The first book-length comparative analysis of three intellectual women of color working in the academic mainstream in the early twentieth century.
In the early twentieth century, three women of color helped shape a new world of ethnographic discovery. Ella Cara Deloria, a Sioux woman from South Dakota, Zora Neale Hurston, an African American woman from Florida, and Jovita González, a Mexican American woman from the Texas borderlands, achieved renown in the fields of folklore studies, anthropology, and ethnolinguistics during the 1920s and 1930s. While all three collaborated with leading male intellectuals in these disciplines to produce innovative ethnographic accounts of their own communities, they also turned away from ethnographic meaning making at key points in their careers and explored the realm of storytelling through vivid mixed-genre novels centered on the lives of women.
In this book, Cotera offers an intellectual history situated in the "borderlands" between conventional accounts of anthropology, women's history, and African American, Mexican American and Native American intellectual genealogies. At its core is also a meditation on what it means to draw three women—from disparate though nevertheless interconnected histories of marginalization—into conversation with one another. Can such a conversation reveal a shared history that has been erased due to institutional racism, sexism, and simple neglect? Is there a mode of comparative reading that can explore their points of connection even as it remains attentive to their differences? These are the questions at the core of this book, which offers not only a corrective history centered on the lives of women of color intellectuals, but also a methodology for comparative analysis shaped by their visions of the world.
2009 Gloria Anzaldua Book Prize
National Women's Studies Association
- Introduction: Writing in the Margins of the Twentieth Century
- Part One. Ethnographic Meaning Making and the Politics of Difference
- Chapter One. Standing on the Middle Ground: Ella Deloria's Decolonizing Methodology
- Chapter Two. "Lyin' Up a Nation": Zora Neale Hurston and the Literary Uses of the "Folk"
- Chapter Three. A Romance of the Border: J. Frank Dobie, Jovita González, and the Study of the Folk in Texas
- Part Two. Re-Writing Culture: Storytelling and the Decolonial Imagination
- Chapter Four. "All My Relatives Are Noble": Is Waterlily a "Red Feminist" Text?
- Chapter Five. "De nigger woman is de mule uh de world": Storytelling and the Black Feminist Experience
- Chapter Six. Feminism on the Border: Caballero and the Poetics of Collaboration
- Epilogue. "What's Love Got to Do with It?": Toward a Passionate Praxis
In the spring of 1935 Tejana folklorist Jovita González sat down in her South Texas study and wrote a short story: a fact not astonishing in itself, but unexpected nonetheless, given the resources necessary for the creation of fiction—a quiet room, time, repose—none of which were usually available to Mexican American women in Texas circa 1935. Miss González (for at that particular moment she was still a "Miss") didn't write about romantic love, a subject that might well have been on her mind since she was planning her wedding at the time, or even about the folk traditions of Texas Mexicans, her central scholarly preoccupation during this period. Instead she turned away from these personal and professional concerns and crafted a story about two women in dialogue—and not just any two women. In a literary gesture that might have been considered audacious by some of her Anglo friends in the English Department at the University of Texas, Miss González imagined a conversation between two foundational figures in American letters: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Anne Bradstreet.
She set this imaginary dialogue within the "close and smoky" confines of her own study and titled it "Shades of the Tenth Muse," a historically appropriate choice given that both Bradstreet and Sor Juana were celebrated as the "Tenth Muse" of the Americas, Bradstreet in England and Sor Juana in Spain. While their parallel titles suggest the two traditions from which González drew her uniquely gendered vision of American literature, Sor Juana and Anne Bradstreet share the space of González's study in uneasy and frequently conflictual relation, debating questions of race, nation, and history, while acknowledging key points of connection, in particular their social location as "women who like knowing" (as Bradstreet puts it) within colonial cultures dominated by patriarchy. As such, their dialogue suggests a shared epistemological orientation that traverses the boundaries of the nation-state and gestures towards a transnational feminist imaginary, potentially rewriting the foundational narratives of both Mexico and the United States.
"Shades of the Tenth Muse" offers a revealing glimpse into the complex and sometimes contradictory feminist/nationalist poetics that Jovita González articulated in her other work, but it also offers a productive metaphor for my own work. In her story, Jovita González imagined what might transpire if two long-dead female poets representing radically divergent religious, linguistic, and cultural traditions occupied a shared space for one evening. In this book, I bring the "shades" of Dakota ethnologist Ella Cara Deloria, African American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, and Tejana folklorist Jovita González into conversation with one another in order to illuminate a multicultural feminist imaginary. Two of my subjects, Ella Deloria and Jovita González, are relatively unknown; the third, Zora Neale Hurston, though celebrated, remains in many ways a cipher to the anthropologists, literary critics, and cultural historians who have explored her writerly legacy. Although they had much in common, including an intellectual milieu—both Deloria and Hurston worked on projects with Franz Boas in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and González was deeply influenced by the brand of literary and regional folklore that Hurston helped to popularize—and a deep and abiding interest in the future of their communities, they apparently never met. I am correcting this accident of history by bringing them together in this book, because, willful like my foremother, I believe that if these women occupied the same "close and smoky" room, their conversation would reveal something about the politics and the poetics of women writing culture.
Conjuring up imaginary conversations between "real" historical persons can be risky business, so I feel it only prudent to temper González's useful metaphor with a cautionary reminder that the space in which both she—and I—imagine these conversations is by no means a neutral zone. The setting of González's short story is, after all, her study, and her own interests and preoccupations naturally shape the contours of Sor Juana and Bradstreet's dialogue. And while their conversation does reveal something about the political preoccupations of women in colonial America, what it reveals is necessarily mediated by González's own particular take on politics and poetics, her theoretical standpoint. Which is to say that it is not simply the dialogue between Sor Juana and Anne Bradstreet that produces meaning, but González's willful insistence that they converse in the first place, and that their conversation take place within her intellectual domain. Likewise, bringing González, Deloria, and Hurston into dialogue is fundamentally a theoretical gesture, one that is shaped by my own political preoccupations as a woman of color in the (post)modern Americas. This book, like González's short story, is therefore not simply an exercise in comparison, but an invitation to see the world refracted through the lives of women of color in dialogue, they with one another, and I with their legacies.
