Printer Friendly

Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and the postcolonial gaze.

IT'S ALWAYS INTERESTING TO SEE HOW the besieged organizers of literary conferences sort out file piles of proposals they're given into more or less coherent panels. I was particularly challenged to see this paper assigned to a panel called "Iconography," in part because the main thrust of my argument here is to show how the photographic activities of two of the South's most famous sociological and anthropological investigators, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, encourage a rethinking of postcolonial theories of the photographic gaze, away from iconographic readings of how subjects are constructed by colonial visions, and toward what might be called more broadly iconologic readings of images in a relation or exchange. Despite various degrees of emphasis on interaction, mimicry, and re-vision, in most iconographically based theories of colonial vision, the identitarian lines between the colonized and the colonizers remain fairly rigid. Hurston and Wright's photographic efforts invite a critical rethinking of these boundaries and a complex account of what and how may be theorized a (post) colonial gaze. Members of the African diaspora who were thoroughly conscious of themselves as objects of the dominating, colonizing, racializing gaze of white America, they also self-consciously wield the "spyglass of. anthropology," the mighty pen and camera of the traveling writer, to visit "foreign" lands as, to more or less extent, representatives of the Western colonizing world. Coming from the U.S. South (the perpetual colony/land of the body colonizers), from African roots, their representative status is perhaps doubly vexed. This paper offers some preliminary speculations about the extent to which Hurston and Wright, in their distinct photographic strategies and products, and as Southerners, enable a reformulation of the subjugated/elite, object/subject, one-that-signifies/ one-who-signifies binarisms that undergird current discussion of postcolonial modes of looking. So while there's plenty of iconography to be considered, it is more properly what W.J.T Mitchell distinguishes as "iconology"--the study of the discourse around images--that is involved here. (1)

Hurston and Wright are most often paired as ideological opposites, especially in matters of rhetorico-literary strategy, yet recently each has been recognized for his and her important contributions to the field of visual anthropology: Hurston for her photographs of Haiti,Jamaica, and African-American Southerners, and her rediscovered filmic anthropology; Wright fox" his photo-text 12 Million Black Voices, (2) and (as John Lowe has recently examined) his extensive archive of annotated photographs intended to accompany his later travel writings on Spain and Africa. (3) Visual anthropology, however--especially as it is practiced through photography--is one of the most fraught topics in postcolonial criticism. There is space here only for the most basic outline of this controversy. Stemming from Said's characterization of the Western will to power as a "unitary web of vision," studies like MalekAlloula's The Colonial Harem (4) and Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins's Reading National Geographic (5) echo theories such as Kobena Mercer s determination that photography "lubricates the ideological reproduction of 'colonial fantasy' based on the desire for mastery and power over the racialized Other." (6) Photography provided a powerful technology for anthropologists to construct and enforce colonial ideologies of racial hierarchy. The camera, in much of this theory, is inherently a "master's tool": the structurally inherent framing action of photography, to use Abigail Solomon-Godeau's words, "offers a static, uniform field in which orthoganals converge at a single vanishing point," conferring a position of visual mastery upon the spectator, and relegating the viewed to the status of an object which exists solely to confirm the subjectivity of the master-viewer. (7) Under this theory, any "native" who picks up the camera, for whatever purpose and to whatever end, is by definition participating in the colonial structures of domination that oppress him (Figure 1). (8) That colonial anthropological photographers found a certain humor, or maybe even comfort, in this phenomenon, is perhaps evidenced in how many of these types of shots there are--it would be interesting to do a more extended analysis of this sub-genre of colonialist photography. More recently, with the scientifically "objective" eye of the camera thoroughly debunked (at a theoretical level at least) and so clearly aligned with the colonial gaze, formerly standard practices of photographic anthropology have been discredited, to the point that many major anthropological studies in the last decades contain few if any photographs at all.


