- "Different by Degree":Ella Cara Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, and Franz Boas Contend with Race and Ethnicity
What did or could African American folklorist and writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and American Indian ethnographer and linguist Ella Cara Deloria (1888–1971) have in common? According to their correspondences housed at the American Philosophical Society (APS) in Philadelphia, they have more in common than those who have been conditioned to think of race in dualistic terms and apart from class might assume. Both Hurston and Deloria spent a good part of the 1920s and 1930s marshalling their expertise for the father of modern anthropology, Franz Boas. Both women were stunned by what had passed for "folklore" about their respective communities and could hardly bear it. In a 24 May 1938 correspondence with Boas, Deloria explained that she had been reading a couple of manuscripts for a publishing house: "It is amazing what people write about Indians. I have criticized both [manuscripts] quite unfavorably; but I had to, they were so trashy; I should not like to be thought to pass on them." It became their mission, thus, to offer antidotal efforts through extensive, rigorous fieldwork.
Both Hurston and Deloria were extremely dedicated to their intellectual and professional mentor, Boas. Hurston seemed more inclined to iconizehim (signing a 10 October 1929 letter, for instance, "Much love and reverence"), while Deloria occasionally expressed covertly her resentment of white expectations of her. Both women were resilient in the face of relentless racism, though they demonstrated their tenacity differently: Deloria, through eloquent candor, and Hurston, through fearless wit. Likewise, both suffered tremendous financial stress, though Deloria's was more often pronounced and varied because of her dire socioeconomic straits, which impinged on her familial obligations. Hurston's hardship, according to extant letters located at APS, primarily delayed her pursuit of a doctorate and—according to Lorraine Roses and Ruth Randolph's biographical and critical insights—resulted in part from mismanagement of funds.1 Most noteworthy, incongruous, and, for me, disquieting is that both remarkable researchers and historians died not only impoverished but in relative [End Page 181] obscurity—unlike Boas, Ruth Benedict, or Margaret Mead, for example, who reaped the benefits (including recognition and lasting veneration in the field) of Hurston's and Deloria's tireless dedication.
The sociohistorical evolution of the discipline provides an illuminating context for the contributions these women of color would make to the field. The treatment of race in sciences such as anthropology underwent significant changes between the eugenics movement of the early 1920s and the post–World War II emphases on cultural determinism and race relations as the prominent fields of inquiry. Ruth Benedict and Ashley Montague both desperately tried to disabuse readers of the race constructionism and fanaticism that led to the atrocities of the Holocaust.2 Boas laid the foundation as early as 1910 for an environmentalist model of race and culture, though the powers that be had little use for it then; and Boas's posthumous collected essays in Race and Democratic Society (1945) debunk the primacy of biology and heredity through skeptical interrogation of the race concept.3 This is, to be sure, a far cry from the April 1877 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine wherein anthropologists report on the craniometry of the "Gorilla," "Chimpanzee," "Bushwoman," and "European."4
Beyond doubt, confronting, resisting, and redressing such an establishment did not make Boas terribly popular. As early as 1894, in "Human Faculty as Determined by Race," Boas wrote: "The overlapping of variations is significant in so far as it shows that the existing differences are not fundamental."5 He argued that fundamental to anthropological psychology is the "necessity of looking for common psychological features."6 Further, "about the question of the difference of mental ability in different races," Boas stated in a 1907 lecture entitled "Anthropology," "The evidence . . . does not sustain the claim of superiority. . . . [W]e must guard against the inference that divergence from the European type is synonymous with inferiority."7 Not surprisingly, thus, respected racists like Lothrop Stoddard publicly and professionally belittled Boas as a pathetic Jew pitifully trying to pass as white.8 Yet, in his...