Voyager among gods

Eighty years ago, an African-American anthropologist stepped off a boat in Kingston, at the start of a journey to investigate Caribbean religion and spirituality. Zora Neale Hurston is better remembered for her fiction, writes James Ferguson, but her book Tell My Horse remains a fascinating record of Jamaica and Haiti in the 1930s

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

Eighty years ago, on 14 April, 1936, a forty-five-year-old African-American woman arrived by boat from New York City in Kingston, Jamaica. It was to be no run-of-the-mill business trip, family visit, or tourist outing: within days, she was hunting wild pigs in the remote Cockpit Country with the Maroons of Accompong, the descendants of runaway enslaved Africans. This was Zora Neale Hurston, the writer, anthropologist, and folklorist, whose life and career were every bit as colourful as her name, and whose flawed masterpiece Tell My Horse describes her extraordinary adventures in the Caribbean of the 1930s.

Hurston was born in January 1891 in Alabama, the fifth of eight children of a Baptist minister and school mistress. The family moved when she was three to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first self-governing all-black communities in the United States, where her father was preacher and mayor. When he remarried after her mother’s death, Hurston was sent away to boarding school, but Eatonville, with its close community structures and distinctive cultural identity, remained a strong influence. From Howard University she moved to Barnard College, Columbia University, where she was apparently the only black student. There she studied anthropology under Franz Boas, a leader in the emerging field, and was a contemporary of Margaret Mead.

Hurston’s private life was chaotic, and she rarely settled for long in a single place, but her academic interests were consistent, with an emphasis on the lives and beliefs of America’s black communities. In particular, she was interested in language and folklore, the inner existence of people who had long been repressed and marginalised, and in the linguistic and cultural vitality of the African-American world. Mixing anthropology with fiction and drama, she eroded the demarcation lines of science and literature, creating a sort of writing that was highly personal, colourful, and unpredictable. Short stories and articles bolstered her reputation as an original voice, and she befriended Langston Hughes, the figurehead of the Harlem Renaissance.

By the mid 1930s, Hurston was an established literary figure and well known in New York’s avant-garde circles. As a black woman in a white male-dominated academic world, she stood out as charismatic and challenging. It was perhaps no surprise that when she applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship she was successful: her plan was to travel to the Caribbean to study folk religion in both Jamaica and Haiti. The project was in many ways a continuation of her existing research into African-American folklore, but here she was to move into exotic and uncharted territory: the world of ghosts, vodou, and zombies.

 

In Jamaica, Hurston witnessed the intricate ceremony enacted to stop the duppy or spirit of a recently deceased man from returning to trouble the living. This ritual, she observed, was dying out among the middle classes, but “the barefoot people, the dwellers in wattled huts, the donkey riders, are at great pains to observe every part of the ancient ceremony as it has been handed down to them.”

But Jamaica, it seems, despite its Maroon communities and Pocomania cult, did not interest Hurston as much as her next destination: Haiti. This was probably because the nineteen-year US occupation of that country had only recently ended, in 1934, and Haiti had become infamous in the American popular imagination through lurid accounts of vodou by writers such as William Seabrook. Seabrook’s version of vodou was the clichéd imagery of throbbing drums and ritual sacrifice, but Hurston was more curious to investigate a belief system that connected the ancestors of slaves to their distant African heritage, and which had survived the tumultuous history of the Americas’ first independent black republic.

Tell My Horse (which appeared in 1938) contains a highly coloured account of recent Haitian politics, but is more focused on life away from the plotting in the presidential palace and, in particular, on the meaning and symbolism of vodou. Hurston’s anthropological training gave her the theoretical background to transcend the tired old clichés, allowing her to examine the religion as a coherent belief system. She travelled to the offshore island of La Gonâve and the provincial town of Arcahaie to spend time at hounforts (temples) and to observe the rites conducted by houngans (priests). She assiduously noted the huge numbers of deities contained in the vodou pantheon and the multiple circumstances surrounding the various rituals, as well as the rivalries between priests and sects. She transcribed the songs and chants used in ceremonies and tried to make sense of the complex relationship between figures such as Damballah and Papa Legba (god of the gate) and the more familiar figure of John the Baptist. “Voodoo in Haiti,” she remarked, “has gathered about itself more detail of gods and rites than the Catholic church has in Rome.”

But this was no dry academic dissertation. Hurston’s narrative style — discursive, chatty, provocative — is part travelogue, part reportage, but always focused on the individual, on the human subject. Infused with humour and scepticism, her descriptions of vodou and its practitioners are also respectful and measured. Like others before her, she was fascinated by the idea of zombies, and went some way to demystifying the phenomenon by exploring the pharmacological science that might allow individuals to be reduced to a state of near death before being revived. Her account of meeting a zombie, a woman who reappeared some thirty years after her funeral, avoids sensationalism and evokes pity:

And the sight was dreadful. That blank face with the dead eyes. The eyelids were white all around the eyes as if they had been burned with acid . . . There was nothing that you could say to her or get from her except by looking at her, and the sight of this wreckage was too much to endure for long.

For all its originality, Tell My Horse was not a success, and despite winning praise for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and her 1941 autobiography, Hurston entered a long decline of poverty and poor health. In later years she was forced to work as a maid, was sacked as a librarian, and relied on welfare payments. Thirteen years after her death in 1960, the writer Alice Walker discovered her unmarked grave. Since then, her work has enjoyed a rebirth, with new editions and fresh critical interest. With this resurgence has come an appreciation that the unorthodox folklorist came closer to understanding and empathising with Haiti’s resilient religion than many before and after her.