A second strain of investigation, practiced by theorists as divergent as Minh-ha, Mulvey, Butler, and bell hooks, builds on theorizations by Fanon, Bhabha, Lacan, Foucault, and others to offer a response to Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak's "Can the subaltern speak?" (10) (This is most often a version of "how the subaltern speak.") Here it is Western theorizations of the camera that constrain postcolonial subjective expression. Deborah Poole (in Vision, Race, and Modernity) (11) among others has criticized theoretical genealogies that elide the complex colonial contributions to creating the photographic "terrain of the other" (to use Alan Sekula's terms, qtd. in Poole, p. 140). The supposedly transparent, rigorous attention to the formal attributes of the camera actually masks a second colonizing gesture, the elimination of even the theoretical possibility of non- or anti-colonial expression by those historically "othered" in colonial anthropological practice. The theoretical framing of photography in the dualistic terms of subject/object, masculine/feminine, colonizer/colonized developed from a distinctly Western, imperialist tradition: these supposedly inherent attributes of the camera are in fact signifiers whose cultural meanings are determined by the culture in which they are read and from which they derive and, as such, are open to re-activation or re-reading by other cultural groups. Evidence of these re-readings remains critically under-theorized, although Poole's study of photographic practice in colonial and postcolonial Peru, Rey Chow's analysis of Chinese cinemas and Judith Gutman's Through Indian Eye. (13) demonstrate varied productive approaches.

Reading Hurston and Wright's work with photography in light of these theoretical legacies and debates reveals the theories' adequacies and shortcomings. First there are questions of identity. I will start with what everyone at this conference will agree is the most important aspect: Hurston and Wright are Southerners. As I have analyzed elsewhere, the U.S. South has a complex, contested relation to photography and this body of theory. For reasons that vary widely between black Southerners and white, the highly visual culture of the South is most often identified, and self identified, as an oral culture. (14) I argue that for white Southerners this is in part due to photography's perceived role in enforcing the perceived colonial status of the South within the rest of the nation--the legacy of Yankee outsiders coming south with their cameras and broadcasting defeat, poverty, and brutality during what David Madden has identified as "three major photographed periods in Southern history--the Civil War, the Depression, and the civil rights era. (15) Madden postulates a Southern "attitude" against photography arising from the "outraged sensibilities" of (presumablywhite) Southerners in file face of these "outsider" photographs (p. 11). African-American Southerners such as Hurston and Wright would certainly he familiar with this dominant rhetoric, but would add another colonizing, othering legacy of images of objectification and violence encompassing everything from racist advertising to lynching photographs. Anthropological photography in the South ranges from Louis Agassiz's commissioned daguerreotypes of South Carolina slaves, to photographic eugenics "family studies," to, more broadly considered, Farm Security Administration photographs that, while considerably more sympathetic in content toward black Southerners, were nonetheless put to various racist uses (Figure 2). These government-sponsored images directly influenced Hurston's and Wright's work in different ways, which I'll explore further below. My broader point is that the "verifying" role of photography in anthropology, the role of anthropology in legitimizing visual categories of "race," and the violence with which racism has played out in the South would be enough to cause apprehension about photographers, photographs, indeed about the visual in general among African-American Southerners. I believe that this in part helps account for the overwhelming preference for oral, auditory metaphors for theorizing African-American literary expression, for example. In any case, both Hurston and Wright were from a young age acutely aware of the white Southern colonizing gaze upon them, as virtually any page of their collected works reflects. Under this gaze, black Southerners such as themselves firmly represent the objectified, colonized body, fulfilling the fantasy of mastery for Southern whites, and Northern ones too.


