It’s all about Zora: Writer, Anthropologist, Filmmaker, Genius of the South, Capricorn Queen!
What’s The Word? Anthropology. Difficult to define, but we throw our ideas into the ring! We cover its history, genealogy, what we think makes something anthropological, and what Indiana Jones has to do with Alyssa’s research.
What We’re Reading. You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays by Zora Neale Hurston. We chose two of Hurston’s essays that resonated the most with us and our scholarly pursuits: We read ‘The Ten Commandments of Charm’ and ‘Crazy For This Democracy’ to explore the politics of relationships and the hypocrisy of our “ass-and-all” democracy.
What In The World?! In this segment, we discuss the timelessness of Zora’s work, how we’re still facing the same obstacles as she did a century ago, letting Anthropology burn, why two Black women graduate students shouldn’t be the only ones motivating students to stay in anthropology, the purposeful misreading of Zora’s ‘conservative’ opinions, and why you should talk about the race war in front of white people.
We were riding the struggle bus recording and editing this episode, but thank you all for this year, we’re so encouraged by your support!
Zora’s Daughters Podcast: Season Three, Episode 7
Co-Hosts: Alyssa A. James and Brendane A. Tynes
Title: We Call Her Zora
Total Length: 01:09:48
[00:00:00] [Opening Music Plays]
[00:00:30] AJ: Hey everyone! Welcome you back to Zora’s Daughters, the podcast where we share Black feminist perspectives and close read pop culture and other social topics that affect Black folks. I’m Alyssa and I use she/her/hers pronouns.
[00:00:45] BT: Hey y’all! I’m Brendane and I use she/her/hers pronouns. Today, we will dig into our discipline and our namesake: we’re gonna talk about anthropology, Zora Neale Hurston, and her legacy.
[00:00:57] AJ: Ohh, “digging in,” I see what you did there. Archeology joke? [Laughter] Before we do the heavy work of defining anthropology, we would just like to thank all of you, our listeners, and supporters. We got to hang with some of you last night, which was so much fun. We talked about what we’re leaving behind in 2023, which collectively, seemed to be “da bullshit.” We talked about cults, we talked about memes, Zora, Lara Croft, me putting my foot in my mouth, Brendane doing astrology readings, which was truly hilarious. People were like, have you been talking to my shrink [laughter]. But overall, it was really a good time getting to meet everyone and got to spend a brief—too brief of an hour together. I was playing our Home/Place playlist from one of our workshops at the beginning and that brought back great memories.
[00:01:57] BT: Which yeah, shout out to The Poetry Project for having us talk about Home/Place. It really was a great way to get some work done on my dissertation [laughter]. But yes, if you would like to support the podcast—you’re like hearing about this great discussion section that we had and you’re being like damn, I really missed out. Well guess what, there are other ways to support us. Please leave a rating and review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. It doesn’t have to be extensive; you can just write your favorite anthropologist’s name and give us five stars. That five stars is the important part!
[00:02:36] AJ: Yes, and while writing something is pretty important too, it doesn’t have to be anything special. That said, we got our 2022 Podcast Wrapped from Spotify and even though the project was stolen, it was really encouraging for us! We learned that we created 17 hours of content, that you all loved our non-profit episode, you’re listening from 41 different countries, and we were in the top 5% most shared globally!
[00:03:08] BT: Which, what? What?
[00:03:10] AJ: Exactly. Exactly. We created 91% more content than other podcasters in the same Society and Culture theme, which is pretty cool. And we learned a little bit about you. Those who are listening, apparently you would all be categorized as enthusiasts. You’re superfans so when an episode is released, you go above and beyond to support and honestly, when I read that I was like, yep, that tracks. Definitely. Because over 1000 of you have us in your top ten, and we know there are definitely bigger podcasts with millions of streams, but we believe—we are certain that we have the best listeners! Because you are curious, you’re excited to learn and be challenged, and also to challenge us. So, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you for this year!
[00:04:03] BT: Yes, we are just so incredibly grateful that you all have trusted us with our learning, your time, and we’re just so excited to continue to do this work. So, without further ado let’s get into our word. Alyssa, what is our word for today?
[00:04:27] AJ: Our word for today is anthropology, whew this is a big one [laughter]. So, we’ll start with where we so often do, the origin of the word. The word combines anthropos, Greek for human, and logos, meaning the study or to study. To me, anthropology is the scientific—ehh, scientific maybe I’m a little, maybe I’m going a little too far there—but scientific study of what makes and what has made us human. The UC [University of California] Davis website has an authoritative definition, which I say because it comes up when you Google anthropology [laughter]. So maybe not the most rigorous of authorities but it is what it is [laughter]. “Anthropology is the systematic study of humanity, with the goal of understanding our evolutionary origins, our distinctiveness as a species, and the great diversity in our forms of social existence across the world and through time.”
[00:05:28] BT: The term anthropology dates back to at least the 16th century, but scholars have identified what they call “proto-anthropological work” or early ethnographic texts in which Islamic Golden Age and Medieval scholars carried out ethnographic-like studies involving cross-cultural studies or examinations of people they considered different from themselves. Marco Polo, a Venetian explorer and writer, wrote extensively about his time travelling the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295 and has been called the father of modern anthropology. Wow, anthropology is old.
