This month on the blog, we’re recognizing writing from and about Haiti in celebration of the Haitian Revolution of January 1804. A deep part of Haitin culture is the Vodou religion, and since today is Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday, we thought we’d look at her works about Vodou.
Hurston, best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, was an American folklorist, anthropologist, and author of more than 50 published works during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. She was born January 7, 1891 and grew up in Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-black towns to be incorporated in the United States. Her father later became mayor of the town, which Hurston would glorify in her stories as a place where African Americans could live as they desired, independent of white society. Hurston traveled extensively in the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research.
In 1936 and 1937, Hurston traveled to Jamaica and to Haiti with support from the Guggenheim Foundation from which her anthropological work Tell My Horse, “a travelogue into a dark, mystical world,” emerged. Her research looked at the use of science and drugs in Vodou to create the zombie state, and in a 1943 radio interview, she revealed, “I do know that people have been ‘resurrected’ in Haiti. I do not believe that they were actually dead. I believe it was suspended animation. And since there’s no embalming there, it’s possible; and since people are not buried below ground. They have above-ground vaults as they do in New Orleans. And they take corpses out — it’s been proven, there have been cases proven where folks have been dead and folks thought they were done for, and months later somebody finds them somewhere in some hidden place, actually alive, but without their minds.”
Her photo of a Haitian woman thought to be Felicia Felix-Mentor, who was buried in 1907 and found 29 years later, wandering the countryside, was published in LIFE magazine and was claimed to be the first photograph of a zombie.