Academic journal article African American Review

Creating Ethnography: Zora Neale Hurston and Lydia Cabrera

Academic journal article African American Review

Creating Ethnography: Zora Neale Hurston and Lydia Cabrera

Article excerpt

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell within. (Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road 127)

In comparing the collections of folktales by Zora Neale Hurston and Lydia Cabrera published throughout 1935 and 1936, one has to negotiate the professional, cultural, and personal forces that make creative forms possible, maybe even inevitable. Both women worked from multiple planes of identification: it is a challenge to pinpoint their professional roles as "native" and feminist ethnographers within the scholarly ethnographic tradition in which they were both trained and, in Hurston's case, professionally sidelined. In Mules and Men and Cuentos negros, respectively, Hurston and Cabrera display creative ethnographic strategies as part of their response to the scholarly tradition, thereby rising to multilayered professional and personal challenges.

James Clifford has unveiled the mystique of the ethnographer by carefully explaining the artistry and invention involved in ethnographic writing. Beyond the perhaps unconscious but still intentional recreation of a culture by the ethnographer, Clifford points out further that "interpreters constantly construct themselves through the others they study" (10). An ethnography that recreates a culture, while at the same time inscribing the self, requires from the investigator both physical distance and intense proximity. Recreating a culture can be a conscious attempt by the ethnographer to bring again to life in writing that culture which he or she has experienced firsthand. A recreation of a culture differs considerably from a sometimes sterile, analytical description of a people or group. Compare, for example, Hurston's Mules and Men (1936), as a cultural recreation, with Marcel Mauss's The Gift (1925) as an analytical and descriptive study. The dichotomy of distance and proximity may entail physical travel to a specific geographic site and/or an intellectual or emotional "journey" through memory, in order to establish the psychological distance prerequisite for achieving perspective and, oddly enough, what we call insight. Crucial here is the paradoxical and yet fundamental role that physical and emotional distances play in facilitating insight and recognition, while simultaneously promoting a scholar's self-construction.

Combinations of memory "travel" and on-site ethnographic information collection by the Cuban writer, artist, and ethnographer Lydia Cabrera and the US American writer and ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston yielded published collections of Afro-Cuban and African American folktales within six months of one another in 1935 and 1936. (1) These women, although from completely divergent backgrounds, had uncannily similar moments of recognition and insight concerning a minority culture that was not entirely their own, at approximately the same time, but in two separate locations. While plotting out the journeys that paved the way for their creative and innovative work in Afro-Cuban and African American ethnography, this study will address their bifocal vision as insider-outsiders within the minority cultures they represent in folktales and within the "foreign" cultures to which they traveled. Cabrera's and Hurston's roles as "native ethnographers" will also be considered. In creating alternatives to traditional ethnographies, such as Franz Boas's Bella Bella Tales (1932), their collections can be understood as early examples of experimental and feminist ethnography.

Origins and Journeys

Lydia Cabrera, born in Cuba in 1900, was the eighth and youngest child of a prominent white Havana family. For a woman of her time and culture, she received an excellent education both from private tutors and by attending the San Alejandro Art Academy in Havana without her parents' knowledge. Studying on her own, Cabrera was able to pass the rigorous Cuban baccalaureat exams (Simo 7). …

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


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.