Jan 072018
 

 

Today is the birthday (1891) of Zora Neale Hurston, African-American novelist, short story writer, folklorist, and anthropologist who is known not only for her contributions to African-American literature, but also for her portrayal of racial struggles in the American South, and works documenting her research on African-American folk traditions in Florida, and voodoo in Jamaican and Haiti. She is probably best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. . Her novels went relatively unrecognized by the literary world for decades, but interest revived after author Alice Walker published “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in the March 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine.

Hurston was the sixth of eight children of John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston (née Potts). All of her four grandparents had been born into slavery. Her father was a Baptist preacher and sharecropper, who later became a carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher. She was born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, where her father grew up and her grandfather was the preacher of a Baptist church. When she was three, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida which later became the location of several of her important works. Eatonville was one of the first all-African-American towns to be incorporated into the United States (1887). Hurston said she always felt that Eatonville was “home” to her because she grew up there, and sometimes claimed it as her birthplace. Her father later was elected as mayor of the town in 1897 and in 1902 became minister of its largest church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist.

Eatonville was a place where African Americans could live as they desired, independent of White society, and this upbringing undoubtedly influenced Hurston’s political outlook. She often sided with Southern conservatives who opposed integration, seeing “separate but equal” as a positive value, given that integration inevitably exposed African-Americans to racism and discrimination. The problem, of course, as was made clear by the Civil Rights movement is that the “separate” part is easy to accomplish, the “equal” part is not.

In 1917, Hurston began attending Morgan College, the high school division of Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland. At this time, apparently to qualify for a free high-school education (as well, perhaps to reflect her literary birth), the 26-year-old Hurston began claiming 1901 as her year of birth.[12] She graduated from the high school of Morgan State University in 1918. In 1918, Hurston began her studies at Howard University, where took courses in Spanish, English, Greek and public speaking and earned an associate degree in 1920. In 1921, she wrote a short story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” which qualified her to become a member of Alaine Locke’s literary club, The Stylus. Hurston left Howard in 1924 and in 1925 was offered a scholarship by Barnard trustee Annie Nathan Meyer to Barnard College of Columbia University, where she was the college’s sole African-American student.

Hurston received her B.A. in anthropology in 1928, when she was 37. While she was at Barnard, she conducted ethnographic research directed by Franz Boas. She also worked with Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead was a fellow student. After graduating from Barnard, Hurston spent two years as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University. Living in Harlem in the 1920s, Hurston befriended the likes of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Her apartment, according to some accounts, was a popular spot for social gatherings.

In later life, in addition to continuing her literary career, Hurston served on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in Durham, North Carolina. Hurston traveled extensively in the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research. Based on her work in the South, sponsored from 1928 to 1932 by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy philanthropist, Hurston wrote Mules and Men in 1935. In 1936 and 1937, Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti for research, with support from the Guggenheim Foundation. She drew from this for her anthropological work, Tell My Horse (1938). From October 1947 to February 1948, she lived in Honduras, at the north coastal town of Puerto Cortés. While in Puerto Cortés, she wrote much of Seraph on the Suwanee, set in Florida.

Hurston never had much income from her writing and so later in life she took a number of poorly paid odd jobs to make ends meet. She worked at the Pan American World Airways Technical Library at Patrick Air Force Base in 1957, but was fired for being “too well-educated” for her job. Subsequently she moved to Fort Pierce, taking jobs where she could find them. She worked occasionally as a substitute teacher. At age 60 she was helped by public assistance, and at one point she even worked as a maid on Miami Beach’s Rivo Alto Island

During this period of financial stress and medical difficulties, Hurston was forced to enter St. Lucie County Welfare Home, where she suffered a stroke. She died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960, and was buried at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her remains were in an unmarked grave until 1973. Novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte D. Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried, and decided to mark it as hers.

Hurston has two distinct voices in her writing: one was a standard literary voice; the other was an attempt to capture the sounds and rhythms of Southern African-America speaking style. Here’s some examples of both:

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place

Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.

