Biography 23.2 (2000) 407-414
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Zora Neale Hurston (1901-1960) is better known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), than for her work as an anthropologist and folklorist in Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938). In African American Pioneers in Anthropology, editors Ira E. Harrison and Faye V. Harrison have compiled thirteen life histories about a generation of black scholars, including Hurston, who became anthropologists between 1920 and 1955. The intellectual biographies in Pioneers describe anthropology from the vantage point of its earliest African American adherents, their careers, and the theoretical and methodological interventions they brought to the discipline in [End Page 407] the first half of the twentieth century. Concerned with racial ideologies, native perspectives, and the often pejorative representations of African and African American cultures, these anthropologists worked in a "vindicationist" mode to counter racial denigration with academic theory and social activism. The editors suggest that this vindicationist framework forms "the clearest continuity in African-American intellectual history over the past few centuries" (12).
The biographies in Pioneers are at their best when they illustrate the strategies, including activism and vindicationist praxis, that African American anthropologists used to counter their experiences of institutional racism, gender subordination, and paternalism. These experiences stymied, and sometimes ended, the anthropological research of some pioneering African Americans working in the African Diaspora in Europe, the Caribbean, and North, South, and Central America. Some found work outside of the discipline, or left academia altogether. Others were driven to greater rigor and productivity.
Though Louis Eugene King (1898-1981) was one of the first people to complete a study about rural African Americans, he never found employment in academia, and eventually worked for the Navy. Despite his significant abilities, William S. Willis, Jr. (1921-1983), referred to in both Hymes and Mullings, also found it difficult to find an academic job. In 1964, after a long and frustrating search, he became the first African American faculty member at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Expected to teach more classes than the rest of the faculty, he was strained by his treatment and finally left due to overt racial harassment by the head of his department. Willis went on to write perceptively about racism and the history of anthropology. While many of the life histories in Pioneers are marked by decades of academic marginalization and a lack of institutional support, African American anthropologists like Willis utilized their perspectives, and the theoretical rigor required to support their positions, to take a proactive stance in the discipline.
During the era of de jure segregation in the United States, African Americans who acquired advanced education usually entered disciplines such as education and social work, considered to be the most useful in handling racial problems. These were also the disciplines available to the few African Americans who received training at institutions that would instruct people of color, and more importantly, these were the disciplines in which jobs would be available in a segregated society. In the early twentieth century, anthropology was a relatively new and white male dominated discipline, and its evolutionist theories and studies of people in Africa, the [End Page 408] Americas, South Asia, and the Pacific Islands contributed to rationales for practices of racial subjugation (see Hymes 128-31; Mullings 32). Between the 1920s and 1940s, however, new anthropological theories about race and culture, and particularly the positions Franz Boas mobilized against anti-Semitism, appealed to African Americans who aimed to investigate the theoretical bases of "scientific racism." Their interest coincided with tense interwar racial relations in the United States and a rising mainstream interest in the cultures of segregated African Americans.
These conditions prompted several philanthropic institutions, already invested in the study of the American Indian, to extend their support to include studies of the American Negro...