I believe that this dialogue is fruitful—necessary, even—for a number of reasons. First of all, even the most cursory review of Deloria, Hurston, and González's lives and writing reveals striking similarities that illuminate the complicated intersection of race, class, and gender in the United States. As young women, the three were no doubt shaped by the continuous though ever-changing mechanisms of empire and colonialism, as well as by the utopian promise of the anticolonial and antiracist political and cultural movements that emerged in the opening decades of the twentieth century. And each, in her turn, addressed these challenges and possibilities through writing.
Ella Deloria was born on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in the middle of a driving snowstorm in the winter of 1889. The blizzard that accompanied Deloria's birth was portentous: the following winter would bring not only another bitter storm but also the final, devastating blow to Sioux armed resistance against U.S. intrusion into their territories, the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and the decades following would lead to dramatic and painful changes in Sioux life ways. Native intellectuals sought to address the impact of these historical transformations through a variety of responses, both political and cultural. While some advocated citizenship and assimilation to "modern" American economic and social values, others countered the push toward acculturation with retrenchment and calls for an uncompromising return to the linguistic and cultural practices of a generation before. Ella Deloria came of age in a generation marked by these debates and became a passionate advocate for establishing a middle ground between these two positions, noting that Indian people had always responded to historical transformations with creativity and resourcefulness, even as she carefully documented Dakota culture before and after Wounded Knee in an attempt to retain (and in some cases recover) cultural and linguistic values that were key to the survival of her people.
Jovita González was born into an equally transformative maelstrom in the Texas-Mexico borderlands. In 1904, the year of her birth in Roma, Texas, the Saint Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico Railway was completed, connecting South Texas to the rest of the United States and bringing a flood of mostly Anglo American immigrants into the region. The economic, political, and cultural changes that accompanied the transformation of the borderlands from a ranching culture to an agrarian economy were felt most keenly by previously isolated Mexican ranching communities, a group with whom González shared both familial and political ties. Like Deloria, González came of age in an historical moment marked by a profound and sometimes painful break with the past, one that elicited its own reactionary debates around whether and to what degree Mexican Americans ought to accommodate to the rising Anglo economic and social order. Like Deloria, González responded to these debates by carving out a middle ground that embraced "progress"—particularly with regard to gender freedoms—but also stressed the importance of documenting and celebrating the vanishing cultural traditions of her community.
Zora Neale Hurston's life was both unique and in some ways emblematic of the African American experience in the early twentieth century. Born in Alabama in 1891, but raised in Eatonville, Florida—according to her, the first incorporated all-Black town in the United States—Hurston's early years were steeped in the folklore of southern Black culture. After the death of her mother, Hurston lived with family in Jacksonville, Florida, then slowly made her way up to Baltimore, then Washington, and finally to New York City, following a migration pattern set into motion by a depression in the South and a booming wartime economy in the North, as well as an alarming post-Reconstruction upsurge in the violent repression of Black communities throughout the South. Like many of her contemporaries, Hurston was drawn to the "New Negro Mecca" of Harlem in the 1920s and became one of its most infamous figures. But unlike most of her contemporaries in the early years of the Harlem Renaissance—many of whom hailed from the cosmopolitan drawing rooms and salons of the East Coast—Hurston was from the Deep South, a place she identified with "authentic Negro folklore." As a folklorist and a writer, Hurston turned away from the cosmopolitan and urban themes so ubiquitous in early Harlem Renaissance writing and focused her considerable creative energies on documenting the lives and the linguistic artistry of the "Negro farthest down."
Although Ella Deloria, Jovita González, and Zora Neale Hurston emerged from distinct historical conditions and regional locations, their personal and professional trajectories were strikingly similar. All three achieved some measure of renown in the related fields of folklore studies and anthropology during the 1920s and 1930s, and each collaborated with leading intellectuals in these fields. Ella Deloria became one of the foremost experts on Plains Indian ethnology, working closely with Franz Boas, the so-called father of modern anthropology, on numerous foundational texts on Sioux language and culture. Deloria also worked with Ruth Benedict, under whose guidance she most likely developed her interest in the gendered dimensions of culture. Like Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston worked for a time with both Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, as well as with Melville Herskovits. She was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Folklore Society and a contributor to the Journal of American Folklore. Even though most of her ethnographic research was carried out under the watchful and controlling eye of her benefactor, Charlotte Osgood Mason, Hurston still looked to "Papa Franz" for guidance and advice.
Jovita González also rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s as an expert in Mexican American folklore and culture in Texas under the tutelage of the dean of Texas folklore studies, J. Frank Dobie. In her relatively short professional career as a folklorist, González produced numerous articles on the folklore of Texas-Mexican communities for the journal Dobie edited, Publications of the Texas Folklore Society. With the support of Dobie, González was elected vice president and president (for two terms) of the Texas Folklore Society, a largely White, mostly male academic organization based at the University of Texas.
All three women were also actively engaged in the cultural and political movements launched by their respective communities, and in their heyday were recognized as national experts on those communities. Deloria labored tirelessly to transform public opinion and public policy regarding the Dakota and Indian people in general, and for over half a century supported Indian youth as an educator and public spokesperson. Like Deloria, Jovita González worked to change public perceptions of the much-maligned Mexican population in Texas. Through her scholarly work, González tried to bring to life the heroic beauty and proud past of Mexicano ranching culture. As an educational and political activist, she was involved in the ground war over the segregationist policies in South Texas that kept her people on the losing side of its regional economic boom. For her part, Hurston rarely missed an opportunity to share her iconoclastic brand of nationalism with the reading public, a tendency that brought her notoriety and the increasing criticism of her African American colleagues. Though Hurston's politics often ran afoul of the ideologies of the "Talented Tenth," she remained to the end committed to the belief that Black people needn't look to Anglo American culture for models of beauty, political citizenship, or identity, a sentiment vividly expressed in her works of folklore, drama, and creative fiction.
But perhaps the most provocative point of connection between Hurston, Deloria, and González is the fact that each, at different points in their respective careers, broke from the discursive boundaries of their chosen disciplines to explore the political and poetic possibilities of fiction. Indeed, even as they labored on ethnographic research destined for publication in academic forums like the Journal of American Folklore and the Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, they were also working on their own creative projects: novels that focused on the lives and legacies of women of color.
The idea for Waterlily, Ella Deloria's detailed fictional account of Dakota culture in the early nineteenth century, most likely emerged while she was collecting and translating Sioux stories and legends for Franz Boas and conducting directed ethnographic research for Ruth Benedict. In Waterlily, Deloria sought not only to humanize Boasian data on the complex kinship relations that bound the Dakotas, but also to shift the focus of that research to the lives of women in Dakota culture. Similarly, Jovita González first began collecting the ethnographic data that served as the foundation for Caballero, her novel documenting life on a hacienda on the Texas-Mexico border in 1848, after receiving a Rockefeller grant in 1934 to conduct research on the folk traditions of South Texas. In Caballero, González, along with her literary collaborator, Margaret Eimer, documented the lives of women in a Mexicano culture and explored the multiple and divergent strategies for survival initiated by men and women in the borderlands in response to U.S. imperialism. Although both Deloria and González actively pursued publishers, neither of their novels was published until well after their deaths (Waterlily in 1988, Caballero in 1996).
According to the account in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road, Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in the fall of 1936 while conducting ethnographic research in Haiti under a Guggenheim fellowship. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston offered both a sensitive exploration of Black female consciousness and perhaps the most sophisticated and fully elaborated use of Black idiom in literary language to date. Although Their Eyes Were Watching God was published to some critical acclaim in 1937, the tepid and sometimes hostile reviews it received from the African American intelligentsia consigned the novel to a kind of literary purgatory out of which it did not emerge until Alice Walker and other Black feminist writers rescued it from the canonical margins in the 1970s.
Given these shared historical contexts, and especially the tantalizing parallels of each woman's writerly turn from science to fiction, a comparative analysis of the three seems not only sensible but necessary. However, in this book I press beyond the obvious—beyond a generalized, three-pronged bio-bibliographic comparison—to examine the ways in which Deloria, Hurston, and González each represent particular case studies in the complex negotiations of race, gender, and colonial/class relations that characterized the historical experiences of women of color intellectuals in the early twentieth century. I want to think about the ways in which their work gives voice to these negotiations, since this voice might represent a tentative and fleeting step in an intellectual tradition that has itself been subject to multiple erasures: what feminist critic Chela Sandoval has termed "U.S.-Third World feminism."
In tracing this history, I also want to push against some of the methodological norms of comparativist practice, in particular the deeply ingrained assumption that comparison must necessarily involve a search for sameness. This search for sameness is especially evident in feminist scholarship and in the ways in which the terminological cluster "women of color" has been deployed to suggest likeness of experience, identity, and epistemic standpoint, in spite of the fact that women of color have been contentiously foregrounding their difference from White women, White men, brown men, heterosexuals, and one another at least since the publication of This Bridge Called My Back in 1981. Notwithstanding the attention paid to difference by feminists of color—indeed, its centrality in their theorizations—they are still often grouped together in a kind discursive corral that diminishes the key insights of their theorizations. Feminist scholar Chandra Mohanty has suggested that this critical tendency represents a form of "discursive colonization" that erases the historical and the ideological differences between women of color in the interests of promoting a liberal vision of feminism. In this book I offer an alternative to this tendency through a comparative approach to the writing of women of color that explores the borderlands of difference. In so doing, I hope to elaborate a more complex and more suitable practice of comparison: one that honors the particularities of Deloria, Hurston, and González's historical experiences as well as their similar yet distinct strategies of engagement with neocolonial forms of meaning making.
While placing difference at the center of a comparative project may seem an odd, even contradictory, critical gesture, it is one that arises in response to the growing body of feminist scholarship that has sought to uncover the many points of connection between Ella Deloria and Zora Neale Hurston. This scholarship is by no means voluminous, but the scattered essays, book chapters, and reviews that have taken a comparativist approach to Deloria and Hurston's writing have frequently underplayed their real differences in an attempt to draw them into the feminist fold. Often, key points of comparison, such as their involvements with emergent practices of ethnographic meaning making, and in particular, their status as cultural mediators or "insider-outsiders" are highlighted to the exclusion of other complicating—differentiating—factors in their biographies. What results is a unidimensional vision of their contributions to cultural politics.
For example, in her fascinating study of women in the modernist milieu, Women Intellectuals, Modernism and Difference, cultural historian Alice Gambrell devotes two chapters to Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Deloria. In these chapters Gambrell skillfully draws out Hurston's complex relationship to the methodological and theoretical norms of Boasian anthropology, and then offers a comparative reading of Waterlily and Their Eyes Were Watching God. While Gambrell's attention to Deloria and Hurston is a welcome intervention against cultural histories that have marginalized and even ignored these writers' significant contributions to mid-century debates on race, identity, and culture, the power of her comparative framework is undermined by the urge to bring Deloria and Hurston too tightly into the embrace of feminist discourse. Gambrell begins by astutely noting that Deloria and Hurston were "insider-outsider" figures in both the anthropological establishment and their so-called home communities and that their contradictory relationships to these heterogeneous audiences structured the representational strategies that each pursued in their ethnographic texts and creative fiction.