[00:06:09] AJ: It is. I mean, I thought it was Franz Boas but I guess we can go with Marco Polo [laughter]. So, that is a question anthropologists get asked a lot. How is anthropology different from travel writing or journalism? And it’s a fair question. I have thoughts about considering I was a travel writer/blogger in my life before grad school. The way I think about it is travel writing is about observing and evoking place through the senses and through desire. Which we absolutely try to do as anthropologists, but you don’t wanna get too writerly, as I guess some people would say. Some contemporary travel writing encourages insightful writing and attempts cultural relativity—talking about the culture on its own terms, but because of the consumptive nature of travel writing, it almost always falls back on exoticism. Anthropologists don’t just observe and report, we also take lessons from our experiences in order to do something. That something depends on the politics of the anthropologist. So, whether it’s to incite a shift in our thinking about something theoretical or to incite a riot—no, I’m kidding—to provide some fuel for changing social conditions. So, it was the absence of this next step—that taking it to do something—that pushed me to do a PhD in anthropology rather than considering continuing with my previous career.
[00:07:43] BT: Oh, that’s pretty cool.
[00:07:44] AJ: Yeah, it was a nice entryway. It means that I have some good writing experience and that’s often—anthropologists tell me that that’s the part they like the least. They love the fieldwork but for me I actually like the writing and I am not as big of a fan because of my deep introversion [laughter]. But last week, a travel writer, Jacqueline Kehoe, she tweeted, “Am I the only person who became a ‘travel’ writer and then realized the genre was incurably vapid, wealth-obsessed, and earth-destructive, and is seeking ways out?” I responded. I’m not really that, you know, connected to those conversations anymore, but I was like, nope, I quit to do a PhD. But I guess it’s hard to leave that line of work when you’re getting free trips and shit [laughter].
[00:08:34] BT: Look. Given where I’m at with PhD things, all I have to say is do what makes you happy. That’s all I’mma say [laughter]. Do what makes you happy. Even if, you know, other people got lots of things to say about it. And you know, nobody’s really paying for my travel. I feel like the corporate world pays for travel, academia reimburses you and there’s a big difference there.
[00:09:07] AJ: A big difference.
[00:09:08] BT: Big difference and nobody is paying for my travel right now. If anybody would like to, let me know. DM us please [laughter].
[00:09:21] AJ: Yeah, we out here trying to get flewed out [laughter].
[00:09:23] BT: We are [laughter]. Please, pls. And to touch quickly though on the journalism piece. There is some overlap, but anthropology truly believes and sees itself as a type of science. As a social science of course, until you get to some of the, I would say some economic anthropologists or some of the folks who employ quantitative methods would see themselves more leaning towards “hard sciences.” But as a socio-cultural anthropologist we are concerning ourselves with methods and data which journalism might not actually do in the same way
[00:10:09] AJ: Yeah, definitely qualitative data. And just to say, it is a major insult as an anthropologist for someone to say your work “reads like journalism.” That’s hurtful. Mmm mnm. And I’ve seen it written on a book—a professor gave me some of her books when I was, nope, I won’t say where I was. Anyways, she gave us some of her old books that she didn’t need any more and she had been reviewing this one for a book prize. And she wrote all her critiques in pen on the title page, and I was just crying for that author. I don’t think that author got that prize [laughter].
[00:10:45] BT: Yikes. But it says one thing too that anthropologists want to be relevant but not too relevant. I think that that says something about how we view academic work. Cause that’s something that my first year I had to really think about when someone read a final paper that I had written for a course and said okay, you’re writing about something that’s happening literally right here, right now, how is it different from journalism. And I really had to sit there and be like hmm is this anti-Blackness or are you trying to [laughter] push me to take theory and make it more explicit as to how Foucky [Foucault] or Judy [Judith Butler] would speak about these kinds of things.
So, that’s something I always think about. I was like anthropologists want to be relevant but not too relevant. That’s how I think about it. Well, we won’t get too deep into all of this cause I feel like we could just stop here [laughter] say we’ve defined the discipline, let’s move on. As Marxist anthropologist Eric Wolf wrote, anthropology is “the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the social sciences.” We won’t get too deep into this of course, but there are different anthropological traditions. The most common are the British school, which is often called social anthropology, which comes out of folks like A.R Radcliffe-Brown, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, and Bronislaw Malinowski; the French school, which has a less clear genealogy, but comes out of Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss—or “Mousy Mouse”—and Claude Levi-Strauss. The French tradition also differentiates between ethnology and anthropology, the former of which typically deals with folklore and comparing and contrasting different groups of people.
[00:13:03] AJ: We probably need to talk about ethnography but we’ll save that for another day!
[00:13:08] BT: Definitely! And finally, the U.S. school of anthropology, or cultural anthropology, which owes its existence to folks like Edward Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, and of course, Franz Boas. He already showed up here today. Franz Boas, who was Zora Neale Hurston’s mentor, is typically understood as having defined the four-field model of anthropology in 1904, whereby anthropologists are meant to be addressing culture, language, archeology or “the anthropology of the past”, and the biological development of humans. Definitely retain that last one because it’s a big clue for who we’re gonna have for our next episode.
[00:13:52] AJ: So, our students ask us about social versus cultural anthropology, functionalism, and structuralism and whew, I’m stumped every time. Please don’t ask [laughter]. Our degrees are in sociocultural anthropology now because we don’t make these deep distinctions anymore—not really. Probably post-Writing Culture, which was an edited volume published in 1986. That text changed the game and had us focusing on culture as a text, the interpretation of culture, and all of these other little sayings that anthropologists love. Love to repeat, love to use. So, that’s what the internet and received wisdom say about anthropology. But Brendane, I would like to ask you, without the subtly racist microaggression that it usually comes with, what is anthropology for you and what makes your work anthropology or anthropological?
