Remembering Zora, Writing Women’s Worlds

Feminist anthropologists striving to bring women’s voices forward through life histories and personal narratives and auto ethnography are “walking in Zora’s shoes” as Irma McClaurin’s title suggests (McClaurin 2011).  Although, in some circles of anthropology Zora’s work is forgotten and ignored, she pioneered important realms of anthropological study and writing.  Anthropologically informed creative writing can be traced back to Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God (McClaurin 2011: 120).  McClaurin situates her own work with women in Belize as an attempt to “witness gender through life histories” and she draws on Zora’s work as a guideline for doing so. McClaurin presents life histories as a writing technique which allows for women’s voices to come through with the anthropologist’s role as a writer becoming the finder of “de inside meanin’ of words” as Zora called it (McClaurin 2011: 122).  Zora Neale Hurston’s work represents a different way of doing anthropology which individual anthropologists have returned to in their own way.  Geertz’s interpretation of meaning through thick description, James Clifford and George Marcus’s writing worlds, and the utilization of life history and personal narrative by feminist anthropologists such as Ruth Behar, Caroline Brettell, Marjorie Shostak, and Irma McClaurin all draw upon methods and writing techniques pioneered by this frequently forgotten student of Boaz (McClaurin 2011: 121; Brettell 1999: 224-225).

For anthropologist and writers who were impacted by Zora’s work, her writing carries a personalized form of authority rooted in “situated knowledge,” which stands in sharp contrast to the “view from nowhere” or authoritative generalizations employed by many anthropologist of her era (Kirksey 2009: 150).  Zora’s “integrated strategy” of presenting situated knowledge is powerful in its own way, however, is leaves readers with a personalized sense of the author which is demonstrated by McClaurin’s as well as my own use of Zora rather than Hurston in our references to her (Emerson et al 1995: 179; McClaurin 2011; Hurston 1935, 1937, and 1938).  What degree does her personalized style of writing influence what Dr. Brettell refers to as “the politics of audience reception” (Brettell 1996: 3)?  Can feminist anthropologists of the 21st-century successfully walk in Zora’s shoes without diminishing their position within academia?  Or as the professor of my Current Anthropological Literature course, Nia Parson, asked me in response to the first draft of this post (which was an assignment for her course), can we walk in Zora’s shoes at all?

Brettell (1997: 224) explains that the recent “reconsideration” of the utility of life history in anthropological writing has emerged from feminist anthropology.  Life history brings to life women’s voices which had been previously silent in ethnographic writing (Brettell 1999: XVII).  In Writing Against the Wind: A Mother’s Life History, Caroline Brettell tells her mother’s story.  She situates herself both personally as her mother’s daughter and academically as a scholar who can provide context to Zoe Browne-Clayton Bieler’s life.  She writes, “I have both the proximity and the distance to see interest in her life and to set it into the social, historical, and literary contexts that it deserves” (Brettell 1999: XI).  Both in We Have Already Cried Many Tears and Writing against the Wind, Brettell utilizes life history to demonstrate women’s lived experiences.  In these two books, she inserted her anthropological voice and in the later her voice as daughter throughout the text creating clear distinctions of life history, anthropological analysis, and personal narrative (Brettell 1997: 227; 1999; 1982).  This multi-vocal style of presenting “situated knowledge” and analysis by employing an “excerpt strategy” gives Brettell’s writing in Writing against the Wind both personalized authority and analytical authority throughout her presentation of her mother story. Maintaining both these forms of authority is ideal for contemporary feminist anthropological writing. 

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