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Hurston's "Tell My Horse" Sparks More Questions About Vodou

I just finished reading Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, and I'm not sure how to feel about it. I read it for a couple of reasons. First, Hurston has experienced a renewed interest in her work due to changes in anthropology and how researchers are viewing their relationships with their subjects and unexamined cultural bias. Hurston was a pioneer in this regard, and she was often shunned for it. She immersed herself in her work, often participating in rituals, etc., when that was thought to be taboo and unprofessional. However, Hurston's unconventional approach gave us important insights into Afro-Caribbean culture and specifically Vodou traditions. As a Vodou practitioner myself, I naturally wanted to know what she had to say.

Now having read it, I'm disturbed by some things. Of course, this could be my own assumptions and biases at work. Tell My Horse is interesting to read and gives a captivating picture of Caribbean life culture in the 1930s. I could also see some of Hurston's own biases coming through (she was often accused of being conservative politically). I admire her fearlessness for approaching topics and situations that others might have avoided. She does ask lots of questions and admits her own skepticism especially regarding some Vodou practices. And yet she often presents things at such face value that it left me wanting more and also wondering whether Hurston was too gullible.

For example, she writes a lot about zombies in Vodou and relates one experience in which she claims to have seen a woman who was, in fact, a zombie. I suppose this is possible given that some people have claimed that zombification occurs by using a naturally derived poison that alters bodily functions to the extent that it mimics a kind of comatose, death-like state. But there doesn't seem to be a clear line between science and spirituality--and maybe that's my problem. Hurston presents zombies, however, in such a dispassionate way that Vodou comes off as deeply flawed, immoral and dangerous. This isn't the Vodou I know, and it plays to common stereotypes about the religion. I suppose she saw what she saw, and maybe "my" Vodou isn't the same as the Vodou Hurston witnessed. I have to remind myself that I'm coming from a very white and privileged position.

The book does offer some insights into the Vodou lwa (spirits) and ceremonies that I found either enlightening or affirming, but overall I was rather repulsed by it. If I was a casual reader wanting to learn about Vodou, this book would have completely turned me off and only reinforced stereotypes about Vodou backwardness, cruelty and superstition. I can't argue with Hurston's experience, and so I am left wondering as to the validity of my own encounter with Vodou. Has it simply evolved and changed since she wrote, or is what I'm practicing actually something else altogether?

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