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Lecture | Research Seminar

On Zora Neale Hurston

Monday 9 January 2023
Pieter de la Court


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While Zora Neale Hurston is today a major figure of African-American women’s literature, her work as an anthropologist and collector of folklore is less recognized. Scholars of cultural anthropology have called, however, for the discipline to reassess Hurston’s work and her contributions to the discipline (Visweswaran; Harrison), recognizing that both the material she collected (on Black Southern folklore and Caribbean voodoo) and the methodology she developed (immersive, subjective, narrative) foreshadowed recent concerns within the field about the relationship between knowledge production and power structures (who gets to study what, how, and why).

In this presentation, I rethink the relationship between Hurston’s anthropological and literary work, inverting the traditional literary reading of her ethnographies as ancillary to her fiction. We cannot fully grasp Hurston’s quality as a writer without understanding these ethnographic methods and her ambiguous position as one of the early (and unrecognized) “native ethnographers.” A black woman from the South in white male-dominated academia, she embodied roles as both an insider and an outsider relative to the worlds she inhabited: what feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins calls an “outsider-within,” an “individual whose marginality provided a distinctive angle of vision” on political and intellectual concerns (Hills Collins 12). In Hurston’s case, this vision derives from her multiple experiences of marginalization as a consequence of her gender, her race, and her class. This “outsider-within” status is not only the source and motivation of her creative literary production; she used her rare positionality to create a method for producing knowledge and critique (that, in turn, inform her fiction).

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