If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.

Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep.

At the beginning of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the lead character, Janie Crawford, returns from the Everglades, where she has shot her husband and been acquitted, to Eatonville, in ragged overalls, where all the women are gossipy and unwelcoming. The one exception is her best friend Phoeby, who brings her a “heaping plate of mulatto rice.” Phoeby notes that it “ain’t so good dis time. Not enough bacon grease . . . but it’ll kill hongry.”

The Savannah Cook Book: A collection of old fashioned receipts from Colonial kitchens by Harriet Ross Colquitt contains this recipe for mulatto rice:

Fry squares of breakfast bacon and remove from the pan. Then brown some minced onion (one small one) in this grease, and add one pint can of tomatoes. When thoroughly hot, add a pint of rice to this mixture, and cook very slowly until the rice is done. Or, if you are in a hurry, cold rice may be substituted, and all warmed thoroughly together.

Seems simple enough. I’m assuming that you use the bacon in another dish but keep the rendered fat for flavoring. On the other hand, I see no reason not to include the fried bacon in the dish.

Jul 092017
 

Here I am back again after my move from Mantua to Mandalay. I’m not sure I can get back in the swing of daily postings right away because I am still navigating deep and treacherous waters with a new job and new living situation in a country where I speak one phrase of the local language — မင်္ဂလာပါ which means “hello.” After that, all bets are off.  But today is the birthday (1858) of Franz Boas, often called the Father of American Anthropology, and I am a professional anthropologist in the Boasian tradition, so I have to honor him today. In the profession he’s sometimes known as Papa Franz, and any American Anthropologist trained in the Boasian tradition can trace a lineage back to him, through doctoral supervisors. My doctoral supervisor was James Peacock, his was Cora Du Bois who took courses with Boas at Columbia as an undergraduate but did her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley under Alfred Kroeber, who was a doctoral student under Boas. Three short generations and I am back to Boas. Boas really revolutionized anthropology in the US, and because I have spent a lifetime teaching and writing in the Boasian tradition I could obviously write volumes on his influence. I’ll try to pare it down to some simple, salient facts.

Franz Boas was born in Minden, Westphalia. Although his grandparents were observant Jews, his parents were educated, well-to-do, and free thinking, not liking dogma of any kind. Because of this background Boas was allowed to think for himself and pursue his own interests. Early in life he displayed a passion for both nature and natural sciences. He wrote:

The background of my early thinking was a German home in which the ideals of the revolution of 1848 were a living force. My father, liberal, but not active in public affairs; my mother, idealistic, with a lively interest in public matters; the founder about 1854 of the kindergarten in my home town, devoted to science. My parents had broken through the shackles of dogma. My father had retained an emotional affection for the ceremonial of his parental home, without allowing it to influence his intellectual freedom.

From kindergarten on, Boas was educated in natural history, a subject he enjoyed. In gymnasium, he was most proud of his research on the geographic distribution of plants. When he started his university studies, Boas first attended Heidelberg University for a term followed by four terms at Bonn University, studying physics, geography, and mathematics at these schools. In 1879, he hoped to transfer to Berlin University to study physics under Hermann von Helmholtz, but ended up transferring to the University of Kiel instead for family reasons. At Kiel, Boas studied under Theobald Fischer and received a doctorate in physics in 1881 for his dissertation entitled “Contributions to the Understanding of the Color of Water,” which examined the absorption, reflection, and the polarization of light in seawater. Although technically Boas’ doctorate was in physics, his advisor Fischer, a student of Carl Ritter, was primarily a geographer and thus some biographers view Boas as more of a geographer than a physicist at this stage. For his part Boas self-identified as a geographer by this time, prompting his sister, Toni, to write in 1883 “After long years of infidelity, my brother was re-conquered by geography, the first love of his boyhood.”