Unfortunately, this important insight is obscured by Gambrell's admittedly speculative approach to untangling the discursive web that bound their representational practices. Indeed, Gambrell suggests that Ella Deloria was not only familiar with Hurston's published writing (despite the fact that Deloria never mentioned Hurston in her copious correspondence), but also utilized Hurston's work as a kind of theoretical optic for her own feminist interventions. What follows this assertion is a deep textual analysis of the "points of contact" between Hurston's Mules and Men and Deloria's Speaking of Indians—one that unmoors these texts from their historical particularities and figures Deloria as "revising" Hurston's gendered strategies of description. Gambrell then moves on to a comparative analysis of Waterlily and Their Eyes Were Watching God, claiming that Deloria's ethnographic novel offers "one of the earliest feminist readings of voice in Their Eyes."
Refracting Waterlily and Deloria's other texts through what she imagines to be Hurston's central critical concerns, Gambrell discovers—unsurprisingly—that at the heart of Waterlily is a meditation on "the relation between female eloquence and feminine sexuality, and the disruptive role that both play in processes of cultural description." Waterlily is thus recovered as a feminist novel that rewrites "modesty" and "reticence" as forms of feminist "eloquence." Although this reading of Waterlily is provocative and—in the context of Gambrell's comparative analysis—convincing, it does not take into account the historical specificity of Deloria's social location as an Indigenous woman. In Gambrell's reading, Waterlily becomes, not a woman-centered account of Dakota customs (with serious feminist implications for the decolonization of knowledge about Indigenous communities), but a critical meditation on gender (unmoored from the questions of "nation"), and in particular on the function of gender, voice, and silence in Their Eyes Were Watching God. While it makes for a neat dialogic analysis of Hurston and Deloria's gendered texts, I suspect that this reading of Waterlily would seem entirely alien to most American Indian women. In fact, Gambrell nullifies the nationalist valences of Deloria's textual interventions by subsuming them under a rhetoric of influence that circumscribes and even reverses the emancipatory possibilities of her own comparative critical gesture. In effect, Gambrell's reading of Deloria, though sensitive and nuanced, renders Hurston's interventions more visible while erasing Deloria's unique, tribally based approach to representational politics.
My digression into Gambrell's attempts to bring Hurston and Deloria into conversation with one another is not intended to undermine the efforts of other feminist scholars engaged in the recovery of key figures in our shared history, an impulse that I wholeheartedly support. It is simply a cautionary reminder that we must approach our explorations of the interconnections between Deloria, Hurston, and González with a good measure of respect for the distinctiveness of their historical experiences and social locations. Too often comparativist work replicates a form of erasure that obscures and even diminishes the political force of interventions by women of color. If such critical gestures, however well-intentioned, frequently result in the privileging of some experiences over others, then what tools (feminist or otherwise) might be brought to bear upon these texts of women of color to make their feminist interventions visible to contemporary readers without rendering their more subtle community-centered interventions invisible? In other words, is it possible to avoid the colonizing gesture in comparative analysis?
I think so, but it requires that we break with the "habitual formations" of "convergent thinking" (to paraphrase Gloria Anzaldúa)—the tendency of Western thinking to use "rationality to move toward a single goal"—and embrace a form of "divergent thinking" that can reveal the ways in which similarities inhabit difference. Deloria, Hurston, and González need not have thought about culture, history, identity, and gender in exactly the same way; what is important, and ultimately more interesting, is that they pondered the questions of identity, history, and culture through the lens of their particular (yet interconnected) experiences as gendered and racialized subjects whose status, class, and cultural positioning constituted a unique epistemic vantage point on the mechanics of social life. Indeed, as Mohanty observes, women of color are not connected through a "natural bond" based on "color or racial identifications," but rather a "common context of struggle" and a shared "oppositional political relation to sexist, racist, and imperialistic structures." Following Mohanty, I propose that we reframe our comparative analyses of the intellectual history of women of color in a manner that can illuminate their divergent approaches to unmasking the "relations of rule" that have shaped both colonial and anticolonial discourses in the twentieth century.
Women of color have developed practical and theoretical models for illuminating productive commonalities across difference. These models reveal both the convergences and the divergences in the historical experiences of women of color, even as they give voice to the counterdiscursive representational practices that women of color have developed to rewrite history. These models also provide a useful lens through which to reconsider an intellectual history that has been subject to multiple erasures, an intellectual history that is the primary terrain of this book. In short, I am less interested in applying a totalizing theoretical model (feminist, literary, or ethnic nationalist) to a comparative analysis of Deloria, Hurston, and González than I am in bringing them together to examine the ways in which their "unexplored affinities inside of difference attract, combine, and relate new constituencies into a coalition of resistance."
The comparative lens that I propose then, is less a search for sameness than a critical process that answers Ella Shohat's call for a "relational" approach to feminist analysis that places "diverse gendered/sexed histories and geographies in dialogical relation" to one another to illuminate the "tensions and overlappings that take place 'within' and 'between' cultures, ethnicities, nations." Such an approach is activated by the coalitional ethos of projects like This Bridge Called My Back, and hinges on a series of methodological questions that might best be described as ethical rules of engagement. How do we elaborate a mode of comparative analysis across race, nation, and historical context that does not assimilate the experiences of "others" to our own? How might we respect the particularities of different historical experiences even as we mine the similarities of these experiences for key points of connection that reveal the systemic workings of patriarchal, heteronormative, colonialist, racist, and classist networks of power? How do we strike a balance between a respect for difference and a search for meaningful similarity that allows for a coherent account of the historical experiences of women of color? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what knowledges and perspectives do we need to mobilize to do such work? That these rules of engagement take the form of questions rather than statements of purpose suggests just how tenuous the path toward responsible and truly illuminating comparativist scholarship can be. Indeed, comparative work is difficult precisely because it requires that we move beyond our own spaces of epistemic privilege and, by extension, our comfort zones, but it is necessary work, and in the long run, crucial to the continued growth—survival, even—of feminist theorizing.
Cultural Poetics at the Crossroads
In the summer of 1941 Ella Cara Deloria wrote a revealing letter to Ruth Benedict seeking advice on her ethnographic monograph, The Dakota Way of Life. In this letter, Deloria complained to Benedict of the difficulties she faced in trying to mold her ethnographic notes into a text that would satisfy not only the American Philosophical Society, which had funded the work, but also a whole array of other potential readers, including social workers and church officials who fancied themselves "friends of the Indian" and Benedict herself. But Deloria had a more pressing concern as well: "I found I can't possibly say everything frankly, knowing it could get out to Dakota country. I know it must sound silly; but it won't to you. Ruth, I am a virgin; as such, I am not supposed to talk frankly on things I must, to be really helpful. The place I have with the Dakotas is important to me; I can not afford to jeopardize it by what would certainly leave me open to suspicion and you can't know what that would mean."
Deloria's invocation of her "virginity" was not an appeal to Victorian gender standards, but rather an allusion to her unique status as both a single woman and a native ethnographer among the Dakota. As she explained to Benedict, in Dakota society, unmarried women were suspect unless they were recognized "perpetual virgins," women who had decided to forego marriage and dedicate themselves to other community-nurturing tasks, such as maintaining the artistic and literary traditions of the tribe. Deloria adopted this culturally appropriate role in order to account for her unmarried status and at the same time situate herself among her informants as a "keeper of tradition." Deloria's status as perpetual virgin allowed her greater flexibility in her research among the Dakota, especially since the label gave her ethnographic inquiry a respectable cast.
However, this status also limited what she could publicly reveal about the lives of men and women in Dakota culture, because with the position of perpetual virgin came a good deal of responsibility for oneself and one's community. To write about lovemaking, marriage, and childbirth—subjects of particular interest to feminist ethnographers such as Benedict—would signify that Deloria possessed knowledge beyond her ken as a perpetual virgin and would have raised questions regarding her trustworthiness as someone with whom her informants might share tribal information. Such a revelation would damage not only her reputation (and that of her kinship group) in Dakota country, but also her ability to gather information in the future.
Deloria's reluctance to speak of the intimacies of Dakota family life was not simply a matter of maintaining good relations with her ethnographic informants, it was also, as she noted in her letter, "a practical demonstration of some of the cross-currents and underneath influences of Dakota thinking and life," a life which was still central to her identity. "It trips even anyone as apparently removed as I am," she admitted, "because I have a place among the people. And I have to keep it." Such restrictions plagued other native ethnographers of Deloria's generation, and continue to do so, but what makes this letter so revealing is the way in which Deloria openly addresses the particular constraints of gender on her ethnographic practice. Indeed, this letter serves as a particularly illuminating introduction to the multiple contexts that framed Deloria's writing, even as it describes in especially painful ways the difficult narrative choices that she was forced to make in bringing her vision of Dakota life to text. "I wish I could pick my audience," she confided in a later letter to Benedict. And one can only wonder what that audience might have looked like: neither missionary, nor social worker, nor Indian, nor ethnologist, but somehow all of the above, that audience would have looked an awful lot like Ella Deloria herself.
Deloria's concerns about audience speak to the tense internal negotiations that scholars of color—particularly native ethnographers—face when they "represent" their cultures to both academic and popular audiences. Zora Neale Hurston and Jovita González encountered similar dilemmas when they decided to write about African American and Tejano communities. By all accounts they too were acutely aware of the ways in which their ethnographic and literary representations might be deployed to ends not confined to the scientific or aesthetic realms. When they put pen to paper to transcribe what they remembered from childhood and what they learned from their forays into the field as adults, they surely realized that to do so would mean writing against a history of discourse about the Other that had been constructed through both scientific and aesthetic texts over decades of continued asymmetrical colonial and imperial encounters.
This book takes as its primary archive the letters, essays, and manuscripts that document the difficult terrain Deloria, Hurston, and González navigated between the communities that they called home and the academic spaces and metropolitan locales in which they steadfastly worked. These documents chart a course that seems intimately familiar to contemporary women of color living and working in institutional sites of struggle. Indeed, anthropologist and literary critic José Limón has noted, "There is in González's career a particularly anticipatory experience pertinent only to Mexican women in the United States." For Limón, the channels through which González traveled; the movement from her place of origin, South Texas, to what was at the time the center of knowledge production about that place, the University of Texas; and the role gender and race played in "her daily negotiations with Dobie about her published work" are reminiscent of the narratives of contemporary Chicana intellectuals. Moreover, Limón adds, González's "eschewal of a unified singular subject of history; the genre mix of literature, popular culture, history, and ethnography; her clear commitment to a complicated assessment of political and cultural contradictions; her critique of several orders of domination beyond but not excluding race, especially gender, . . . make her a more familiar voice to us in the present moment."
Similarly, Deloria's life, lived quite literally in her secondhand car as she traveled between Indian country and New York City, shuttling ethnographic information to and from her community and Columbia University, the center of knowledge production on tribal life and customs, maps a familiar topography for contemporary Native women writers as well. And like Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston traveled between the exclusive academic domains of Columbia and Barnard and the rather more worldly domain of Harlem, a route freighted with contradictions. This route was triangulated by her frequent research excursions into the Deep South: in particular, Florida, a place she always identified as her true home. Thinking about Hurston's routes/roots in this way reveals that Harlem, the New Negro Mecca, represented a space every bit as cosmopolitan (and even alienating) to Hurston as Columbia University.
