While Zora Neale Hurston’s innovative ethnographic methodologies — including first-hand accounts of her own hoodoo/voodoo initiations — are celebrated by white and Black scholars alike, Hurston’s involvement with the biggest field-defining anthropological questions of her day receives less analysis. Ethnography and anthropology are often used interchangeably, but these differentiated scholarly paths are not reducible to each other. Ethnography centers the local context(s) through which meaningfulness in phenomena becomes discoverable and socially expressible. Anthropology aims to distill from of these many locals some coherent pattern(s) about the nature of the human itself, replete with its manifold and immanent possibilities of becoming. For this reason, anthropologists should be thought of as philosophers who “do our philosophy out of doors.”
This essay re-turns to Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological philosophy via her engagement with cultural creolization theories of the African Diaspora. These scholarly debates sought to discover to what extent so-called “Africanisms” had survived the ravages of chattel slavery to persist within vernacular Black American cultures of the twentieth century, or whether Africana communities had innovated new creole cultures particular to the American experience. Specifically, I read Hurston’s critical studies of her beloved Florida to recover a word about the fragility of Black folk ecologies that is urgently needed for our anthropocenic times.
After graduating Howard with an associate’s degree in 1920, Hurston relocated to Harlem and embedded herself in the Renaissance’s literary-artistic culture. In 1925, Hurston enrolled at Barnard College on a scholarship to study anthropology with Franz Boas, earning her B.A. in 1928. By this time, Boas had cut his mark as the “father of American anthropology” for developing the concept of cultural relativism, an understanding that there is no one abiding and transcendent Truth, but that all cultures devise their own internal (emic) logics that provide locally-contingent pathways and vantage points of discovery for the many truths contained in reality.
Hurston also studied with Melville Herskovits whose The Myth of the Negro Past (1941) and public disagreement with African-American scholar E. Franklin Frazier defined the emerging field of African Diaspora creolization studies and influenced the Black Power Movement itself. The political ramifications of Boas’ and Herskovits’ cultural work during the zenith of American Jim Crow directly challenged the dominant scientific-racist paradigm that posited Black inferiority to whites on the basis of biological determinism.
But why follow the outlines of a white dominant, male-centered culture theory canon when Hurston was there the whole time? To the extent that the African Diaspora served as an historical test case for Boasian anthropology’s “diffusion or evolution” question regarding the origins of sociocultural forms found in any one location, Hurston’s multi-sited ethnographies across the American plantation zone form preeminent texts to consult on creolization theory. Perhaps no other location in the greater Caribbean served as a better case for such studies than Hurston’s own Florida.
Folk Flavors of Florida
Throughout her professional career, Hurston made several trips across Florida to collect Black folklore, publishing some of this work in Mules and Men (1935), where she noted her care in remembering that underprivileged Black folks are often “the shyest” to speak to anthropologists (4). However, Hurston’s written reflections on her folk music recording expeditions with Alan Lomax over 1935-36 and her 1939 field work with the Florida division of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) to produce a travel guide for the state did not see publication until 1991! This essay, “Folklore and Music,” drew upon Florida’s specificity to ruminate on the core principles of Boasian cultural relativism. But in her typically colorful style, Hurston served up her culture theory with a large heaping of food ecology metaphors.
Hurston opened by declaring: “Folklore is the boiled-down juice of human living.” She next established that folkloric (re)creation belonged to all peoples and all times as integral to the on-going and open-ended processes of history. “No country is so primitive that it has no lore, no country has yet become so civilized that no folklore is being made within its boundaries” (183). Hurston approached folk culture not as a static relic of the past, but as a dynamic sieve that collects the critical contemporary commentary of its creators. For Hurston, lore was a special form of knowledge that disclosed the cosmic discovery process of humanity, unfolding perpetually as various groups of people living in unique locales “use up a great part of [their] life-span trying to ask infinity some questions about what is going on around its doorsteps” (184).
However relative these cultures may be to each other in this collective quest, Hurston held to a unity of material reality, noting, “In folklore, as in everything else that people create, the world is a great, big, old serving-platter, and all the local places are like eating-plates.” Earth, our Earth, is indeed but one physical planet shared by all terrestrial life in joint stock perpetuity. But the vastness of the planet is marked by distinct climates and topographies that become “givens” of nature — the raw materials from which humans constitute the regionally-specific flavors of their cultural palates. “Whatever is on the plate [of local culture] must come out of the platter [of the earth], but each plate has a flavor of its own because the people take the universal stuff and season it to suit themselves on the plate. And this local flavor is what is known as originality.” With this general cultural relativist frame laid out, Hurston localized her focus on “that Florida flavor that the story- and song-makers have given to the great mass of material that has accumulated in this sort of culture delta. And Florida is lush in material because the State attracts such a variety of workers to its industries…” (183).
