she respects the complexity of professional knowledge within the Jamaican and Haitian folk communities she visits by acknowledging that they cannot be explained exhaustively in her text. Given two weeks to study with the female “specialists who prepare young girls for love,” for instance, she tells us she would “learn what...