Given these theoretical and historical legacies, it's perhaps surprising that Hurston or Wright engaged with photography as extensively as they did. (There's an entire, fascinating counter-legacy that makes this less surprising, but that's another paper.) Of the two authors, only Hurston did photographic work that could be strictly considered anthropological her graduate training under Franz Boas at Columbia lends her pedigree in this field. Wright's influences were more sociological, in particular from the Chicago school of sociology, and Wright famously criticized the type of folkloric anthropology Hurston pursued and used to inform her own fiction, comparing it to minstrelsy and Uncle Tom-ism. (17) Soon after the 1940 success of Native Son, Wright embarked on a collaborative photographic project with Edwin Rosskam, one of the chief photographers and photo-editors working for the Farm Security Administration Photo Division. Along with FSA photographer Russell Lee, Rosskam photographed the Chicago east side in 1941 (with at least some entree and guidance from Wright) and began the process of choosing from the FSA's files of 65,000 photographs from around the U.S. which photos would best illustrate Wright's accompanying text, to be published later that year as 12 Million Black Voices. The work's subtitle is "a folk history of Negro Americans," and in retrospect it's hard not to read this as signifying on the type of folk work Hurston had made famous. The photographs in 12 Million Black Voices are used largely as analogic illustrations of Wright's Marxist-inflected history of African-American colonization, northern migration, and continued oppression. The first lines of text, clearly addressed to a white gazing audience, evoke the legacy of racist vision within the U.S.: "Each day when you see us black folk upon the dusty land of the farms or upon the hard pavement of the city streets, you usually take us for granted and think you know us, but our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem" (p. 10). The photo-text amounts to a re-narrativization of the FSA photos, which had been previously narrated in multiple ways for multiple causes, most often in ways that quite literally wrote African Americans out of the picture (Figure 3). Initially created in a spirit of expose and support for government economic programs, the photographs are remounted here as an explicitly racial critique of white colonialism of the black body and spirit. Significantly, though he co-sponsored a youth photography contest in Chicago in 1941, Wright takes up the camera himself only once in 12 Million Black Voices; there seems to be an implicit acknowledgment that the government photographs best, or at least adequately, represented the reality and legacy of black life. They are meant to serve, unproblematically, as evidence. But, as photo-historian Nicholas Natanson reveals, (18) some manipulation was necessary to make the photographs match Wright and Rosskam's message: the young girl in Russell Lee's photograph titled Kitchenette Apartment, Chicago, 1941 irreverently sticking out her tongue (Figure 4) has that same tongue retouched out of the picture in 12 Million Black Voices, to better illustrate Wright's indictment of her living conditions.


By contrast, Zora Neale Hurston often traveled with and used a camera as one of the tools of her anthropological trade. The spirit of Hurston's collecting varied widely from Wright's: she was working to transform representations of her subjects from "tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences" (21) to powerful creative, complex beings. Beginning in the later twenties Hurston traveled to her native Florida and throughout the South collecting images and folk speech. Her photographs are scattered at various archives, including some of her anthropological film-work compiled at the Library of Congress. The last decade has seen increasing acknowledgment of Hurston's foundational role in filmic anthropology and the ways her particular technique--which ranges from static wide shots to handheld angles from within dance groups to mock anthropological head shots--anticipates postmodernist anthropological practice, visual and otherwise. As many critics have noted, Hurston in her visual and written anthropology searched for techniques that would embody African-American expressive culture on its own terms, while also avoiding, as she told Langston Hughes, "loop-holes for the scientific crowd to rend and tear us." (22) Sieglinde Lemke has argued that although Hurston blurred generic boundaries in her anthropological work, her "faith in 'pure objectivity' remained unshattered" (p. 173). Hurston takes up the camera for revisionary purposes, but very much with a faith in the precepts of anthropology and (at least implicitly) in photographic anthropology.

So both Hurston and Wright take up the camera in the U.S., though always from a position of the colonized other, taking up the dominant technology as a sort of counter-discourse and re-vision. What's particularly fascinating and troubling for postcolonial theories of the gaze, I think, is the moment when Hurston and Wright step off U.S, soil, taking their cameras with them, to document and analyze other colonized lands. Where do we place these authors in a schematic based on clear lines between colonizers and colonized? The tension in this moment clearly registers in each author's works, particularly Hurston's Tell My Horse and Wright's Black Power and Pagan Spain. In my remaining space I'll offer a few, I hope suggestive, remarks about the complexity and tension of their respective positions and strategies.

