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.