Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston

Today’s post won’t totally be a review in the true sense of I’m weighing the qualities of the work and determining my recommendation for you. Instead, I’m sharing a book experience.

The Gathering & Gabbing book club is hosted by the Association to Preserve Eatonville. They always read books by or about Zora Neale Hurston (she/her), who was raised in Eatonville, Florida, a town that was one of the first cities in the U.S. to be established with an all-Black governing body. This month, the book club met to discuss Tell My Horse, a collection of essays Hurston wrote after she immersed herself in the Caribbean to learn more about Voodoo. At the time, Hurston was studying anthropology in college under the famous Franz Boas.

Part of the reason I don’t want to review Tell My Horse is because Hurston is complicated. She was known for embellishing some of the stories folks told her for Mules and Men, another work of anthropology, to make the stories funnier or sharper. Also, there are a few places in Tell My Horse in which Hurston makes a judgment call, such as claiming why do X if you are a Westerner when you can do Y like the Caribbean peoples?

My understanding of anthropology comes from what I think know of sociology, which is you never make assumptions and you keep yourself out of the work. For example, if you see a man and a woman sitting at a table in Panera Bread drinking from mugs, you don’t assume it’s a couple having coffee. What if they’re siblings, colleagues, ex’s meeting to talk about custody, etc. What if they’re drinking tea, water, slipped in some booze, who knows, etc. I’ve been told assumptions ruin studies in sociology, but I’m not certain. If you’ve studied in either field, even an intro class, please comment what you’ve learned! My point is in a number of places Tell My Horse reads like Hurston’s Western assumptions. She writes, “The Haitian people are gentle and lovable except for their enormous and unconscious cruelty.”

Now, are there different methodologies in anthropology, including one that allows the scientist to write what something appears to be and comment on it? Maybe! I don’t know. That is to say, I’m not confident in saying, “Yes, this is a strong work of academic anthropology and not Zora Neale Hurston trailing along with Voodoo practitioners and keeping a diary.”

One section of Hurston’s collection of essays is on the history of Haiti, which doesn’t work for me. Hurston doesn’t write the essays as if she’s getting the opinion of local people about what happened in the country’s past. Instead, the essays are framed like she read a Wikipedia page but didn’t include citations. If she’s in Haiti to collect research, why write about history? Without historical context, the essays make little sense. Without the voice of the Haitian people, the essays read like rambling. However, the Gathering and Gabbing book club pointed out that Hurston was in Haiti when Trujillo, the dictator in the Dominican Republic, was ordering thousands of Haitians killed. Hurston’s own life, because she is a Black woman, was in danger, but she didn’t write about that.

Removing the people (mainly in Jamaica and Haiti) from the story and telling it through her own voice made me feel distant from the subject. By comparison, Cudjo Lewis in Barracoon explains his life in his voice, and Hurston captures him fully. As much as I love Hurston, if she’s writing nonfiction about other people, I want to hear from them, not get a sideways telling through her. And wouldn’t a diary by Hurston have been thrilling? She could have included her own idioms and opinions, but the trip was funded by a Guggenheim for anthropological study to fulfill course work.

I will say some parts of Tell My Horse were rather exciting, such as explaining how people put a body in a coffin, nail down the pant legs and sleeves so the dead don’t get up, and celebrate again in nine days so the ghost knows it can’t be part of the living anymore. Or, the acceptance that zombies are real, though rumored to be people given something that makes them seem dead and then become ambulatory again, but obedient without the ability to speak. Gods (often described like demons) are a third spiritual facet Hurston explores, especially Dumbala, the head god that all other gods report to. Oftentimes, sacrifices of animals, particularly chickens, are involved: “The second prayer was chanted and the tongue of the red rooster is torn out before it is killed with a sharp knife. Some of its blood is smeared on the wall with a cluster of feathers from the throat. The body of the rooster was placed before the alter.”

I’ll end by saying that two women in the Gathering and Gabbing book club talked about their own work in anthropology, and both confessed not immersing themselves in Haiti or Jamaica out of fear (I believe regarding emotional preparedness for the strange — to Western eyes — rituals). Sure, they had gone, but got the tourist version of these countries. Hurston, they said, was immersed in the culture and allowed to see a lot, though it’s likely much was kept from her, too.

CW: animal death for religious purposes and brief mention of cruelty to animals.

20 comments

  1. Hm, this sounds a deeply problematic book. That description of Haitian people was enough for me to question the validity of the other contents – it’s patronising and overly simplistic.
    Having just read (finally!) Their Eyes Were Watching God I thought I’d read more of her work but on the basis of your analysis, I think I can safely skip this one

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  2. Interesting. I suspect anthropology in Hurston’s time was much different than in ours. From other books I have read it seems passing judgement from a western perspective was fine. Perhaps she was trying to write like an academic since she got a Guggenheim and everything. But at the same time, I can imagine a conflict with her desire to tell stories. I suspect there is a racial component in there somewhere too. A lot to think about!

