Academic journal article African American Review

"That Commonality of Feeling": Hurston, Hybridity, and Ethnography

Academic journal article African American Review

"That Commonality of Feeling": Hurston, Hybridity, and Ethnography

Article excerpt

Preparing the manuscript of Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston wrote to her mentor, anthropologist Franz Boas, "full of tremors, lest you decide that you do not want to write the introduction." She knew that the book contained much "unscientific matter," according to ethnographic conventions, but she also assured Boas that "the conversations and incidents are true" (Letter to Boas, 20 Aug. 1934). Though not based strictly on "hard facts" presented in scientific format, Hurston's text captured much more than a traditional ethnography could capture. Her ethnographic texts invite fuller analysis of what they reveal about African Americans and all Americans.

Thus far, three main trends in Hurston scholarship have examined her ethnographic works. Recent scholars have acknowledged Hurston's innovative combination of fiction and anthropology. For instance, D. A. Boxwell argues that Hurston "reinvented" anthropology (608), prefiguring postmodern ethnography by challenging the scientific objectivity of the ethnographer and asserting her active presence in the text. Similarly, Sandra Dolby-Stahl maintains that the mixed-genre approach makes the text appealing to an audience beyond ethnographers. Other scholars contend that Hurston desires to "salvage" what is unique in African American culture. Mary O'Connor sees Hurston emphasizing the "specificity and difference of African American rural culture" (149), and Susanna Pavloska posits that Hurston uses anthropology "as a means of isolating African American culture from the accretions resulting from years of appropriation by the white cultural mainstream" (79). Finally, critics also have struggled with Hurston's controversial statements on race, such as this one from a draft of her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road: "[I]nstead of Race Pride being a virtue, it is a sapping vice" (249). In the essay "How it Feels to Be Colored Me," Hurston also remarks, "But I am not tragically colored.... do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it" (153). Analyzing Hurston's racial stance, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese argues that Hurston attempts to "transcend" race and avoid victim status (197). Deborah Plant views Hurston as having an "individualistic standpoint" that not only emphasizes her own self-determination and self-definition, but also promotes those same qualities in others (4). Samira Kawash sees Hurston developing a new definition of community that challenges both "the fixity and boundedness of such categories as race and nation and ... the premise of the autonomous individual whose supposed authenticity would exclude the flux of the ever changing" (179).

While these studies have advanced our understanding of the nuances in Hurston's ethnographic works, reexamining her texts in light of two cultural theorists, her contemporary and mentor Franz Boas and our own contemporary Homi Bhabha, reveals further implications of this ethnographic work as mixed genre, cultural record, and racial commentary. Boas's direction strongly influenced Hurston during her time at Columbia and after. In presenting her ethnography, she followed his dictum to apply the scientific to the everyday: "[A] clear understanding of the principles of anthropology illuminates the social processes of our own times and may show us, if we are ready to listen to its teachings, what to do and what to avoid" (Anthropology 11). Hurston echoes Boas's contention in The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) that "there is no close relation between race and culture" (196); she articulates a similar stance in a draft of Dust Tracks: "After all, the word 'race' is a loose classification of physical characteristics. It tells nothing about the insides of people" (249). Affirming Boas's division of race from culture and his ideas of cultural relativism, Hurston also employed what anthropologist Melville Herskovits deemed Boas's "major theoretical contribution": "[T]he concept of culture as a dynamic, changing force, to be understood only if it is recognized as a manifestation of the 'mental life' of man" (72). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.