In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Zora Neale Hurston and Visual Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Primary Sources
  • Biography
  • Film and Photography
  • Performance
  • Literary Studies

Anthropology Zora Neale Hurston and Visual Anthropology
Autumn Womack
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0224


In 1925, shortly after arriving in New York City, Zora Neale Hurston enrolled in Barnard College. There she studied anthropology under the mentorship Franz Boas, an opportunity that also fostered close working relationships with Melville Herskovits and Margaret Meade (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies entry Zora Neale Hurston). During this time Boas, along with white patrons such as Charlotte Osgood Mason and African American institutional leaders such as Carter G. Woodson, sponsored Hurston’s fieldwork. At the behest of Boas, Hurston famously recorded anthropometric measurements of African Americans in Harlem and under the direction of Woodson she traveled to Alabama in 1927 to record the story of Cudjo Lewis, the last-known living survivor of the Middle Passage. Upon graduating, Hurston returned to the American South with the directive to collect oral history, folklore, music, and accounts of everyday black life. As she traveled through Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana, Hurston kept meticulous written and visual documentation of the stories she heard, quotidian habits that she observed, and the rituals she bore witness to. Together, Hurston’s formal disciplinary training and her investment in the study of black culture engendered a unique perspective on black “folk” life informing an experimental methodology that would direct much of her research and writing for the first half of her career. Scholars working in fields as diverse as African American studies, literary studies, and anthropology have long recognized Zora Neale Hurston as a pioneering anthropologist who deftly negotiated her desire to produce an authentic account of African American folk culture, the disciplinary boundaries of early-20th-century anthropology, and her own subject position. In addition to announcing a method of participant observation that blurs the line between objectivity and subjectivity and between the documentary and the imaginative, Hurston was also an innovator of visual anthropology who labored to visualize the complexities of African American life. To do so, she mobilized visual approaches to study anthropological subjects (such as photography and film) and saw visual culture as worthy of social scientific study. Beginning in 1928, Hurston regularly recorded footage of the communities that she lived among and studied. While she initially shot the film herself on a 16mm handheld camera, she eventually commissioned a professional team to capture footage of quotidian black life (see also Wagers 2013, cited under Film and Photography). Hurston also regularly photographed her subjects. These images made their way into her writing, as is the case of Tell My Horse, but just as often they remained unpublished. Likewise, Hurston deployed visual metaphors such as the “spy glass” to describe her precarious position as a trained anthropologist studying black folk life. The extant visual record blurs the line between seemingly objective and imaginative, between narrative and scientific, and between evidentiary and entertainment. Recognizing Hurston as a pioneering visual anthropologist nuances the robust body of scholarship on her literary practice and the steadily growing research that aims to secure Hurston’s key contributions to the field of anthropology.

General Overview

Hurston’s relationship to visual anthropology should be understood within the context of theories of visual anthropology, as well as her engagement with anthropology’s key methods and frameworks. General overviews of Hurston and anthropology most often begin with her formal training at Columbia University and her relationship to Franz Boas, her professor and mentor. Anthologies such as McClaurin 2001 highlight the myriad strategies Hurston pioneered as she labored to negotiate anthropology’s methodological and epistemological constraints, while proving black folk culture’s dynamism. From the outset, McClaurin announces Hurston as a progenitor of black feminist anthropology, a framework that attends to the intersectional practices of black female anthropologists who, she argues, worked to dismantle the field’s racist and sexist dynamics. Hurston’s capacity to negotiate, adapt, and transfigure anthropology’s key methods (such as participant observation and its forms, ethnography) is a theme that underpins almost all of the scholarship on Hurston. To date, it is nearly impossible to locate a piece of Hurston scholarship that does not attend to her as both literary figure and anthropologist; that is, the dynamic interplay between ethnography and fiction that buoys all of her work. These works link Hurston’s status as pioneering anthropologist to visual anthropology’s methods and goals. Theorizing Hurston and visual anthropology also means considering Hurston’s problematic and often contradictory construction of the “folk subject” in both published and unpublished texts, as Carby 1990 does. Because attention to both Hurston and visual anthropology is a relatively new critical endeavor, works in this section all provide historical background on the methods of visual anthropology as they emerged at the turn of the 20th century. Griffiths 2002, Rony 1996, and Ruby 2000, for instance, provide detailed accounts of how in their investment in recording and preserving the past and reliance upon the power dynamics underpinning spectatorship and the gaze, anthropology and visual media came to rely upon each other. Griffiths 2002 and Rony 1996 also theorize the important place of film and photography to Boas’s and Meade’s work, both of which deeply influenced Hurston. Collectively, the texts here either explicitly or implicitly demand that we see early anthropology’s construction of the native and visual media’s commitment to authenticity as mutually constitutive.

  • Carby, Hazel. 1990. The politics of fiction, anthropology, and the folk: Zora Neale Hurston. In New essays on their eyes were watching God. Edited by Michael Awkward, 71–90. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Reading across Hurston’s oeuvre, from Mules and Men to Their Eyes Were Watching God to Tell My Horse, Carby critically attends to Hurston’s construction of the “folk.” Noting Hurston’s task of negotiating the boundaries of anthropology and her own identity as a southern black woman, Carby nonetheless moves away from romanticized readings of Hurston and toward the contradictions that emerge between her identity and the construction of “the subaltern subject” (p. 36).

  • Griffiths, Alison. 2002. Wondrous difference: Cinema, anthropology and turn of the century visual culture. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Shows how of anthropology and cinema developed in concert at the turn of the 20th century, and the cultural and historical contexts that informed this relationship. Griffiths argues that locations such as the World’s Fair, the natural history museum, and photography worked in tandem with anthropology’s key terms to establish professional and popular viewing protocols.

  • McClaurin, Irma, ed. 2001. Black feminist anthropology: Theory, politics, praxis, and poetics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    Argues for Hurston’s formative role in the history of anthropology in general and an intersectional black feminist anthropology in particular. While she does not discuss Hurston’s visual practices in particular, this framework is useful for understanding how Hurston negotiated her relationship to visual technologies (e.g., the camera) and their deeply sedimented relationship to highly racialized viewing practice and the ways in which these practices contribute to intersectional black feminist praxes.

  • Rony, Fatima Tobing. 1996. The third eye: Race, cinema, and ethnographic spectacle. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822398721

    This foundational study attends to the intersecting worlds of popular culture, social science, visual technology, and representations of the ethnic “other.” Rony addresses canonical and little-known early ethnographic films to argue that the project of producing “real” and “authentic” visual records of native bodies has been at the center of anthropology’s binary driven narratives of race, history, and progress. The conclusion considers how Hurston’s own films (discussed in the Primary Sources section) evince challenge the ethnographic gaze and challenge anthropologies binary logic.

  • Ruby, Jay. 2000. Picturing culture: Explorations of film and anthropology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Focusing primarily on ethnographic film, this collection is an important introduction to the key questions, terms, and themes that underpin the field of visual anthropology. In addition to attending to pioneering ethnographic filmmakers, Ruby also explores the genre of the research film and raises key questions about how the very genre applies to the broader field of ethnography. Again, while Hurston is not explicitly mentioned, this work provides an important foundation from which we can understand Hurston’s practice.

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