What made Florida a lush and flavorful culture delta of the African Diaspora was the fact that it had become a post-emancipation meeting ground for multiple migratory Africana communities conscripted there by the combination of their existential necessity to provide for their physical life or face starvation, homelessness, and ultimately death, with the illiberal fluxes and flows of global capitalist labor demands and debt peonage. Hurston’s historical materialism astutely tracked Florida’s folklore as commenting upon agribusiness and gastronomy — sites of food production and other natural resource cultivations and extractions. Jook culture, the bawdy pastime of turpentine camp workers deep in the pine forests, yielded spicy songs like “Uncle Bud” that helped birth the great blues tradition of music. Instead of fixating on Black cultural forms as temporally-divided before or after the Middle Passage, Hurston saw creolization in Black Florida taking shape from subsequent waves of diffusion and evolution: “Africa by way of Cuba; Africa by way of the British West Indies; Africa by way of Haiti and Martinique; Africa by way of Central and South America.” Most importantly, Hurston’s interest in Africana culture was not dryly social scientific or reductively material, but she approached lore as a vital metaphysical element of a sustainable community. As she evoked, folklore “reveals that which the soul lives by” (Mules and Men 4).
Africa by way of Cuba; Africa by way of the British West Indies; Africa by way of Haiti and Martinique; Africa by way of Central and South America.
Florida has the most tempting, the most highly flavored Negro plate around the American platter. – Zora Neale Hurston
In the lore collected by Hurston, Black Floridians made light of their climatologic vulnerabilities like this quip about the Hurricane of 1928: “So the storm met the hurricane in Palm Beach and they set down and ate breakfast together. Then the hurricane said to the storm, ‘Let’s go down to Miami and shake that thing!’” Tall tales abounded about the power of the wind: “One day it blowed so hard till it blowed a crooked road straight. Another time it blowed and blowed and scattered the days of the week so bad till Sunday didn’t come until late Tuesday evening.” Even charming monikers like the sunshine state revealed possible threats to life, such as when “The weather got so hot” on a train ride to Tampa that when the train arrived, “just two blue suits stepped down off the train. The mens had done melted out of the suits” (“F&M,” 189).
From our current vantage point in 2019, standing once again (and always) on the brink at the end of world, the crisis of the anthropocene intensifies these already-unequal political economies, as humanity worldwide is finding the bounties of our wordly serving platter threatened. The UN’s World Food Programme warns that climate change will exacerbate risks of hunger and undernutrition through extreme weather events and the long-term effects of rising sea levels for all coastal areas and river deltas. A Climate Impact Lab report lists 8 Florida cities among the U.S. top 10 facing imminent climate disaster, a fact well known already in Miami Beach, where a massive $200 million works project is underway to raise roads and build seawalls.
These developments are unsurprisingly not benefiting Miami’s Africana communities. A recent Harvard study found Haitian and Dominican residents in the enclaves of Little Haiti and Attapallah/Little Santo Domingo are being displaced by climate gentrification as the property value of scarce “high ground” rapidly increases. Conversely, recent historical architecture renewal projects in the low-lying Bahamian migrant community of Coconut Grove are threatened to be washed away to the total of $36 million in potential loss. And despite a 2018 gubernatorial campaign featuring equal parts red tide warnings and the invoked proverbial folk wisdom of his grandmother, Andrew Gillum’s disappointing defeat in that race only raised the stakes involved with long-term sustainability of Black Florida’s delicate folk ecologies.
For Hurston, Florida’s diasporic diversity made its folklore “the most tempting, the most highly flavored Negro plate around the American platter” (198). But the ingredients for these tasty treats — Florida’s distinct fauna and flora, along with its migrant communities, their foodways, their historical labor struggles, their settled plots of land — all face climate peril as never before. To return Hurston to her rightful place within the canon of anthropological culture theory is to reimagine the infinite possibilities of/for the human, foregrounded through a confrontation with the vibrant fragility of Blackness as entailed through a folkloric archive that discloses our historical and mythic struggle for achieving the flourishing life. A banquet of renewal awaits.