When Zora Neale Hurston stepped ashore in Port-au-Prince, in September 1936, Haiti was in the middle of what local officials were calling its second independence. Since an armed revolution in 1791, which eventually threw off French rule, periods of relative stability had alternated with coups, assassinations, a peasant revolt, and foreign occupation. In 1915, the United States intervened to support American investors then in control of Haiti’s national bank. By the time Hurston arrived, U.S. troops had been gone for only two years.
But Hurston wasn’t there to talk to generals and government officials. She was there to study a force that wound through Haitian society like a secret electrical grid — the practices and convictions that outsiders called “voodoo” — as well as the mysterious people whom American soldiers and journalists knew as the living dead.
In 1936, Hurston was at the height of her power as a writer and intellectual. She had completed a degree at Barnard College — the school’s only Black student at the time — and had published two books that were reviewed in the major newspapers. She was a fixture of the Harlem Renaissance. On her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, she had declared her field to be “literary science.” It was a good job title for what she now most wanted to do — not just to write creatively, but also to become the thing that had most intrigued her a decade earlier when she landed in Manhattan: an anthropologist. Her specific project, the Guggenheim trustees announced in awarding her $2,000 for her journey, was “a study of magic practices among Negroes of the West Indies.” What she found was equal parts terror and exhilaration, and it would transform both her art as well as her understanding of what it meant to live intelligently and morally in a world brimming with cultural difference.
In New York, Hurston had studied under Franz Boas, the founder of the field of cultural anthropology, which carefully cataloged the values, mores, habits, and beliefs of a given society. Breaking with the eugenicists of the day, Boas taught his students that people did not…