The 20 years it took me to find American writer Zora Neale Hurston

I met Zora for the first time, I think, in the second year of my PhD program. I didn’t really “meet” her, of course (she passed away before I was born): It was just the way my grad school friends and I used to talk about important anthropologists, whose works we pored over. I was putting together a proposal for my dissertation research, and, when one of the senior faculty members found out that I intended to study expatriate Japanese families in the U.S., he fished out a photocopied article about voodoo in Haiti by an anthropologist whose name never came up in the canonical reading list, Zora Neale Hurston. “She was a native anthropologist like you,” he explained.

I read the article immediately but wasn’t impressed. I was up to my eyeballs with fashionable theories of the time, and the idea of a “native anthropologist” struck me as anachronistic. Beyond the fact that she and I both chose to study people who looked like ourselves, her work on voodoo seemed to have very little relevance to my research interests in transnational corporate migrants. Besides, it looked like an old-fashioned descriptive ethnography devoid of theory. There was not much I could get out of her work.

I finished my dissertation research, graduated, and got a real job as a college professor. The transition from a naive graduate student to a seasoned faculty member was gradual. For years, my priority was in continuing my research, and my initial investment in teaching was more than anything else a necessity to get tenured in a private undergraduate institution. But eventually, I came to find a great deal of joy in teaching and began to experiment with a variety of teaching methods so that I could reach my students better.

When I met Zora for the second time, I was exploring the possibility of using unconventional texts to teach an introductory course on cultural anthropology. Ethnography, the traditional writing genre for cultural anthropologists, involves detailed accounts of a cultural way of life described in narrative form. Long and sometimes tedious, with seemingly excessive details, ethnography doesn’t make for an exciting read for most readers and, to borrow a phrase from a student evaluation, it is “way too wordy” for today’s undergrads. There are dozens of introductory “textbooks,” of course, and I have taught many of them over the years. But they were so rigidly structured, with new topics to tackle each week, that there was no room to explore anything to any satisfying depth.

After some searching, I turned to the works of genre-bending anthropologists: Margaret Mead’s memoir, “Blackberry Winter; Return to Laughter,” a fictionalized account of my graduate professor Laura Bohannan’s first fieldwork in Africa; Paul Stoller’s ethnographic novels, “Jaguar” and “The Sorcerer’s Burden,” and so on. Zora’s name kept coming up in my search, so finally, I sat down to read an eclectic collection of her writing.

Zora grew up in Eatonville, Fla., the first incorporated African-American town. Her carefree childhood ended abruptly at age 13 when her mother passed away. Following many years of meandering, she found her way to college and eventually became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the flourishing African-American art and literary movement in the 1920s and ’30s. She was a prolific writer, and through the pages she wrote — whether in novels, short stories, essays, an autobiography, or two nonfiction books, categorized as “ethnography” and “travelogue” among other genres, depending on whom you ask — she shows up as a person with an intense curiosity about people and their lives. In her autobiography, “Dust Tracks on the Road,” she describes her budding research career in anthropology under Franz Boas, the founding father of American anthropology. She explains, “Research is formalized curiosity … It is seeking that he [sic] who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein.”

Depictions of community gatherings play an important part in her storytelling about the lives of the Black people she grew up with and later studied as an anthropologist. Through verbal exchanges written in the so-called “eye dialect” to reflect the African American Vernacular English (AAVE), she conveys the beliefs and worldviews shared among African American communities, and the informal social interaction and verbal exchange as an essential part of their everyday survival in the Jim Crow South. Her portrayal of African American communities proved controversial among many of her peers, who worried that it reinforced negative stereotypes. She died in obscurity and her work was all but forgotten until the 1970s when her representations of ordinary African American lives gained new recognition.

Reading Zora with undergraduate students can be tricky. They are lacking in the life experience needed to fathom the truth and wisdom in Zora’s writing. They are easily confused by her elaborate storytelling techniques and miss many of the key historical references to slavery, the Civil War, Emancipation and Jim Crow laws. And yet, the stories Zora tells of herself, as well as the people she met in her life, help them understand anthropology by embodying its spirit: the curiosity about the world around us, the genuine care and interest in people’s lives, and the penchant to share what we discover with others. No ready-made textbook, even with fancy graphics and interactive websites, can accomplish what Zora has done for my students.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.