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    • I also wonder what kinds of pressure she was getting from white patrons AND black scholars about capturing the essence of a black experience unfamiliar to them. What I mean is, first, people were surprised by Zora. She’s amazing and wonderful, and where did this woman come from? So first, they had her capture stories from her home state and places with which she was familiar, as if they could get her to bottle herself. And then that spread into Hoodoo in New Orleans and then this book about Voodoo in Jamaica and Haiti. I know there’s lots of scholarship about Zora being broke and needing to appease white patrons, especially when she wrote her autobiography. There was so much hiding and dipping and wearing a mask that I wonder if Zora is someone we’ll never truly capture. And I’m okay with that.

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  3. There’s some overlap between sociology and nursing research, with shared methodologies – so I’m reasonable sure that there *are* certain qualitative methodologies in psychology and sociology that acknowledge the researcher’s influence/bias/involvement in the study. The argument is that objectivity does not exist and the researcher changes things just be being there, and by acknowledging this the researcher actually gets a “truer” picture of a group. But that has to be done carefully and rigorously – and passing comment on the character of a whole group of individuals wouldn’t fly in contemporary research (I hope).

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    • Oh! Yes! I do remember reading that just by being there, a person is changing the research. I had forgotten about that! Also, I did not know about such a crossover of nursing and sociology. I used to have a good friend who studied anthropology when he was in college, but this was almost twenty years ago and I’ve lost track of him. Franz Boas was Zora’s professor and I also don’t know which methodology he advocated and taught. It’s such an interesting topic that makes me think we can never fully know another culture. I’ve also learned that we are often blind to our own culture because we see it as a “way of being” instead of something unique, so how do we explain, or know what to explain, to an outsider.

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  4. My education was all maths/science so I didn’t do the anthropology or sociology units taken up by most Arts students, nor even Psych 1. The anthropologists of popular imagination, Margaret Meade or, in Australia, Daisy Bates, seem to have made themselves part of the culture they were studying. The idea that you can’t observe something without changing it comes from quantum mechanics I think, but it’s hard to imagine an anthropologist in a tree being studiously ignored by the subject population. So perhaps the method chosen by Huston was all that was possible.

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    • I think you’re right, especially after reading Lou’s comment. I did giggle at the idea of an anthropologist up in a tree because it makes a funny picture, but also, how would he/she even assess what they were seeing without speaking to the people of the culture. We talk a lot about Deaf culture in my classes, and now this comment thread is giving me ideas for a new post for my ASL website.

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  5. As others have pointed out, complete objectivity is probably impossible when observing others or describing their actions. It does seem though like Hurston had some preconceived ideas of these peoples. Did you get any sense of where this book fits in the anthropological world? Like do other researchers and historians refer to it or does she reference any other scholars?

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    • I do believe others refer to Hurston’s works, telling me they have significant value and that I don’t have the training to know what I’m talking about. I hope I sound like I’m positing questions as a reader and not criticisms as a researcher, because I am not one. I also wonder if it’s possible, or encouraged, for people to write about their own culture. Why don’t they? Would they want to? How fair would that work be anyway?

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      • That’s an interesting question. On the one hand, no one can know a culture as intimately as someone within it but then you also bring in all the biases and preconceived notions of your own culture.

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  6. There’s a kind of sociology/anthropology research where the researcher is embedded in the research phenomenon and reports back on their involvement, but of course I can’t think of the technical term right now. But then they are expected to interrogate their own effects on the course of the research. But this sounds like the old-fashioned, almost the colonial way, go in, report back contrasting them with one’s own (superior) ways, which feels odd from her. One for the rest of us to avoid, I think!

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    • Hmmmm, that does sound sort of like what happened. While Hurston had respect for the individuals she met, there are times when I can absolutely see how she’s comparing their lives to the Western existence, and even then she would have to see the Western existence as a Black women in a country of Black people who do not live the Western experience. The mind boggles.

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  7. I remember you talking about this book awhile ago, and it really intrigued me because zombies are so fascinating, as is voodoo, etc. A long time ago I met a scientist named Wade Davis who wrote a book about zombies. He’s written lots of stuff since, but he looked at zombies in a scientific way and the book was quite popular…I never actually read it, but I’ve always wanted to!

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    • Oh! Davis wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow! I’ve heard of him. There was another white anthropologist in Haiti who studied zombies named Reser. Zora Neale Hurston talked to him. I think I’ll check Davis’s book out. Voodoo and zombies are so different from popular culture zombies. They were more about enslavement than a virus.

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  8. What a great discussion. I did study a few (three, in fact) units of anthropology and a bit of sociology at university but let’s just say that that was before you were born so I can’t exactly remember. However, I do recollect issues in anthropology about Mead’s involvement in the culture, and critiques of that. Of course it is impossible to be completely objective, so my view always is that, whatever methodolgy you use, you need to assess whatever you are doing against your own biases and culture, as well as you can.

    BTW I like the idea of writing a “book experience” rather than a review … sometimes my reviews are a bit more like that, or sometimes I plan for them to be like that, and then I go down the review path more than I intended!

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    • I wonder if I should write more book experience posts instead of reviews, especially as I get busier with school. Basically, it takes me longer to read books when I’m doing school, so putting together a cohesive, well-argued review becomes more of a challenge. The result is a rather vanilla book review. Thanks for the encouragement, Sue. I’m going to think on this!

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