The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to relaunch the second semester of an ongoing series The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project, which will mobilize anthropological work as a pedagogical exercise addressing the confluence of race, policing and justice. You can see a growing bibliography of resources via our Mendeley feed. In this entry, Ashanté Reese discusses teaching from Zora Neale Hurston’s writings to explore many dimensions of blackness.
In my Introduction to Anthropology course, I always teach “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” published by Zora Neale Hurston in 1928. Invariably—it seriously never fails—a student becomes intrigued, offended, or confused by this:
Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you. The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential slave said “On the line!” The Reconstruction said “Get set!” and the generation before said “Go!” I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep. Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it. No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost. It is thrilling to think—to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame. It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep.
A lively conversation commences around a set of questions: what does it mean for Hurston to seemingly disavow her connection to slavery? How are we to read her tone? What, if anything, makes you squirm in your seat about this particular section of the essay? Students debate, become defensive, and essentially struggle with that part of the text. I gleefully watch. My students are not unlike many who grow up learning about Black lives almost primarily through the yoke of slavery and the incessant struggle to get free. Even though the majority of them move through life in Black bodies, in the classroom there is sometimes a disconnect between what they have learned before college and what they have lived. Essentially, my students struggle with what many do: seeing the full and expansive humanity and complex feelings of Black lives. It is not that they don’t believe Black people feel. On the contrary, it is that it is sometimes hard for them to conceive of how to theorize or understanding those feelings without enslavement being the central focus of the narrative.
In “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” Hurston recounts a story in which an enslaved man possesses extraordinary intellect. But in the eyes of the slaveholding white man, there was no way a Black man could possess the necessary components of “culture” to be a meaningful asset outside enslavement:
Yes, he certainly knows his higher mathematics, and he can read Latin better than many white men I know, but I cannot bring myself to believe that he understands a thing that he is doing. It is all an aping of our culture. All on the outside. You are crazy if you think that it has changed him inside in the least. Turn him loose, and he will revert at once to the jungle. He is still a savage, and no amount of translating Virgil and Ovid have done is going to change him. In fact, all you have done is to turn a useful savage into a dangerous beast.
Isn’t this how many of us who work under the academic panopticon in black, female, queer, gender non-conforming, and disabled bodies have been characterized or made to feel? As dangerous beasts with book sense that is of no use without an ability to possess or mimic white culture, which apparently has a monopoly on feeling, reason, and care? Hurston goes on to say:
But for the national welfare, it is urgent to realize that minorities do think, and think about something other than the race problem. That they are very human and internally, according to natural endowment, are just like everybody else. So long as this is not conceived, there must remain that feeling of unsurmountable difference, and difference to the average man means something bad.
My appreciation for Hurston’s work is deep. She was a great writer, thinker, and innovative ethnographer, yes. But fundamentally, her work forces—no, skillfully invites us—to learn that caring for black people means making space in our ethnographies, our fiction, and our classrooms for a range of emotions related to and experiences of blackness—even within a context of ongoing fights for freedom and justice. Hurston’s work continuously reminds me that there is a delicate balance between fighting for justice while also allowing the very necessary space for tongue-in-cheek critiques of one-dimensional understandings of blackness. If our movements include expansive visions for our lives that include rage, joy, love, sadness, etc., when we finally “get free,” will we have lost our chains at all?
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1928 (1991). “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” in Bearing Witness: Selections from 150 Years of African-American Autobiography. Ed. H. Louise Gates. New York: Pantheon Books.
—. 1950 (2000). “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” in African-American Literary Theory. Ed. W. Napier. New York: New York University Press, pp. 54-57.
Ashanté M. Reese is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Spelman College where she teaches courses in qualitative research methods and food studies. She is currently completing a book manuscript on food access, race, and class in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Urban Health and the Journal of Homosexuality. Her writing have also appeared on The Feminist Wire and the Society for the Study of Food and Nutrition’s blog. In the spirit of tackling new feats (and avoiding broken bones), she has declared 2017 as the year she will finally learn to use the brake while rollerblading.