[00:14:54] BT: Oh, so what is anthropology for me? Anthropology for me is something that needs to be—let me use Aimee Meredith Cox’s words. So, I think we need to do away with anthropology with a capital “A,” alright? So, the discipline, it’s conventions and the whiteness—the white-supremacist of it all, the anti-Blackness of it all. But anthropology with a lower case “a” is, for me, is a study that allows for me to take what is familiar and make it strange. To take the familiar anti-Blackness, misogynoir, and gendered violence that Black people experience, right, and make it something that’s actually strange. To move away from the normalization of that violence. And so, my work does that. It looks at what is seen as normal Black life and says actually what are the ways that this is actually abnormal or constructed? And I think that is what makes my work anthropology, that I’m really, really critical of these constructions. Particularly the ones around Black womanhood and Black femininity. But, you know, Alyssa, you already said that anthropology is the study of what makes and has made us human but what is anthropological about your work?
[00:16:31] AJ: Ah, yes. It’s funny, our discussion section actually is what’s helping me answer this question. The conversation that we had last night brought up Lara Croft and it reminded me that my aunt used to love Indiana Jones and my aunt would make my brother and me popcorn or other snacks, we’d cozy up and watch the movies on VHS. And even though my project centers coffee and heritage, my scholarly question is about what it means to resurrect a relic of the colonial past. Which of course sounds like an Indiana Jones plot, right? At least if it was set in the “exotic” locations, Africa or the Middle East or something. But in my case, the relic isn’t a fossil or an antiquity like an archeologist might be interested in. It’s the genetic descendant of a unique coffee plant. At a high level, I could say I’m looking at the collision of material biohistory with contemporary social change.
[00:17:45] BT: Alyssa and I have our own ways of coming to it but anthropology would not exist if it weren’t invented to figure out how to make the African Black, right, and how to subjugate the African. So, they literally developed anthropology through the measurement of our ancestors’ skulls and their bodies, so this is something that we have to hold—and also the ancestors of indigenous peoples all over the world, I also don’t want to exclude them from this. So, this is something that we have to hold as we move through this discipline, alright. We cannot release that history in an attempt to do something do without that being said. Now that that’s been said, lets move on to our anthropological trailblazer, Zora Neale Hurston, in our segment, What We’re Reading. So, what are we reading today?
[00:18:50] AJ: We’re reading You Don’t Know Us Negroes by the woman who has been called a contrarian, a provocateur, an iconoclast. She was known for walking around Harlem and measuring people’s heads to call back to what Brendane was just saying. We call her Zora. Now usually we give a biography of whoever’s text we’re reading. How can we sum up Zora Neale Hurston in a paragraph? It’s impossible so we’re just gonna take what other folks have said and we’ll kind of chat about her later. Zora Neale Hurston, born January 7, 1891, and died January 28, 1960, was an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker. She portrayed racial struggles in the early-1900s American South and published research on hoodoo, among many other things. The most popular of her four novels is Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. She also wrote more than fifty short stories, plays, and essays. So, we’ll sum her up the way Alice Walker did: a genius of the South.
[00:20:07] BT: A true Capricorn queen! I just admire her so much. We are doing things a little bit differently today for our What We’re Reading section. Usually in this segment, we read a single book, or chapter, or paper and come up with collective insights and summaries, but today we actually chose different essays from You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays that we thought best highlighted some of Zora’s best qualities and spoke to our own scholarly interests. So, Alyssa and I will be talking about different essays in You Don’t Know Us Negroes.
[00:20:53] AJ: Alright. I, to be honest, interpreted scholarly very broadly! [Laughter] I read a lot of the essays in there to choose this one. I was debating through a few different ones. I really liked the irreverent satire of Marcus Garvey in “The Emperor Effaces Himself,” I enjoyed the travel writerly “Bits of Our Harlem,” and I thought the essay that everyone who watched the Woman King should read, “The Last Slave Ship,” was very timely. Instead, I settled on the “Ten Commandments of Charm.” So, I’m gonna talk about my essay, Brendane will talk about her essay and then yeah, we’ll see what happens. We’ll see what kind of magic we can create together.
So, much to many Black writers of the times’ chagrin, Hurston did not shy away from writing about love, relationships, and sexuality. Richard Wright panned Their Eyes Were Watching God, he said that her prose is “cloaked in the facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley.” He said that she pandered to white fantasies; her rebuttal was that too many of these Negro writers pandered to white guilt, depending too much on the tragic Negro trope in their stories. She said, “Only a few self-conscious Negroes feel tragic about their race.” And of course, there’s her famous line, “I’m not tragically colored.” She was interested in the Black quotidian, and one of the ways she speaks to that is through the relationship between men and women.
“The Ten Commandments of Charm” is a satirical essay—and it’s a listicle actually, so it’s quite short. And I think it would be worthy of today’s Cosmopolitan or one of those other magazines about sex, dating, and relationships. She begins by saying that a woman without a man cannot possibly happy, so the ways to charm a man include being cheerful, being coy, only talking about him, trusting him blindly, making him laugh, and be feminine not too independent. Though she seems to be telling women how to behave to get a man, she is actually critiquing men’s facile and shallow ways. These silly tactics are a joke to show how juvenile and how easy to manipulate men are and can be [laughter].
[00:23:22] BT: Look, I was about to say, no lies detected [laughter].
[00:23:30] AJ: So, there are two reasons that I chose this essay. First, it shows her dexterity of her writing styles—she was a funny woman, this is well documented—and manages to write in this very flowery biblical way. “Forget not the first law of conversation, which is, thou shalt not talk about thyself; nor the last law, which is, help every man to express himself brilliantly! Thus, shalt thou be accounted a ‘fascinating conversationalist,’ though thou utterest not a single word.” As you can see, I did not do reading, I was not in bible study [laughter] at church—the way I stumbled over all of those thous and thys and Fs! Second, the other reason I chose this essay is because it was written in the 1920s and ain’t a damn-muthafuckin-thing changed! Like, when I was dating, I would sometimes pretend that everything the person said was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard, I would affirm them regardless of what they said they were doing in life. My second date requests were probably 98%.
As Zora writes, “Remember a man’s vanity to keep it nourished…he that departeth full of self-admiration will come back for more.” GIRL! And full disclosure, full disclosure, Devin, my fiancé, he claims that I did most of the talking on our first date but that’s probably because he was sucking down shrimp at Barawine and I wasn’t eating because I had already eaten [laughter]. But anyways that’s a whole other story for another day. So, I think this shows how well Zora—how well she did with observing behaviors and observing men and thinking about how they relate to women, how we can take advantage or like move through the world without being—how shall I put this?—without being overtly dominating and things like that. She was very much—she was one of those people who was like I know how to play white people; I know how to play the game. Like, they may think that they’re the ones in power but really, I’m the one that’s in control. And I think that this shows that she felt this way about men as well.
Another reason I like this essay for our times is that some cishet women today, especially those in the divine femininity camp, they would not see this as satire. It’s why context matters. A lot of people don’t know this, but Hurston was married three times and with the man who inspired the character Teacake in Their Eyes Were Watching God. All of them were younger than her. She wrote this essay about a year before her first marriage in 1927 to a jazz musician. She was never with any of them for more than a few years. And I think she was someone who wanted companionship but didn’t want the constraints of being a traditional wife, which she talks about in Dust Tracks on a Road. And that could be why she was with younger men: they were probably still in their party phase—or whatever the equivalent was in the 1920s—they weren’t really in need of someone to keep a home, and she left them as soon as they started having that expectation of her.
Another essay in this volume, ‘The Lost Keys of Glory’ speaks to, I think, her ambivalence around gender roles and the possibility of being a scholar and a spouse. It resonated with me as I’m of course working through this transition of identity, being in this liminal space of fiancée—I’m not a girlfriend, not yet a wife. And really, I bristle at that latter word [laughter]. I’m just like, ugh, god. But to sum up, I think that romantic relationships are a scholarly preoccupation of mine—even though that’s not what my current research is about—because of how much of a preoccupation they are for so many people. I’ve never not been able to bond with someone over dating or over our relationships and I find it odd that it’s not seen as a more serious rigorous intellectual pursuit in anthropology. Because really, we spend a lot of our time, mate—I mean the way that we mate as well is something that is particular, that makes us human. And we spend a lot of time thinking about, seeking out, and developing our relationships.
[00:28:11] BT: Yeah, I think that that is like one of the interventions of like a queer anthropology—is to actually say that scholarship is not just what you consider to be typically kind of scholarly pursuits. It’s not just about the economy, it’s not just about what people are singing about or talking about, this kind of folklore. It’s also literally about the relations that we have with each other that create the world in which we live. And I think queer anthropology really does a good job of actually saying romantic relationships play a role in how we understand the world. And so, I don’t know if its like –if I would call it like maybe a cis-normative thing that people don’t really wanna talk about relationships in that way but in all of the texts that I’ve read by queer anthropologists and Black queer anthropologists like that questions of love and loving and the power relationships within that are at the forefront along with whatever other topics they wanna discuss. Because, like you said, there’s not too many books that are—anthropological books that are just about love or mating. And I guess one book that I would say that is, is Gloria Wekker’s Politics of Passion. That one—anyway. Anyway, I’m not even gonna go there because that’s one of my favorite books. But that one, I think, is a good one too.
[00:29:57] AJ: Yeah, I think that like, who we love or who—for queer folks, like who we love is part of what defines who we are, right? So, it makes sense that within queer anthropology relationships do end up kinda like—they end up being the central—one of the central objects of observation in order to understand other things. But, in any case, so what did you read, Brendane?
[00:30:30] BT: Yeah, I read “Crazy for This Democracy” and “I Saw Negro Votes Peddled.” Both ten out of ten, five stars down—[laughter] five stars down—five stars and—
[00:30:47] AJ: Five stars, ten toes down.
[00:30:50] BT: Five stars, ten toes down. Sorry y’all, I am a little sick, so my brain is just like, what’s going on. But I, for the sake of time, I’m not gonna go too much into I Saw Negro Votes Peddled. I think you all should find a copy of this book and read that and ask yourself what is so different about what is happening in the 1870s, the 1950s–when Zora Neale Hurston is writing the essay—and what the Democratic party is doing to us now. That’s all I’mma—that’s my push to read that. But for the sake of time today, I will talk about Crazy for This Democracy. I thought it would be really good to set us up for our conversation that we’re gonna have in the What in the World section. In Crazy for this Democracy, Zora has her characteristic voice, her characteristic wit, and her characteristic Capricorn foot on everybody’s necks. And she begins with this quote that I’m just gonna read out because really, honey, it hit me.
So, she says, “They tell me this democracy form of government is a wonderful thing. It has freedom, equality, justice, in short, everything! Since 1937, nobody has talked about anything else. The late Franklin D. Roosevelt sort of redecorated it and called these united states the boastful name of the arsenal of democracy. The radio, the newspapers, and the columnists inside the newspapers have said how lovely it was. All this talk and praise giving has got me in the notion to try some of the stuff. All I wanna do is to get hold of a sample of the thing and I declare I sure will try it. I don’t know for myself, but I’ve been told that it is really wonderful. I heard so much about global world freedom and things like that that I must have gotten mixed up about the oceans. I thought that when they said Atlantic charter that meant me and everybody in Africa and Asia and everywhere. But it seems like the Atlantic is an ocean that does not touch anywhere but north America and Europe.”
And so, with that—those first few sentences, those first couple of paragraphs, right—she actually sets up the problem of democracy for Black people in the US and aligns us with people of the Global South. She says they keep talking about this democracy but I wanna taste it, I wanna see it, girl where you at, right? And she says I’ve never tried it. And so, for democracy to be something that is talked about publicly as something that’s available to all in the west, right, she calls this the Atlantic charter—which was a part of this speech that Franklin D. Roosevelt, that she mentioned earlier, talked about was democracy is endemic to this Atlantic charter. But she talked about the way that the Atlantic only seems to touch North America and Europe, so democracy only seems to be in places like North America and Europe. And with that she aligns us with folks in Africa, with folks in parts of Asia, with folks in parts of Europe as well who don’t have these experiences, which we would today probably label as the global south. And so later on she says that she must’ve misheard FDR when he said arsenal of Democracy, given how Democracy is defended through millions—and now billions of dollars—in war and how it’s actually lived out the captivity of peoples throughout the world. And so, she says, he must’ve meant “Ass-and-all” of Democracy [laughter]. Which, when I read that, that sent me.
[00:35:12] AJ: Leave it to Zora to not hold back [laughter].
[00:35:14] BT: Like, that shit sent me. I was like, not ass-and-all of democracy. But [clears throat] I’mma take it, and that’s what I’m gonna call it from now on when people call me or text me asking me to vote. We’re tryna defend the ass-and-all of democracy. And then [laughter] she says, “That must be what he said for from what is happening on that other unmentioned ocean, we look like the ass-and-all of democracy. Our weapons, money, and the blood of millions of our men have been used to carry the English, French, and Dutch and lead them on the backs of millions of unwilling Asiatics. The ass-and-all he has, has been very useful” [laughter]. So, it’s like she’s using these jokes to really bring home the point that what we see as democracy really is not the esteemed ideal that we believe it to be because of the way that we enact these values across the world through war, through the millions but now billions of dollars that we spend. She connects this like throughline of her essay, which is that these wars of democracy are wars of imperialism everywhere except Africa. Democracy actually doesn’t touch the continent of Africa. Instead, Africa is referred to as the source of raw materials. And she says, “Have we not noted that not one word has been uttered about the freedom of the Africans? The Ass-and-All Democracy has shouldered the load of subjugating the dark world completely.”
And so, I feel like Zora Neale Hurston and Joy James would have some deep conversations—some deep philosophical conversations about democracy and what it means actually for Black people. And I myself, if I were talking to Miss Zora, I would say, you know, it’s time to divest girl. It’s time to divest, right. And she actually goes on to make the argument that if Democracy is as good as everyone says it is, if it tastes as sweet as they say it tastes, then in the US Jim Crow laws should be appealed. And so, she moves into this metaphor of likening anti-Black racism to a disease that is deep in the blood that puckers up on the skin as bumps and blisters like segregation. And all the doctors want to deal with the bumps and blisters, right, they wanna deal with the segregation, they wanna pass laws that deal with the more topical effects of anti-Black racism, but they won’t administer the medicine that would rid us of the disease.
She says that all of those solutions that involve like moving to the North, right—so we hear that from Black people and otherwise, right. That, oh, well, if you don’t wanna, you know, face racism, you just need to move somewhere else, you need to leave the US, you need to leave the South, you need to do that. And she actually calls them dumb. She says all these stupid assumptions that moving is gonna actually change the quality of your blood in relationship to the disease. Like moving is actually not gonna do with the social smallpox of anti-Black racism. And that’s her word, social smallpox. And so, what do we do then, right? She actually gives what I thought would be a really interesting—I guess name to add to her book, right—is actually people don’t really read Zora Neale Hurston as a philosopher.
And I think that might be an interesting way to explore her for those of you who do philosophy. Like read her as a philosopher. Cuz people take up W.E.B. DuBois, but they don’t really talk about Hurston and the way that she sees the world as important. But for Hurston, anti-Black racism in the form of Jim Crow laws actually serve a psychological purpose and so we must dig deep in order to get rid of them. So, what they do is they actually reaffirm to white people that they are great simply because they are born. Alright, so seeing a Black person sitting at the back of the bus or being mistreated repeatedly throughout life naturalizes the subjugated place of Black people Alternatively, on the other edge of the sword—of this double-edged sword, right. For Black people, those daily constant humiliations actually reaffirm their lower status, “so that they are convinced that competition is out of the question, and against all nature and God. All physical and emotional things flow from this premise.”
And so, Zora, she might actually wanna be in some conversations with some afro-pessimists too in thinking about the ways in which the world stems from this double-edged sword of anti-Blackness and white supremacy and what it does to uphold democracy and uphold our society. But at the end of the essay, she gets back to wanting to taste this democracy , wanting to be a part of this—what she calls gorgeous thing. But she says that the only way to do that is through the appeal of Jim Crow laws and not in some future generation. For she says that Hurstons have waited eighty plus years for this to end, to repeal now and forever. And so, I think even seventy years later we’re still waiting. We’re still waiting for these things to change, and I thought that this would be an excellent segue to our What in the World.
[00:41:46] BT: What’s happening?
[00:41:47] AJ: Where do we even start? So many things. So many things going on. And one of the most obvious that we can talk about is the way that we are still facing—I mean what’s interesting about both of these texts is they are, they’re both timeless. Like how is it that it’s been a hundred years. Seriously. I’m not sure when that—when your essay was published but mine was published in like 1926 or something, so it’s been nearly a hundred years since Zora was writing. But what she’s saying is incredibly insightful to the times that we’re in right now. We’re still facing the same obstacles that she was facing when she was in grad school. We’re still facing these. I mean we still have people who are deeply invested in the concept of democracy despite the fact that it’s built on our subjugation.
And things may have changed shape—the obstacles themselves may have changed shape but they’re fundamentally the same—we’re still facing issues around funding; we’re still facing issues around people supporting our work and arguing about whether or not we’re being rigorous and telling us that we have to do it on their terms and not ours. And I think Zora was someone who was always nudging the edges of those boundaries that people were creating in order to fence her in or contain her. I mean we think about Charlotte Mason, her benefactor who had a say on what and how she published. And even Boas. I mean we look at Franz Boas as her mentor, but he was someone who was like, well you, if you’re gonna be an anthropologist, you have to write ‘empirically’. And I think her style of storytelling, of using the folklore to make insights and incisive comments about the world, I think that was a way of getting around those expectations. And it’s like, you know, it’s kinda the playing out of her skill of playing white folks. She was able to play them in a sense to do what she wanted but always in a very like subtle—in a subtle way.
[00:44:18] BT: Yeah. And it’s—hmm, I’m like do I say what I wanna say or do I just talk around it? I think it’s really [laughter]. It’s really fascinating to see and to feel, especially those parallels as you’re reading. And so not just to like intellectually be like, damn, this shit the same. But to really sit there and be like, damn this shit the fucking same. And like [laughter] literally the difference might be that, you know, instead of leaning on Charlotte Mason as a benefactor we’re asking Wenner-Gren or Columbia financial aid, you know, for just a few more dollars to be able to make it through. And also, I think one major difference I would point to is just the sense that like—I don’t know actually. Is that a difference? Cause Zora felt a lot of animosity from the Harlem community, right. So, she—the reason why she died in poverty was because she was written off by the Black male writers of her time who decided that her work was too—what did you say Richard Wright?
[00:45:46] AJ: Sentimental.
[00:45:47] BT: Sentimental, right. Just like all those other Black women that wrote in the past, Phillis Wheatley. And it’s like, but why do Black people—why can’t we hold on to our sentiments and still be great? And also, Richard Wright’s work—I mean bigger Thomas was basically—you know what, I’m not even gonna make this about him. I’m not gonna center him in this. But I, yeah, I think about that a lot. Like being, walking the halls at Columbia and thinking like, wow, Zora Neale Hurston was walking on this land and this land was stolen—one is being stolen from people in Harlem but also been stolen from, you know, the indigenous ancestors of that land. And to read her work and to know that a lot of the same kind of preoccupations that she had and the obstacles that she had are still around, just really deeply felt. In ways that, for me, bring up Ryan Cecil Jobson’s call about burning the discipline, letting the discipline go. Because if we can just keep running in these cycles every century, you know, what’s the point? What’s the point? [Laughter]
[00:47:12] AJ: After we did that entire, here’s anthropology, here’s why we do anthropology, we’re also like, let it die [laughter].
[00:47:22] BT: I know. This is ambivalence. This ambivalence. And it’s like something that you—
[00:47:27] AJ: But it’s not so much about letting it go, right? It’s also thinking what can we create out of the ashes of this discipline that’s hella problematic.
[00:47:36] BT: Mmm hmm. And it’s like, what parts are actually repairable and what parts do we just need to say, you know what, throw the baby out with the bathwater [laughter].
[00:47:53] AJ: Oh, I think Jobson would argue throw the whole baby out [laughter]. I mean its that argument of reform, right? Okay, so we reformed it but the bones, the structure, are still there, so by letting it burn it means we need to get this all. We need to get it out. We need to be done. We need to be done with this and move on and create something different, maybe not even out of the ashes. Maybe I’m misreading that. That essay definitely caused a shit storm. And then, at the same time, we saw that reform trying to happen. People were really talking about that essay, which is called “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn,” for folks who are like, what are you talking about? That of course caused a lot of discussion, a lot of conversation, and then what happened? Wenner Gren organized a panel around that very topic. Which is essentially this like recuperation of what was essentially a radical idea. And there we go, that’s capitalism, that’s big academia, whatever you wanna call it. As soon as something challenges the status quo, they think about how can we incorporate this into what we’re doing in order to not actually have this radical idea come to fruition or to have it come to fruition under our terms in a way that will be beneficial for the most people in power.
[00:49:30] BT: Yeah. And it’s that incorporation of this—oh my gosh I was about to use this Deleuzian term, and I don’t even know Deleuze like that. But [laughter] these kind of like, you know, lines of flight or whatever. And so, this like, you know, they never can really go too far from the center. There’s always—the center will shift in order for it to incorporate them. And so, I think it’ll be interesting to see in the years to come, as the world continues to unravel where anthropologists particularly those who see themselves as radical or see themselves as doing new world building work place themselves. Because what would it look like if all of us said, you know what, F this discipline and we’re just gonna run off, fugitive, whatever you wanna call it and make our own discipline that, and you know, was what Black Studies was supposed to be but I’m not gonna go down that road today either. Like we’re gonna make our own discipline and do our own thing. And how do we gatekeep, how do keep ourselves safe in that space, right? How do we make sure it’s not a space that’s gonna have those same kinds of capitalistic, anti-Black values that just run rampant in the academy.
