Anthropological representations of black women, sexuality and families in the African Diaspora (early-mid 20th century)
This course will emphasize the history of women anthropologists, especially women from ethnic or racial minorities, in order to counter the traditional emphasis on white male anthropologists. Women anthropologists were often dismissed as not theoretical and as solely data collectors, or the “daughters” of “important” male anthropologists like Franz Boas or Bronislaw Malinowski. The ethnographies we read (from the first half of the 20th century) will not only be by women, they will also be about women especially in Africa and the African Diaspora, the Caribbean, Brazil, North America and the U.K.
We will analyze these ethnographies based upon how they represent black women’s sexualities, family structures and parenting, especially exploring themes that were commonly discussed at the time such as “instability,” “illegitimacy” and “matriarchy” that were used to pathologize, criminalize and stigmatize black women and black communities throughout the African diaspora.
This course will also investigate the historical predominance of Jews in the field of anthropology, and analyze specific ethnographic writings by questioning the relationship between the identity/subjectivity of the female author and the representations of black women in their writings.
Some of the anthropologists we will analyze are: Ruth Landes (Brazil), Zora Neale Hurston (Florida, Haiti, Jamaica), Vera D. Rubin (Trinidad and Tobago), Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain (Haiti), Edith Clarke (Jamaica), Hilda Kuper (Swaziland and Durban, South Africa), and Ellen Hellmann (Johannesburg, South Africa). In addition to the ethnographies of these women, we will read the writings/theories of anthropologists who studied the same black communities during the same period, in order to understand how each woman’s theories related to dominant/canonical thinking. Finally, we will read about how the work of these women anthropologists is being used in the contemporary period.
The central course project will be to do one of the following: (1) research the life and work of one of these women (or another woman anthropologist of students’ choice); (2) analyze the networks between several marginalized women anthropologists. In either case you will interrogate how each female anthropologist related to the women she studied, and who influenced her theorizing (including female research participants). You will craft an argument for why each woman should be considered a significant theorist within the anthropological canon. You will consider how her work is relevant (or not) for current events, by researching how her work is being used by other scholars now, or how similar themes are being explored in the same communities now. You will present your work (including a creative, multi-media element of their choosing) to your peers in class, re-vise, and re-submit in order to be considered for an undergraduate research conference/symposium that will be open to the community. The symposium will serve as an opportunity to receive additional feedback from other faculty and students, and for students to complete another revision of their work. The ultimate goal is for students to create a publishable volume of their writing that will be peer reviewed and also compiled and edited by me.
A selection of ethnographies for the course:
*I have included links to easily accessible information related to each of the works listed below, however, in order to fully analyze and critique each ethnographer, it is imperative to read the original (primary) sources – the ethnographies themselves – which are best accessed from a library (they often would have to be ordered through inter-library loan) because they are often pricey to purchase (out of print in many cases). One of the motivations for this course is to revive, debate and critique these works by women about women. The reason these ethnographies are difficult to access is because women wrote them at a time when men dominated the academy, subsequently these important texts are oftentimes outside of what has become “canonical” in their disciplines.
- Clarke, Edith. 1999. My Mother Who Fathered Me: A Study of the Families in Three Selected Communities of Jamaica. Revised Ed. Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago: The Press University of the West Indies.
- Comhaire-Sylvain, Suzanne. 1937. “Creole Tales from Haiti.” The Journal of American Folklore 50(197 July-Sept.):207–95.
- Egginton, Joyce. 1957. They Seek a Living. London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd.
- Glass, Ruth, and Harold Pollins. 1960. London’s Newcomers: The West Indian Migrants. Harvard University Press.
- Hellmann, Ellen. 1948. Rooiyard: A Sociological Survey of an Urban Native Slum Yard. First. Cape Town; Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia: Oxford University Press; The Rhodes-Livingstone Institute.
- An interpretation of Hellmann’s writings, in a prezi I created: “Ellen Hellmann, a Jewish woman South African anthropologist, Jewish relational subjectivity and representations of Black women in Johannesburg”
- The Ellen Hellmann papers
- Digitized photographs from Ellen Hellmann papers
- A free review of Rooiyard
- Biographical information about Ellen Hellmann
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1935. Mules and Men. New York: Harper Collins.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. 1938. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. New York: Harper Collins.
- Jephcott, Pearl. 1964. A Troubled Area: Notes on Notting Hill. London, England: Faber and Faber.
- Kuper, Hilda, and International African Institute. 1970. A Witch in My Heart: A Play Set in Swaziland in the 1930s. Oxford U.P.
- Kuper, Hilda. 1947. The Uniform of Colour; a Study of White-Black Relationships in Swaziland. New York: Negro Universities Press.
- Landes, Ruth. 1947. The City of Women. New York: The MacMillan Company.
- For an interpretation of Landes’ “black matriarchy” thesis see pp. 26-28 of the following freely accessible text book chapter
- Ruth Landes, the life and work of an innovative non-conformist
- Placing Ruth Landes within Afro-Brazilian Studies: The Debates about “Black Matriarchy”
- Ruth Landes, Candomblé priestesses and the multiple meanings of Afro-Bahiana cloth dolls
- Review of City of Women
- Review of City of Women
- This review is an infamous critique of City of Women by Melville Herskovits
- Purchase used from $6
- Patterson, Sheila. 1963. Dark Strangers: A Sociological Study of the Absorption of a Recent West Indian Migrant Group in Brixton, South London. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Rubin, Vera, and Marisa Zavalloni. 1969. We Wish to Be Looked Upon: A Study of the Aspirations of Youth in a Developing Society. edited by Center for Education in Latin America, Institute of International Studies, and Columbia University Teachers College. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press.
* This course is based upon my dissertation research and graduate coursework that focuses on the histories of anthropology in South Africa, Swaziland, Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America.
Featured Image: Township scenes: children in yard, women with woven baskets, 1937, Ellen Hellman
Abby Gondek received her PhD in Global and Socio-cultural Studies, majoring in Anthropology/Sociology, from Florida International University in May 2018. Abby’s nonfiction writing has been published in the Journal of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Crypto Jews, and Critical Half. Her poetry has been published in Gender on Our Minds and Free Your Voice: A Brandeis Women’s Publication.