There are no actual photographs reproduced in Wright's 1954 travel narrative Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos, (23) a book in which Wright recounts his cultural and political observances about the Gold Coast or Ghana and the then-ascending politician Kwame Nkrumah. But cameras appear as a recurrent motif in the book, functioning as the catalyst for some of Wright's most direct confrontations of his own contested status as an African American returning "home" to Africa. This time it is Wright wielding the camera, presumably as one of his "tools" for uncovering the significance of everyday "folk" culture, but this time Wright, as he repeatedly insists, is traveling and photographing as a self-described "uneasy member" of the Western world. In a speech to Nkrumah's followers, Wright summarizes the common legacy of Western exploitation that binds Africa and its "lost sons," but the key question of Wright's text is a version of Countee Cullen's "What is Africa to me?" The form and stance of the narrative fairly flash the signs of traditional Western colonialist discourse: though Wright depicts himself squirming through an evening with real colonialist businessmen, he ultimately includes himself in their company: as he lectures an African acquaintance, "I'm black, ... but I'm Western; and you must never forget that we of the West brought you to this past. We invaded your country and shattered your culture in the name of conquest and progress. And we didn't quite know what we were doing when we did it" (p. 288). Even more than the sun helmet he wears or the burly chauffeur he hires to drive him through the jungle, Wright's camera figures his own Western, colonizing gaze. The Africans recognize it as such: shirtless women cover their breasts (their trained response to colonialists) when Wright passes with his camera, and women and children surround him, even chase him for blocks, making the ambivalent demand, "Take me, take me!" (p. 330). His attempts to take photographs get him mocked, swindled, threatened, and propositioned. Significantly, the photographs themselves are not included in the text. This is most likely due to a publisher's economic decision, but their absence has file additional effect of highlighting the discursive, rather than physical, nature of photographic colonialism.

In contrast, Wright never mentions the camera he carries during his travels recounted in Pagan Spain, (24) published in 1957. John Lowe has insightfully analyzed this text in his recent article, "Richard Wright as Traveler/Ethnographer," so I won't say much about it here. But thanks to Lowe's efforts in the Beineke Library at Yale, we are able easily to access a few of the images Wright intended to include in this text, again thwarted by a publisher's decision. Though he identifies with the oppression of the Spanish people, especially non-Catholics and women, under Franco's police state, and likens their condition to that of African Americans in Mississippi, Wright also reads the signs of Spanish popular and religious culture for genetic evidence of Western imperialism and oppression. His careful taking, collecting, and annotating of these images, it seems to me, mirrors a colonial anthropological gesture, all the more pointed for its reversal of Spain's original position in the transatlantic exchange.

Perhaps because it is a work presented explicitly as anthropology, Hurston's Tell My Horse (1938) (25) does include actual photographs along with several brief accounts of the author wielding a camera. It is clear from these episodes that Hurston often carried a camera with her in the Caribbean as part of what she called "the spyglass of Anthropology." (26) Hurston's camera functions within Tell My Horse as a rhetorical sign that places Hurston in both an outside (anthropological) and inside (African-descended) relation to her Haitian and Jamaican subjects. Elsewhere I have developed a reading of Hurston's discursive play with the camera in her text, where she seems both to question and to claim photography's ability to represent the real of African spiritual traditions, most notably in her story of photographing a zombie and her inclusion of one of the photographs. (27) Interestingly, however, it is not only Hurston's photographs that illustrate Tell My Horse:. roughly half of the photos, and almost all that seem to be of active, ongoing voodoo ceremonies, are identified as taken by Rex Hardy, Jr. The little I've been able to find out about Hardy so far is that he was a Time Pix photographer, most certainly white, who photographed a wide range of journalistic subjects and seems to have been in Haiti at roughly the same time as Hurston, in 1937. There is no mention of any photographer accompanying Hurston in either her or others' biographical accounts I've read, but Hurston does repeatedly rail against the colonialist misreadings of the several other professional and amateur analysts of Haitian religion, and against empty "hoodoo" dances held for tourists. It's possible that Hardy photographed such dances or services, on separate assignment, and that Lippincott bought his photographs to better illustrate Hurston's text. The problem is that at an iconic level, it's hard to tell the difference between Hurston's photographs such as The Drums Woke Up (Figure 5) and Hardy's (Figure 6), although generally Hurston's are more intimate photos of people she knows and writes of in the text, such as the Mambo Etienne, or the bathers at the sacred spring, Saut d'Eau. I'm eager to hear of any correspondence between Hurston, her publishers, and/or Hardy regarding photo selection for Tell My. Horse, but for now I'll leave it with the possibility that I like best: that she, near the peak of her career, had some voice in the selection, and deliberately chose to include the Hardy images, perhaps to add another layer of ambiguity to the photographic project of the text.


