- Editors’ Note
This issue of the Journal of Africana Religions features three interdisciplinary research articles. The first, by Christopher Tounsel, examines religion in Sudan under the shadow of war. Tounsel explicates the dynamic and often troubling dimensions of theology that can emerge under the duress of life-and-death conflicts. The second article, by Paul Christopher Johnson, is a lucid study of method that tackles the challenge that the subject of spirits poses for scholarly inquiry. Marcus Harvey, who authored the third article, examines the work of Zora neale Hurston to elucidate the concept of opacity in Black religion. Both Harvey and Johnson, in fact, find important inspiration in the work of Hurston. So, it is fitting that their work shares this issue with a roundtable devoted to Hurston.
The intellectual study of Africana religions has a remarkable history that is distinctly marked by the creative work of scholars who have appreciated the utility of more conventional methods while also pioneering new approaches with novel questions and fresh paradigms leading to new fields of study. The anthropologist and literary author Zora neale Hurston (1891–1960) is among the most important of these foundational intellectuals. After growing up in Eatonville, Florida, Hurston eventually attended Howard University before matriculating at Barnard College, where she studied with anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead. After graduate research at Columbia University, Hurston worked as a writer and traveled to Jamaica and Haiti to conduct field research.
Although Hurston is more widely remembered as a literary author, she produced a number of influential studies such as Tell My Horse and The Sanctified Church that lucidly portrayed and analyzed Africana religions. Hurston wed her unique sensitivity to the details of local culture to probing inquiry into the formation and workings of Black religion through attention to patterns of belief, ritual, gender practices, and sacred power. Hurston’s research and writing encompassed attention to Haitian Vodou, Black Pentecostalism, and African American folk religion in the U.S. South. She was very intentional about extending the geographical scope of her research beyond the United [End Page v] States as she sought to understand African-derived religions in the Caribbean at a time when relatively few scholars were producing scholarship on Black religious formation beyond the scope of Christianity.
Hurston’s legacy, on the one hand, is resonant with that of other scholars such as the African American author and artist Katherine Dunham (like Hurston, Dunham also studied anthropology) and the Jewish anthropologist Melville Herskovits, both of whom examined the significance of African-derived religion in the Western hemisphere. On the other hand, her work also parallels that of authors such as Lorenzo Dow Turner, whose attention to folk culture continues to inform the research of experts concerned with Black religion. On the whole, Hurston’s corpus is unequivocally a compelling and distinctive pillar in the history of scholarship on Africana religions. Her commitment to transgressing regional boundaries, her range of interest in Black religion across particular traditions, and her penchant for integrating her anthropological research into her literary craft continue to merit robust engagement from contemporary scholars. With this in mind, our roundtable contributors offer important responses to Hurston’s writings and her intellectual legacy. Tammie Jenkins focuses on two of Hurston’s books to interpret how her use of narrative renders the role of diaspora in Black religion. James Manigault-Bryant and LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant explain Hurston’s use of time to demonstrate the quandaries of modernity. Hurston’s attention to freethought and humanism are brought to light in Christopher Cameron’s essay. McKinley Eric Melton examines the relationship between African deities and the divine imaginary of Black American Christianity in Hurston’s writings. Hurston’s significance as an anthropologist of religion is the focus of Diana Burnett’s essay. Hilary Sparkes highlights the significance of Hurston’s concern with Caribbean religion. Hurston’s rendering of the performative dimensions of preaching is the central point of analysis in the essay by M. Cooper Harriss. The final essay, by Aisha Beliso-De Jesus, examines what the author describes as a metaphysical shift in Hurston’s ethnographic method...