Hurston, Deloria, and González's travels along these routes stretching to and from metropolitan centers of culture and their respective "homes"—Florida, South Dakota, and South Texas, all spaces typically identified as peripheral to the metropole—offer a useful spatial metaphor for thinking through the psychosocial implications of their engagements with cosmopolitan forms of discourse. As Paula Gunn Allen has noted, the decision to engage publicly with dominant forms of knowledge production often requires that women of color transcend established disciplinary, discursive, and geographical boundaries.
The process of living on the border, of crossing and recrossing boundaries of consciousness, is most clearly delineated in work by writers who are citizens of more than one community, whose experiences and languages require that they live within worlds that are as markedly different from one another as Chinatown, Los Angeles and Malibu; El Paso and Manhattan's arts and intellectuals' districts, Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and literary London's Hamstead Heath. It is not merely biculturality that forms the foundation of our lives and work in their multiplicity, aesthetic largeness, and wide-ranging potential; rather, it is the multiculturality, multilinguality, and dizzying class-crossing from the fields to the salons, from the factory to the academy, or from galleries and the groves of academe to the neighborhoods and reservations.
Allen refers to these mobile, border crossing subjects as "las disappearadas" [sic], "the disappeared," a metaphor that also ironically encapsulates Deloria, Hurston, and González's invisibility in anthropological, ethnic nationalist, and feminist literary canons.
Indeed, Paula Gunn Allen's assessment of women of color writers as desaparecidas carries particular weight when one considers the palimpsestic publication history that Deloria, Hurston, and González share. While both Deloria and González gathered reams of ethnographic and folkloric material about their native communities and produced several sizable manuscripts, their work was not published until well after their deaths (the single exception being Deloria's Speaking of Indians, which had the unhappy fate of reaching publication in 1944 at the dawn of the termination era, when interest in American Indian affairs was at an all time low). What scant materials they were able to publish in their lifetimes generally conformed to the ideological, disciplinary, and rhetorical norms of the institutional locations in which they worked. Because they occupied at a best a marginal status within those institutional frameworks, both women have remained largely unrecognized in the histories documenting the development of American anthropology and regional folklore. Conversely, because most of their more experimental work on race and gender remained unpublished until quite recently, Deloria and González have also occupied a somewhat marginal position within the intellectual histories of Chicana/o studies, American Indian studies, and women's studies.
Since the 1970s when Alice Walker initiated the recuperation of Hurston's work and reputation with a series of essays beginning with "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" (published in Ms. Magazine), Hurston has stood as an iconic literary foremother for Black women writers. But before Walker's recuperation, Hurston's stock was less golden. Indeed, toward the end of her life, she held increasingly contentious political positions that contributed to her isolation from the African American intelligentsia. Given this isolation from the very group that might have preserved her legacy, it is not surprising that by the 1970s all of Hurston's major works were out of print. It took the hard work and pugnaciousness of Black feminists to restore Hurston's literary reputation and establish her preeminence in the tradition of African American letters.
Hurston was also "disappeared" from the other intellectual milieu that might have preserved her memory: anthropology. Unlike Deloria and González, Hurston's ethnographic work was widely published and received a good deal of critical acclaim during her lifetime. Even though she was a contributor to the Journal of American Folklore and worked closely with Boas and Melville Herskovits for several years, Hurston's interest in African American vernacular culture was nonetheless deemed too "aesthetic" to be truly "scientific." Although many anthropologists fancied themselves creative writers in their spare time, few were willing to step into the breach that divided poetry and science in their scholarly work. Among the anthropological luminaries of her day, Hurston was inevitably viewed as a "journalistic" folklorist at best, and more often than not, as a popularizer, especially after the enormous success of her earliest fusions of folklore and fiction: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) and Mules and Men (1935).
According to Allen, the intellectual contributions of women like Deloria, Hurston, and González have been "disappeared" from our national imaginary because the "border texts" produced in their travels in and between different sites of struggle challenge the disciplinary, aesthetic, and ideological norms of both dominant and counterhegemonic canons. Because their texts straddle multiple discursive domains and speak simultaneously to a variety of audiences and experiences, they do not fit comfortably within any one disciplinary, formal, or even ideological space. Their ethnographic novels offer particularly striking examples of the ways in which border texts surpass the disciplinary and ideological frameworks that constitute canons. Indeed, Waterlily, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Caballero remained invisible for so many years precisely because, as both formal experiments and ideological artifacts, they tested the conventional disciplinary and conceptual boundaries of the very institutional formations within which they might have found a home. Too literary to be considered authoritative ethnographic texts and too wedded to ethnographic realism to conform to the aesthetic norms of literary modernism, these ethnographic novels have been exiled from both the history of anthropology and classical accounts of early twentieth-century American writing.
Until recently, the prospect of recuperating Waterlily, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Caballero within either ethnic or feminist literary canons seemed tenuous, as well. Critical approaches to literary studies that arose in the 1970s alongside the establishment of ethnic studies programs generally ignored the implications of gender in their analyses of resistance narratives, and all too often relied on reductive binary readings of "resistance" and "oppression" that erased the complex and sometimes contradictory discursive and political locations of women of color. On the other hand, mainstream Anglo-feminist critical practices have all to often located "oppression" and "resistance" along an exclusively gendered axis, ignoring the effects of colonialism and racism on the lives of women of color. Waterlily, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Caballero challenge these ideological frameworks because they refuse oppositional binaries that center on either race or gender and thus undermine conventional notions of resistance. While each undoubtedly illuminates difference—ethnic, racial, or tribal—this illumination is complicated by a simultaneous attention to another order of difference, namely gender. On the other hand, though gendered experience is central to each of these novels, they do not follow the common emancipatory scripts that we have come to desire from supposedly feminist literature.
Allen argues that because neither "mainstream feminist scholarship" nor "the preponderance of 'ethnic' or 'minority' scholarship," is fitted to the analysis of complex discursive interventions of "border texts," critics should allow such texts to speak their own theory. She suggests a methodological approach that starts with acknowledgment of the complex historical experience of U.S. women of color and goes on to explore the ways in which women's texts embody (in both form and content) the particularities of this experience. For Allen, then, the contemporary critical practices elaborated by U.S. feminists of color offer a revolutionary theoretical optic that can more adequately address the complexities of border texts and simultaneously "open before us new possibilities for inquiry."
This seems an entirely suitable approach to the recuperation of Deloria, Hurston, and González's literary legacies, given that their multivalent texts seem to mirror so many of the concerns that have preoccupied contemporary feminists of color. For example, their representations of gender relations, though often critical, are not uncomplicated denouncements of patriarchy, but rather statements on the importance of women to the political, social, and spiritual survival of their people. Whether in the woman-centered vision of sovereignty and cultural survival offered in Waterlily, the exploration of gender, race, and the limits of community in Their Eyes Were Watching God, or the critique of the patriarchal dimensions of oppositional thinking found in Caballero, ideologies of nationalism and feminism are intimately intertwined in these novels, prefiguring the work of contemporary women of color.
While Deloria, Hurston, and González's particular discursive interventions are products of their own historical moment and thus exhibit the contradictions and demurrals that typified the politics of their generation, their writing nevertheless illuminates the complex social locations that they (and other women of color intellectuals) occupied in the early twentieth century—social locations, which in the final analysis, are not so different from our own. Indeed, like contemporary feminists of color, Deloria, Hurston, and González, found themselves drifting in the borderlands between multiple discourses, ideologies, and allegiances. Their multidisciplinary texts embody this "in-between" status and reveal the decolonizing mechanics of a feminist consciousness located at the crossroads.
Chela Sandoval has argued that this decolonizing feminist optic, what she calls "differential consciousness," connects the resistance strategies of contemporary women of color because it arises from the shared history of "a life lived at the 'crossroads' between races, nations, languages, genders, sexualities, and cultures." This shared experience produces a "method of consciousness in opposition to U.S. social hierarchy" that mobilizes a variety of discourses and ideologies in its battles to undo the power of hegemonic discursive regimes. Sandoval identifies this mode of differential consciousness with the "consciencia de la mestiza" and the trickster, a form of "oppositional praxis" that strategically deploys resistant ideologies in fundamentally new ways and moves in and between different subject positions in its efforts to transform dominant discourse. According to Sandoval:
[T]he cruising mobilities required in this effort demand of the differential practitioner commitment to the process of metamorphosis itself: This is the activity of the trickster who practices subjectivity-as-masquerade, the oppositional agent who accesses differing identity, ideological, aesthetic, and political positions. Such nomadic 'morphing' is not performed only for survival's sake, as in earlier modernist times. It is a set of principled conversions, informed by the skill of "la facultad," that requires differential movement through, over, and within any dominant system of resistance, identity, race, gender, sex, class or national meanings (emphasis added).
Sandoval names this oppositional subjectivity, claiming its wandering theoretical, ideological, and disciplinary modalities as a legitimate critical methodology and praxis, but she also moors its emergence to a specific historical moment (post-1968) and suggests that the mobile strategies and subjectivities of earlier "modernist" women of color were simply acts of individual survival. Notwithstanding this presentist assertion, Sandoval notes that the women of color who emerged in the post-1968 moment imagined themselves as both "inheritors and creators of this unexplored decolonizing and feminist subjectivity," which suggests a possible mode of entry into the complex decolonizing textual subversions embodied in the work of Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jovita González.
I want to claim the "cruising mobilities" of the differential practitioner for Deloria, Hurston, and González in the service of something other than just survival, though survival always remained a key objective for the communities from which they emerged. I would like to suggest that their movement in and between differing and sometimes competing discourses (anthropology, folklore, literature, emergent discourses of cultural nationalism and feminism), their telling and retelling of the same set of stories in these different discursive modes, and their physical mobility between metropolitan institutions and locales and the places each called home (all sites of troubling contradictions) demonstrates a form of strategic political mobility that contemporary women of color have embraced as a their own.
Indeed, if U.S.-third world feminism is to be defined as a critical apparatus that not only speaks for a particular social experience, but is also generated from that experience, then it is important to develop an understanding of the ways in which the complex interactions of race, gender, class, sexuality, and colonialism have inflected the discursive interventions of women of color at different moments in history. Although, as Sandoval suggests, coming to consciousness of a "shared oppression" across the divides of race and nation is certainly a central element of contemporary praxis for women of color, so too is critical analysis of the connections between experience, subjectivity, and theory. After all, before the realization of a shared oppression must come the realization that one's particular social location—as "woman, native, other"—is not only similar to those of other gendered subjects of colonialism, but also somehow different from that of the colonizer, the male colonized subject, and the White female living under patriarchy.
In short, by exploring Deloria, Hurston, and González's theoretical affinities with contemporary women of color, I hope to historicize U.S.-third world feminist practice within a much older genealogy than has previously been imagined. By suggesting that contemporary feminist theory opens up a space for thinking about the writing of women like Deloria, Hurston, and González, it is not my intent to anachronistically lay postmodern readings over modern texts of the early twentieth century. Rather, I wish to demonstrate that so much of what we consider the primary terrain of contemporary writing by women of color—the genre crossing, the complex readings of subjectivity, and the critique of both racism and patriarchy—may well have its origins not only in the emergent alliances of the post-1960s moment, but also in the continuous historical contradictions of life at the crossroads between gender, race, and nation.
