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Vodou Inscriptions of the Self in Zora Neale Hurston’s Haitian Ethnography
November 18, 2019 @ 3:00 pm - 4:00 pm
Zora Neale Hurston’s 1938 book, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, recounts her two years of fieldwork research on African-derived religions and other cultural practices in the Caribbean. Though it has received plenty of attention since being republished in 1990, Tell My Horse is still Hurston’s most complicated, least understood book. Her inscriptions of self are frequently debated in conflicting scholarly assessments and in this talk, Dr. Meehan tries to make sense of Tell My Horse by placing it in the context of five centuries of travelogue writing about Haiti from French as well as Spanish, British, white American and African American authors. Haitian vodou is also important with its wide-ranging cultural, political, and historical contexts, especially when unpacking the book’s title. “Tell my horse” is actually an English rendering of the phrase “Parley cheval ou” that is uttered by vodou practitioners to announce the onset of possession by the spirit of Papa Gede during a vodou ceremony. This reference to the vodou lwa of social protest is pivotal for sorting out Hurston’s own narrative politics and seeing how she uses the cultural logic of spirit possession to affiliate with vodou, push back against the cultural logic of imperialist travelogue from Columbus down to Herskovits, and, in the process, decolonize ethnography at a transitional moment in the history of anthropology as a discipline.
Dr. Kevin Meehan is professor of English at the University of Central Florida. He is the author of People Get Ready: African American and Caribbean Cultural Exchange (University Press of Mississippi, 2009), and numerous articles on literature and decolonization in the Americas. His recent scholarship includes articles on small farming as climate change adaptation in the Caribbean, and he is developing a book-length project analyzing climate change adaption through the framework of environmental humanities. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the Organization of American States, and in 2017-18 he was a Fulbright Scholar in Residence at the Clarence Fitzroy Bryant College in St. Kitts, in the Leeward Islands.