In his dissertation research, Boas’ methodology included investigating how different intensities of light created different colors when interacting with different types of water, however he encountered difficulty in being able to objectively perceive slight differences in the color of water and as a result became intrigued by this problem of perception and its influence on quantitative measurements. Boas had already been interested in Kantian philosophy since taking a course on aesthetics with Kuno Fischer at Heidelberg. These factors led Boas to consider pursuing research in psychophysics, which explores the relationship between the psychological and the physical, after completing his doctorate, but he had no training in psychology. Boas did publish six articles on psychophysics during his year of military service (1882-1883), but ultimately he decided to focus on geography, primarily so he could receive sponsorship for his planned Baffin Island expedition.

Hence, Boas took up geography as a way to explore his growing interest in the relationship between subjective experience and the objective world. At the time, German geographers were divided over the causes of cultural variation. Many argued that the physical environment was the principal determining factor, but others (notably Friedrich Ratzel) argued that the diffusion of ideas through human migration is more important. In 1883, encouraged by Theobald Fischer, Boas went to Baffin Island to conduct geographic research on the impact of the physical environment on native Inuit migrations. The first of many ethnographic field trips, Boas culled his notes to write his first monograph titled The Central Eskimo, which was published in the 6th Annual Report from the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1888. Boas lived and worked closely with the Inuit peoples on Baffin Island, and he developed an abiding interest in the way people lived.

In the perpetual darkness of the Arctic winter, Boas reported, he and his traveling companion became lost and were forced to keep sledding for twenty-six hours through ice, soft snow, and temperatures that dropped below −46 °C. The following day, Boas penciled in his diary,

I often ask myself what advantages our ‘good society’ possesses over that of the ‘savages’ and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down upon them. We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We ‘highly educated people’ are much worse, relatively speaking.

He went on to do field work with the indigenous cultures and languages of the Pacific Northwest which became the core of his ethnographic studies, even though he never published a proper ethnography of the peoples. His massive collections of Northwest art and artifacts are still housed in a special exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York City where he worked as a curator before taking up a professorship at Columbia university in 1899 where he remained for the rest of his career. Boas’ first task at Columbia was to organize a department of anthropology by pulling together experts from different departments who were anthropologists of one stripe or another according to Boas’ ideals. He saw the study of humanity as embracing all manner of scientific disciplines that when collected together gave a rounded, holistic understanding of the human condition.

Many of Boas’ doctoral students went on to found anthropology departments and research programs inspired by his ideas, and, as such, Boas profoundly influenced the development of American anthropology. Among his most well-known students were Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, Melville Herskovits, Ruth Bunzel, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Boas was one of the most prominent opponents of the then popular ideologies of scientific racism, the idea that race is a biological concept and that human behavior is best understood through the typology of biological characteristics. In a series of groundbreaking studies of skeletal anatomy he showed that cranial shape and size were highly malleable depending on environmental factors such as health and nutrition, in contrast to the claims by racial anthropologists of the day that held head shape to be a stable racial trait. Boas also worked to demonstrate that differences in human behavior are not primarily determined by innate biological dispositions, but are largely the result of cultural differences acquired through social learning. In this way, Boas introduced culture as the primary concept for describing differences in behavior between human groups, and as the central analytical concept of American anthropology. The concept of culture remains his enduring legacy, even though, like so many pivotal ideas of the early 20th century, it has yet to penetrate to the popular level. It has been demonstrated repeatedly and convincingly time and again that the popular conception of race has ZERO basis in biology – I mean zero. But the idea that biological races exist will not go away.  My simple definition of a racist: “Anyone who believes that biological races exist.” Period. People are people, and what unites and defines them are cultural behaviors not biological traits. Hence, nowadays anthropologists in the Boasian mode (including myself) speak of “ethnicity” and not “race.”

One of Boas’ main contributions to anthropological thought was his rejection of the then-popular evolutionary approaches to the study of culture, which saw all societies progressing through a set of hierarchic technological and cultural stages, with Western European culture at the summit. You probably know some version of this such as, stone age, bronze age, iron age. Lewis Henry Morgan in the US and E. B. Tylor in Britain had published widely accepted theories of general cultural evolution that pegged all world cultures on a fixed scale from most primitive to most modern. Boas argued that culture developed historically through the interactions of groups of people and the diffusion of ideas, and that consequently there was no process towards continuously “higher” cultural forms. This insight led Boas to reject the stage-based organization of ethnological museums, instead preferring to order items on display based on the affinity and proximity of the cultural groups in question.