The very icons that Wright and Hurston choose to incorporate are thus in many cases the exact ones so clearly used in the service of colonialist, or since these are later years, postcolonialist visions. This suggests that any simple notion of iconography--not even one that accounts for resistant or oppositional readings--will not serve as an interpretive schema of the ambivalently postcolonial gaze that theses authors bring to their respective photographic works. Neither, I think, will any account that posits an essential structure either of cameras or vision, or of the colonizer/colonized divide. What we are left with, it seems to me, is an economy of gazes and their representative images that, though never a free trade zone, is in the business of crossing borders as much as building them.

(1) Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

(2) Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (New York: Viking Press, 1941).

(3) See Lowe's "Richard Wright as Traveler/Ethnographer," in Richard Wright's Travel Narratives: New Reflections, ed. Virginia Whatley Smith (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001). Extended commentaries on Hurston and antbropology include Elaine Charnov, "The Performative Visual Anthropology Films of Zora Neale Hurston," Film Criticism, 23 (Fall 1998), 38-47; Sieglinde Lemke, "Blurring Generic Boundaries: Zora Neale Hurston: A Writer of Fiction and Anthropologist," REAL, 12 (1996), 163-177; Karen Jacobs, "From 'Spy-Glass' to 'Horizon': Tracking the Anthropological Gaze in Zora Neale Hurston," Novel: A Forum on Fiction, 30 (Spring 1997), 329-360; Hazel Carby, "The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston," in New Essays on "Their Eyes Were Watching God," ed. Michael Awkward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Fatimah Tobing Rony, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996); and Gwendolyn Mikell, "When Horses Talk: Reflections on Zora Neale Hurston's Haitian Anthropology," Phylon, 43 (September 1982), 218-230.

(4) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

(5) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

(6) Kobena Mercer, "Looking For Trouble," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 352.

(7) Photography at the Dock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 180-181.

(8) I use the male pronoun pointedly. In an expanded version of this paper, I will address the gendered implications of this theory, usually elided in postcolonial theorizations of the "third world" relation to photography.

(9) Special Collection, St. Louis Public Library

(10) "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Larry Grossman (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271-313.

(11) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.

(12) Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemparary Chinese Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

(13) New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

(14) In my forthcoming manuscript, Ordering the Facade: Photography and the Politics of Representation in Contemporary Southern Women's Fiction.

(15) "The Cruel Radiance of What Is," Southern Quarterly, 22 (Winter 1984), 9.

(16) Library of Congress.

(17) Richard Wright, "Between Laughter and Teats," New Masses, October 5, 1937, reprinted in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds., Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (New York: Amistad, 1993).

(18) The Black Image, in the New Deal: The Politics of FSA Photography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992).

(19) Library, of Congress. As used by Archibald MacLeish in Land of the Free (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1938).

(20) Library of Congress.

(21) Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937; New York: Harper & Row, 1990), p, 1.

(22) Hurston to Wright, April 30, 1929, qtd. in Robert Hemenway, Zora Neal Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), p. 126.

(23) New York: Harper, 1954.

(24) New York: Harper, 1957.

(25) New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

(26) Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 1.

(27) See footnote 14.

(28) Copyright 1938 by Zora Heale Hurston; renewed (c) 1966 by Joel Hurston and John C. Hurston. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

(29) Copyright 1938 by Zora Heale Hurston; renewed (c) 1966 by Joel Hursron and John C. Hurston. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.


Louisiana State University
COPYRIGHT 2003 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Henninger, Katherine
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
Previous Article:Southern turns.
Next Article:Painting the South with a Northern eye.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |