Exploring the Intersection of Ethnography, Anthropology, and Black Literature: An Interview with Professor David Orenstein

David Orenstein

Levi Wise-Catoe | The theme of the 17th National Black Writers Conference was All That We Carry: Where Do We Go From Here? A writers conference that took place from March 20 – 23, 2024 at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, NY. During the conference, conversations centered on  the question of unpacking the history of the African Diaspora through slave narratives, the griot, and Black writer’s texts and the use of archaeological research to chronicle the history of America from the perspective of what Toni Morrison calls a “Black gaze.” Black writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, have often studied the field of anthropology in order to create context for their narratives. I sat down with Dr. David Orenstein, who is an anthropologist and former provost (formally dean of academic affairs) at Warren County Community College, as well as an author and professor at Medgar Evers College since 2013.

Professor Orenstein is the co-author of two books, the 2015 Godless Grace: How Non-Believers are Making the World Safer Richer and Kinder, and the November 2019 publication of Darwin’s Apostles: The Men Who Fought to Have Evolution Accepted, Their Times, and How the Battle Continues. A primatologist by early training, he has written for numerous national and international freethinker and science publications.

Professor Orenstein is also a noted civil and human rights activist and a sought-after speaker on human rights, science education, and evolution acceptance. I chose to speak with Professor Orenstein after attending the 17th National Black Writers Conference to get a deeper understanding of Anthropology and how it can benefit an author/ writer’s writing process.

Levi W. K. Catoe Jr.: Hi Dr. David Orenstein, thank you for sitting and talking to me and our readers. I wanted to begin this conversation by discussing anthropology. Can you explain to the readers of Musings exactly what Anthropology is, in case they are unaware?

Dr. David Orenstein: Of course and first, I want to thank you for offering me this opportunity to talk with you and through you, speak to your readers. It is humbling. The formal and basic definition of anthropology is essentially the study of human beings. Here at the college though, I think we need to look at it more deeply. So for me and the other anthropology faculty, we’re more interested in answering the question, “what makes us human” and that takes place by having the most holistic and open worldview of humanity, from culture to biology, to past and present civilizations, to how we treat one another, how we interact with the planet and how, as activists, we can see the underlying reality that there is much MORE that binds us together than pulls us apart.  

LWC: During the 17th National Black Writers Conference there was a roundtable discussion regarding “Black Writers’ Letters To America,” which centered on forms such as archival slave narratives, oral histories, the Griot, and the history of America from the perspective of what Toni Morrison calls a Black gaze. How can ethnography be used to uncover Black histories in America in this day and age, as we are witnessing DEI, Critical Race Theory, and “Woke” agendas under attack, and in many cases young uninformed African Americans who say they are tired of hearing about slavery? How can writers use this research in fiction telling to inspire young readers to reconsider this Black gaze through ethnography? 

D.O.: I think that all cultural stories are powerful. History of our past, collectively and within ethnic groups is not just about what happened years ago. They are often cautionary tales about loss, survival, justice, power, and perseverance. Their importance to family and community is clear. So, it’s as much about how you capture, share, and acknowledge, and that last part is not monolithic. There will always be people who will discard or not care about the past. The important thing is for us to show its value to the other two-thirds of people who will listen and will wish to carry it forward. In this way, literature and anthropology are very much linked. It’s about carrying forward our ancestors and their experience while at the same time not living in the past, but also creating our own truths and lived experiences.

LWC: If someone were interested in the field of Anthropology what would their career options be as a trained anthropologist?

DO: Wow! That’s a great question. Anthropologists work everywhere! