New book highlights Zora Neale Hurston’s work as an anthropologist

Credit: Chloe L. Marshall

Credit: Chloe L. Marshall

“Ain’t I an Anthropologist” illuminates iconic writer’s academic contributions.

Beginning when she was an undergraduate at Spelman College, Jennifer Freeman Marshall has devoted most of her academic career to exploring the anthropology of Zora Neale Hurston.

Raised in Eatonville, Florida, Zora Neale Hurston’s work as an author, anthropologist and filmmaker illuminated the culture of Black people in the South, making her one of the most iconic authors of the 20th century.

But her work wasn’t widely recognized until after her death in 1960 when Black women writers like Alice Walker lifted her work from obscurity in the 1970s. The late Valerie Boyd, a former arts editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published “Wrapped in Rainbows,” a landmark biography on Zora Neale Hurston, in 2003.

Familiar with those efforts, Freeman Marshall, who’s an associate professor of English and women’s gender and sexuality studies at Purdue University, quickly learned there was more to Hurston’s story that deserved to be uncovered.

She recalled when she was a student at Spelman reading Huston’s acclaimed novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” about a Black girl’s complicated journey to adulthood and self-discovery.

“As I was reading, I remember being really impressed with the story but also equally interested in all of the folklore that was included in the novel and wanting to learn more about how Hurston’s anthropology informs that work,” said the Atlanta native, who holds a master’s in anthropology from Georgia State and a doctoral degree in women’s studies from Emory.

Such was the impetus for Freeman Marshall’s book, “Ain’t I an Anthropologist: Zora Neale Hurston Beyond the Literary Icon” (University of Illinois Press, $27.95), which publishes Tuesday, Feb. 28.

In “Ain’t I an Anthropologist,” Freeman Marshall compares how scholars perceived Hurston’s work in literature and anthropology between the 1970s and the 2000s. While some did recognize her impact in anthropology, others viewed it as problematic and unreliable.

“When I began to study those interests in graduate school, I was surprised to see Hurston’s anthropology was really not well received,” Freeman Marshall said. “I knew she had significant economic difficulties that somehow complicated her field work and made difficult her abilities to publish her data, and I know her peers like Richard Wright didn’t think much of her work. They didn’t think it was serious or political enough, but I was really surprised to find that those mixed reviews about her life were actually carrying over into some of the contemporary discussions about her anthropology.”

Credit: University of Illinois Press

Credit: University of Illinois Press

Freeman Marshall’s book seeks to challenge notions that dismiss Hurston as an authority in the field by highlighting her approach to anthropology, which included uplifting the experiences of people she worked with while underlining the intricacies of Black culture.

The book also includes a deeper dive into the folklore Hurston documents in her books “Mules and Men” and “Tell My Horse.”

“I think this book can be another way of knowing what has gone before with a figure who has been really acclaimed and yet still was up against all of these kind of constraints in a different discipline in perhaps ways we don’t know about,” Freeman Marshall said.”

More notably, Freeman Marshall hopes the book helps readers understand how the groundbreaking contributions from an iconic writer like Hurston can be completely ignored.

“When it comes to Hurston, know that she really worked to represent (Black people) as complex and distinctive with Black culture and Black experiences. I think readers of Hurston’s literature and anthropology generally know that, but I think understanding the behind-the-scenes of what’s happening in scholarship should help them understand a bit about how people get read into and out of canons.”