[00:51:05] AJ: No, I was gonna say that there are people who argue that Zora Neale Hurston’s work is what open the door for there to be a Black Studies. I mean, she’s very—first and foremost she’s recognized as a novelist but when it comes to her and anthropological work, she is—people really do talk about the work that she did in the American, in the US South. But she also did do research in Haiti and in Jamaica. And I think you brought it up nicely and brought it out nicely that she did see Black Americans as being aligned with other folks of what we now call the global South.
[00:51:42] BT: Yeah.
[00:51:43] AJ: But I cut you off.
[00:51:44] BT: Yeah, I know. Yeah, like if you want to talk about a work that is gesturing toward a kind of solidarity, like Zora Neale Hurston did that. And she didn’t do that and with the fanfare of some of her male colleagues, right? She literally in one sentence was just like it seems the Atlantic Ocean only touches North America and Europe.
[00:52:12] AJ: And a lot of her counterparts we’re very focused on Europe. I mean a lot of—Richard Wright, he was in France. And a lot of Black, especially male, Black intellectuals and artists we’re moving to France and trying to think about like, oh what a life in France would be like and not really addressing. I think James Baldwin did this but not really addressing the U.S., the American privilege that they had. Because Black people in France, French Black people, French Africans, French Caribbean people were not—they weren’t having that same kind of treatment as the Black Americans. But one of the things I think we should talk about, to go back to what I’m saying about us facing the same obstacles, and it came up last night but people said to us, you’re the—this podcast, you two are the only reason I’ve been able to get through this last semester or the reason that I didn’t drop out is something that we heard from people at the AAA’s as well. Saying you know because of this podcast I didn’t drop out of grad school, or you know, you all are getting me through these semesters and getting me through the texts that I have to read, and I mean your response summed it up. What did you say?
[00:53:41] BT: Yeah. I’m deeply honored when folks say that the labor that Alyssa and I do that is actually something that they’re able to use as motivation, as—what’s the word I’m looking for here? As a place of comfort, right, or just a place to feel community as they do the very hard work of academia. And academia is hard cuz it’s like it doesn’t have to be but Sayre’s law shit, right. The psychological violence that we experience as people who are getting a degree for a job just really blows my mind. But one thing that we discussed last night in our discussion section, our Zoom with ZD, was that even though we’re honored to do this work it should not be too Black women that are propping up this discipline for folks, right. We should not have to do that kind of work. And I think it is a sad reflection of where anthropology is to where people of color, Black people, queer folks, Black Trans folks, who want to do the important work in their communities right, feel like the only people that are going to help them along and support them along in that are two relative strangers on a podcast, you know.
[00:55:29] AJ: Right, right.
[00:55:30] BT: And so, what does that say about our discipline and where it’s headed I when people cannot find community and place that approximate to them? And we’re happy to build places of community but there has to be so much more. And so, yeah, that’s also kinda my frustration right now. It’s just like maybe we just all of us who are trying to like do shit just say, okay we used to be anthropologist but now we’re XYZ over here on our free university, school giving talks or something. I don’t know. I’m just like, it should be just us in the lives of these folks doing this kind of work.
[00:56:17] AJ: Yes. As much as we love it, it’s encouraging, and I agree it’s an honor. At the same time, it’s an indictment of the discipline and of academia in general.
[00:56:30] BT: Right. Yeah, we should not have to create these—
[00:56:34] AJ: Because, and, you know what? I, actually, I think—you know what I imagined graduate school to be like? The—and maybe this is just because I watched too much TV and read too many books when I was younger, but I thought that I would have a built-in group of people where we would get together, led by a professor or different professors and we would just talk. We would discuss ideas and, you know, obviously, clearly this is way too lofty an expectation of academia, but I think that’s how things were before. And I hear that in some of the ways that my older professors talk about their experiences with either their supervisor or with a mentor that they had. It produces a different kind of scholarly life. I think right now we are knowledge producers and before, who knows, six years ago say, they were there producing intellectuals if that makes sense.
[00:57:45] BT: That does. And I think that is an important distinction and could be something that like somebody, somewhere, who’s doing this probably already, right, could track along the kind of corporatization of the university and all these things. So, when you move away from thinking of academic work as a kind of conversation that you have among scholars to now this is a business, this is something that you produce, you know, I got to have the best-selling book at University of Chicago Press. I just ran the first thing that came to mind, you know, whatever.
[00:58:24] AJ: One of the things that I came across while I was, you know, looking more into Zora and Zora’s life—which is another thing, which was something we talked about with the professor earlier this year. Which—who do we call by their first name, right? Like it’s very—we don’t really. We don’t call Franz Boas, Franz. We call him Boas or Franz Boas but for the most part people will call Zora Neale Hurston, Zora. So, but that’s another conversation for another day. However, John McWhorter, who we’ve talked about on this podcast before, he is a professor at Columbia, and he calls her America’s favorite Black conservative. And I think that shows how misunderstood she was and still is. Although, with him I think it’s probably a purposeful misread. Don’t at me bro but [laughter]. Anyways, don’t at me. I think, you know, of course for him it’s like how convenient would it be for one of the only canonical Black woman writers to be conservative. I don’t think these two people are on the same planet, right? Like Hurston’s opinions came out of a skepticism of whiteness, a skepticism of being compared to white people, a desire to be separate and equal. Whereas John McWhorter he talks like someone who is in favor of integration because he wants to be like white people. I’m not going to say what I actually wrote cuz [laughter] I’m tryna have a job one day [laughter]. But I feel like his interest is in being like white people, you know. Not being Black and having equally funded schools, programs, housing, and opportunities. And so, just because she says that race pride is “a luxury I cannot afford,” it doesn’t mean that she was post-racial. You know, Zora was interested in Black dignity, in being defined on our own terms and not in relation to white people. And I think that is the big—that’s the key distinction between Black conservatives and Zora Neale Hurston’s way of seeing the world
[01:00:48] BT: Yeah. I think there’s definitely—and something that you were talking about earlier—there’s like definitely a way to be subversive, right. To be kind of like the spy in that sense of just like yeah, I’m in your world but I’m not of it. I know you better than you know yourself. I know myself I better than you know me, better than you ever will, right. And I know how to navigate that space. And I think Black women academics, by and large, you know, as a group, that we have to do kind of consciousness work all the time. We have to know the white and non-Black people in our departments that are safe to speak to. And we also can’t, unless it’s safe for us to do so, right, signal to them that they are unsafe. Or else we will be unsafe. And so, this—what she talks about is race pride as a luxury, I really read that as that sense of consciousness right. So not just saying that, you know, I’m not proud to be Black, right, but just to say like to be openly Black and prideful of that in certain spaces is a luxury and sometimes it’s a gendered privilege. And oftentimes the Black men who had this “race pride,” it’s actually much more of like self-hate shrouded and race pride, right. Because the moment they have an opportunity to have a biracial baby or be married to someone who’s not Black, right, as a way to ascend, they will do that, right? And then it becomes rewritten as this kind of like uplifting of self and because the Black—the category of the Black—collapses gender, right, we sometimes read that as the uplift the Black community. Which I think is what’s happening a lot with the certain rapper right now, right, as we watch him unravel.
So, I think it’s something that’s really, that folks who study Zora’s work and her as a figure, something that they really take into account right is it’s not just her Blackness that allows her to be subversive in these different spaces, but it’s quite literally her position as a Black woman and that kind of reflexivity and consciousness that comes with that. That allows for her to write things as clever, as insightful as these essays that we that we read and still produce films and all, like all the other amazing things that she did. Things that we really did not see coming from Black men at that time. Black men [laughter], my partner and I have this joke that’s not really a joke. It’s based on all of my qualitative observations. But when it comes to men in general, all men have to do is exist and everyone else has to, like everyone else has to go above and beyond because all men have to do is exist. And particularly in Black, certain Black communities. I’ll say in my research, right, there is like this idea like Black men don’t have to really help or be a part of community organizing or really do any work. They just have to be. They don’t even really have to be there. They don’t even have to be present. They can just have to exist. They just have to be some nigga you know. And it’s like, oh he gets credit for doing these things. But you can be a Black non-man, right, you can be a Black woman and have all of these different jobs and all of these different things that you do, all these different things that you put forth and still die in relative obscurity and poverty. That is something that it’s so amazing to think about. And amazing not in a good way but just like, wow, like that is the power of patriarchy in our communities. I don’t know how I got on this. I’m gonna stop but [laughter] I just, like I just think about that every fucking day [laughter].
[01:05:46] AJ: It speaks to that disappearing Black male thing. Vulnerable but physically vulnerable, not in the emotional sense. You’re vulnerable to death, vulnerable to imprisonment, vulnerable to all of these things so as a community we’re kind of raised to shield and protect them from those things. And if that means them not being present in order to avoid these kinds of violences, then it’s all good. That’s what needs to happen. But in any case, if you—well we actually talked about this last night, I’m just going to go back to what you were saying. When, you know, when you’re in your department and you need to know which white people are safe, which white people are not, how you can signal to them that they’re not. We talked about this last night. I will say something about a race war [laughter] and I observe very closely their reactions. And for some reason when you say race war to white people you can tell which ones have Black friends. You can tell which ones have been around Black people. And I don’t know why. I don’t know why it works. That’s also how we got into the conversation of me putting my foot in my mouth so maybe don’t be like me [laughter]. Be more like Brendane [laughter].
[01:07:14] BT: Yeah. I’m going to say I really honestly don’t have a good litmus test. I just be sitting and watching people and that’s how I know. But I also honestly don’t spend enough time around white people to understand y’all. I, now that I like have a job where I work with a lot of white people—and they’re great white people, I think they’re like very nice and making me realize just how much of an isolation, like how isolated I was writing my dissertation and the drawbacks and the positives to that. And that’s something that I’ll leave here just in case one of them listens to this. But yes, that is all we have for y’all today! Thank you all for listening. This episode was produced by Alyssa James and Brendane Tynes and distributed in partnership with the American Anthropological Association. This season of the podcast is generously funded by a grant from the Arts & Science Graduate Council, the Heyman Center Public Humanities Graduate Fellowship, and donations from listeners just like you.
[01:08:39] AJ: Thank you all for your support! I hope that you enjoyed this episode because I did drive down to a coworking office so that I could record this away from the crickets and cicadas. So, if you liked this episode, if you thought this episode sounded great, please share it via social media, via WhatsApp, just start playing it on the loud, like really loud in your car. And of course, we would love to hear what you have to say about this episode, so be sure to follow us on Instagram at zorasdaughters and on Twitter at Zoras_Daughters. We’d especially love to hear if you wanna add something to our definition of anthropology. For transcripts, syllabi, and information on how to cite us or become a Patron to access exclusive content, visit our website zorasdaughters.com.
[01:09:33] BT: Last but certainly not least, especially in times like these, please remember that we must take care of ourselves and each other. Bye!
[01:09:43] AJ: Bye!
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