Mapping the Margins of Intellectual History
In her essay, "Chicana/o Studies as Oppositional Ethnography," Angie Chabram Dernersesian calls for a theoretically-informed and self-reflexive ethnographic examination of Chicana/o critical practices, past and present. Inviting Chicana/o critics to reflect on the intellectuals who came before them, Dernersesian asks: "What was their script? semblance? ethnographic project? institutional practice? social and political context? institutional struggle? How were they constructed? What relationship did they have to their community? How was this textualized? What were the silences in the constructions of their intellectual articulations? How did they represent themselves? Why were they omitted from mainstream texts? How does their condition differ from that of the contemporary Chicana/o intellectual? In what follows, I will conduct my own "oppositional ethnography" of women of color intellectuals informed by the probing questions Dernersesian poses, one that I hope will reveal important connections (as well as a few discontinuities) between their work and our own. Like Dernersesian, I unabashedly hope that "the answers to these questions will furnish the subject matter for [a] grand narrative which has yet to be written."
I ask these questions with an admittedly partial view of the points of connection between Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jovita González: partial, because it focuses almost exclusively on their engagements with early twentieth-century ethnographic practices and their subsequent transformation into feminist writers. Many other points of comparison exist—their common interest in performance as a strategy for cultural affirmation, their interest in the politics of pedagogy, their complex public engagements with racial, ethnic, and tribal political formations—but I focus on the contact zone between ethnography and literature, because it offers readers a useful conceptual map upon which to trace Deloria, Hurston, and González's parallel movements in and between different modes of cultural description.
If, as Michael Elliot has suggested in his book, The Culture Concept, anthropological discourse and realist fiction seemed on a collision course at the turn of the century, by the 1920s, when Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jovita González "discovered" ethnography, this collision had birthed a brood of ethnographic projects that ranged from the strictly scientific methodologies of Boasian anthropology to the literary excesses of folklore-inspired romantic regionalism. In Part One of this book I explore this complex terrain and contextualize Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jovita González's ethnographic writing within its shifting and sometimes treacherous methodological and theoretical landscape. Indeed, if it was through what Hurston deliciously termed "the spy-glass of anthropology" that each woman found new ways of seeing the communities that they called home, this spy-glass had its limits. Navigating these limits and contending with both the discursive regimes of ethnographic meaning making and the ideological stakes of self-representation proved to be quite challenging for Deloria, Hurston, and González, early entrants to the field of "native ethnography."
How are the distinctions between observer and observed undermined when the observer is also one of the observed? What does it mean to be a woman engaged in a "science of man"? How did Deloria, Hurston, and González "cope with, resist, or contest anthropology's ideological and institutional racism" and in particular its "racially specific sexism"? These are some of the questions that are at the heart of the first part of this book, just as they were at the heart of Deloria, Hurston, and González's ethnographic practice. While these questions made ethnographic writing an unavoidably contradictory endeavor for female native ethnographers of the 1920s and 1930s, they were also generative of new approaches to ethnographic practice and new ways of writing about cultural difference.
In Part Two, I focus on Deloria, Hurston, and Gonzalez's turn to fiction and explore how their shift from the ethnographic mode of cultural description to a storytelling mode of meaning making opened up a space for the emergence of new kinds of theoretical subjects and political imaginaries. Tracing Deloria, Hurston, and González's transformations from transcribers of their communities' histories, myths, and stories into self-conscious women of color writers, I argue that this process of transformation suggests the emergence of a new kind of storytelling practice that fully and formally incorporates their experiences as women of color working at the margins of mainstream institutions, feminist imaginings, and nationalist/tribal politics. This storytelling practice moves beyond the counterdiscursive rhetoric of their ethnographic work—which after all, was still structured and constrained by the discursive norms of ethnographic meaning making—and gestures toward what Emma Perez has called a "decolonial imaginary," in which storytelling, and language itself, becomes a vehicle for decolonization.
Through the innovative storytelling practices in their novels, Deloria, Hurston, and González remap the cartography of identity, calling into question both the demoralizing racist depictions of colonized Others in scientific and popular discourse and the romantic visions of radical difference promoted in emergent (masculinist) American Indian, African American, and Mexican American intellectual traditions. As such, their storytelling carves out a space for a new form of gendered and racialized consciousness that stands both apart from and within multiple imagined communities. Though the feminist visions that are produced in these departures share a great deal, they also intersect with particular histories of and interactions with colonialism, imperialism, and the nation-state, and thus express distinct and sometimes divergent feminist positionings. This result is important to note, because it speaks to the ways in which the historical differences between women of color have produced different feminist imaginings that continue to demarcate and complicate contemporary gestures of solidarity among women of color.
The project of uncovering the work of women of color intellectuals, of rethinking history from their perspective, and of reconceptualizing comparative work by mobilizing the successful ways in which they have envisioned such projects is long overdue. Feminist ethnographers, historians, and literary critics like Ruth Behar, Kamala Visweswaran, Paula Gunn Allen, Vicki Ruiz, and Barbara Christian, among others, have for some time now noted the lack of historical material on the contributions of women of color to the production of knowledge in the early twentieth century, an absence that in no way reflects their real importance to fields like anthropology, history, and social science. This book responds to this gap in our collective knowledge by offering an intellectual history that is itself situated in the borderlands between conventional accounts of anthropology, women's history, and Native American, African American, and Mexican American intellectual genealogies. But at its core is also a general meditation on what it means to draw women—from disparate though nevertheless interconnected histories of marginalization—into dialogue with one another and to create both a mode of reading and a critical methodology that can reveal their points of connection even as it acknowledges their very real differences. The comparativist model I propose in this study is therefore governed by a coalitional ethos. Transitory, situational, and always mediated by difference, it brings Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jovita González into my own "close and smoky" room and invites them to speak across their differences and discover the ways in which both their experiences and their expressions converge. I believe that this convergence has the power to produce new ways of thinking about history, identity, and indeed dialogue itself.