Academic journal article African American Review

Possessing the Self: Caribbean Identities in Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse

Academic journal article African American Review

Possessing the Self: Caribbean Identities in Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse

Article excerpt

Zora Neale Hurston's leap beyond national boundaries in her 1938 book of Caribbean folklore, Tell My Horse, indicates her cross-cultural interest in identity politics at the beginning of World War II. Unfortunately, much of what Hurston had to say about the international political arena in the late 1930s and the 1940s was excised from her autobiography and continues to be marginalized in her canon because many critics assume that Hurston was "mainly a novelist and folklorist, not a political analyst" (Hemenway 248), and those critics who do address Hurston's political orientation often find her comments consistent with her "reactionary politics." [1] Hurston's interest in Caribbean history and religion, however, can be read as an intriguing international political gesture. Situated among descriptive ethnography, political commentary, and colorful travelogue, Tell My Horse, is both generically and politically ambiguous. [2] Hurston's politics are particularly challenging because she praises the nineteen-year A merican occupation of Haiti in her section on "Politics and Personalities in Haiti"--an imperialist political stance that seems at odds with her sincere anthropological interest in the culture of Haiti and with her academic training under Franz Boas. [3]

As a black American ethnographer working on the cultures of the Caribbean, Hurston seems caught between defending the U.S. imperial "possession" of Haiti and simultaneously critiquing it by highlighting spiritual possession of Haitian voodoo rituals as a strategy of resistance to colonial politics. The resulting tension between an imperial nationalism articulated explicitly within the political context of American occupation and the cultural, anthropological discourse of Hurston's observations on voodoo leads to an unresolved dialectic in Tell My Horse. This contradiction is instructive, however, because it reveals the construction of a national "Other" as an intensely complex and always ambiguous task which ultimately mirrors the culture and politics of the ethnographer more than that of her subjects.

Because Hurston subtly subverts her mainstream, public, pro-U.S. discourse with her comments on Haitian cultural practices, voodoo in Hurston's work emerges as a subversive, international political gesture that helps to produce a global trans-Caribbean space. Hurston's focus on voodoo is indeed political, for in the figuration of "possession" we find the connection between the material and spiritual history of trans-Caribbean cultures. These cultures are marked by the centrality of slavery and the mutation of cultural memories shared by West African, Caribbean, and Black Southern communities. [4]

Historical Specters of United States Imperialism

At the time Hurston wrote Tell My Horse, Caribbean identities were perceived by Americans as exotic "others." When Hurston visited Jamaica and Haiti in 1936 and 1937, she came at the end of the nineteen-year occupation of Haiti (1915-1934), an effort by the U.S. to ensure military dominance in the Caribbean and to "civilize" Caribbean nations that seemed to lack good self-government and democratic values. As historian Hans Schmidt explains, the international political reason for occupying Haiti was to prevent a German attack during World War 1, because Germany's naval power was considered a threat to American hegemony. Schmidt argues that, "largely because of this postulated military danger, United States troops occupied Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands, and parts of Cuba in 1915, 1916, and 1917, thereby completing the American garrisoning of the Greater Antilles with the exception of British Jamaica" (9). Ensuring American military dominance went hand in hand with the political missionary id eal of spreading liberal democracy. Schmidt cites Woodrow Wilson's remarks about "teaching South American republics to 'elect good men' and his frequent insistence that the United States had a moral responsibility to promote constitutional, democratic government in the Caribbean area" (10). …

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