- Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography
In Inventing the New Negro, Daphne Lamothe explores the influence of anthropology (and especially the practice of fieldwork ethnography) on works by W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Sterling Brown, and Katherine Dunham. The texts in this study are more “literary” than “ethnographic,” and this is intentional. As Lamothe puts it, “generic hybridity is a mode of representation central to the Black modernist imagination” (11), and her point is to demonstrate how these writers combine ethnography and narrative to expand the conventional limits of both genres.
Inventing the New Negro offers provocative rereadings of Harlem Renaissance writers whose fieldwork is often seen as separate from their artistic endeavor. Taken together, the writers in this study offer a broad scope of intellectual and cultural work, including texts that blend ethnography and memoir (The Souls of Black Folk, Tell My Horse, Island Possessed), novels (Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man), and collections of poetry (Southern Road). What connects these seemingly disparate intellectuals is their investment in the study of and participation in African American and diasporic folk cultures. They each drew inspiration from their travels to the South and in the Caribbean—places Lamothe describes as “bounded, symbolic sites of Black culture” (9)—and all of them, in different ways, incorporated their experiences “in the field” into their imaginative writing.
The writers that seem the least logical for this study are often the most interesting. The inclusion of Sterling Brown seems a bit of a stretch, considering that, according to Lamothe, he had written of literature’s superiority to sociological narrative in its capacity to convey characters’ humanity and individuality (17). Lamothe casts Brown as an informal ethnographer, citing his amateur work in gathering folklore in the South (1923), his position as the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project Editor of Negro Affairs some dozen years later (1936–1940), and his contribution to Gunnar Myrdal’s sociological study, An American Dilemma (1944). She convincingly demonstrates connections between Brown’s literary work, especially the blues poems in Southern Road, and his folklore-collecting expeditions. Brown [End Page 231] emphasizes travel and migration through the image of the road, celebrating African American culture as discursive and modern. As Lamothe contends, Southern Road connects past with future, South with North, making Brown’s work of central importance to “articulations of the ‘new’ in the New Negro movement” (114).
With Zora Neale Hurston’s formal ethnographic training and unique literary gifts, her astute use of irony, and the deft ways in which her writing collapses the boundaries of conventional ethnography, it comes as no surprise that she is in many ways the central figure of this study. Indeed, Lamothe opens the book with an anecdote from Mules and Men, and she devotes the final two chapters to Hurston’s work in Haiti (Tell My Horse and Their Eyes Were Watching God). In “Narrative Dissonance: Conflict and Contradiction in Hurston’s Caribbean Ethnography,” Lamothe praises what others have denigrated about this work: its impressionistic, ethnocentric, even amateurish tone. She argues that reading the contextual frame of the work allows us to see Hurston’s attempt to deconstruct the ethnographic project through proximity: “The text lays bare the yoking of imperialist and ethnographic ventures through its multiple modes of representation (travelogue, memoir, ethnography), opening the narrative and its author up to the reader’s scrutiny” (18). Tell My Horse is yet another example of the kind of generic hybridity that characterizes New Negro ethnographic writing. The amateurish tone, according to Lamothe, is intentional, enabling Hurston to underscore for Western readers the social position of the narrator, undercutting her stance as a purportedly objective observer, and exposing the inevitable cultural biases that shape our understanding of other cultures.
Both Tell My Horse and Their Eyes Were Watching God were inspired by Hurston’s trip to Haiti. But where the ethnographic stance of Tell My Horse emphasizes the vexed political and imperial aspects of relationships...