Boas also introduced the ideology of cultural relativism which holds that cultures cannot be objectively ranked as higher or lower, or better or more correct, but that all humans see the world through the lens of their own culture, and judge it according to their own culturally acquired norms. For Boas the object of anthropology was to understand the way in which culture conditioned people to understand and interact with the world in different ways, and to do this it was necessary to gain an understanding of the language and cultural practices of the people studied. By uniting the disciplines of archaeology, the study of material culture and history, and physical anthropology, the study of variation in human anatomy, with ethnology, the study of cultural variation of customs, and descriptive linguistics, the study of unwritten indigenous languages, Boas created the four-field subdivision of anthropology which became prominent in American anthropology throughout the 20th century.

The four-field approach still exists in theory, but not in practice. When I was a doctoral student in the early 1970s I was expected to be minimally competent in all four fields and for my M.A. I had to take coursework in all four. Furthermore, I taught Introduction to General Anthropology, the basic anthropology course for undergraduates, which was evenly divided between the four fields. But even then the four fields were an atavism, and no one was seriously expected to do research in all four. For a time, in fact, doctoral candidates became highly specialized in their sub-disciplines to their detriment. At my graduate university the archeologists and the cultural anthropologists occupied completely separate parts of the building and rarely spoke to one another. The pendulum has been swinging back the other way for some years now as specialists in the different disciplines see the merits for their long-term goals of embracing a more holistic outlook. Archeologists, for example, who were once content to dig up and classify projectile points and broken bits of pots postulating sequences and time lines, now see the benefit of studying cultural anthropology to give these artifacts a broader context which allows them to theorize more widely about the cultural patterns to which the artifacts testify.  I don’t do any physical anthropology, but my own research and writing embraces archeology, linguistic, and cultural anthropology fairly evenly, and I see the holistic approach to culture and history as essential in understanding behavior.

Boas’ fieldwork with the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest was eye opening in that it showed that people without domesticated plants and animals (commonly called foragers) need not necessarily live in small egalitarian bands as is the norm among the majority of foragers. The Kwakiutl gathered, hunted, and fished in an environment that was abundant with natural resources, and, in consequence developed an extremely complex, hierarchical system of social organization that revolved around feasts known as potlatches whose rules of protocol and etiquette (Who sits where; what portion of an animal each receives based on social rank; the method of cooking food for different ranks; and so forth) were so complicated that key informants themselves had to spend days discussing them among themselves to make sure they had them correct before reporting them to Boas. Here’s a very small sample of his notes:

The hair seal teaches the common people [bEgwil] their place; for chiefs receive the chest, and all the chiefs in rank receive the limbs. They only give pieces of the body of the seal to common people [bEgwil] of the tribes and they give the tail of the seal to people lowest in rank [bEkwaxa]. Therefore trouble often follows a seal-feast and a feast of short and long cinquefoil roots; for when a man who gives a seal feast with many seals hates another man, he gives him a piece of blubber from the body, although he may be of noble descent; and they do the same with the short cinquefoil roots.

Salmon was caught by the Kwakiutl in abundance in local rivers and was commonly roasted over an open fire on a cedar plank.  This has become a popular method for chefs in Washington state and British Columbia.  The cedar imparts a delicate flavor to the fish which, unfortunately, too many cooks these days overwhelm with marinades and such.  There is no need for complexity here.

Soak a thick untreated cedar plank in water overnight. Prepare a hot bed of coals (or use your grill if you have to). Place the cedar plank over the coals, and when it begins to smoke place thick salmon fillets on it. Let them cook through without turning or disturbing in any way. You can test for doneness by trying gently to pry open the fillet. Serve the salmon on the plank. It will continue cooking at the table.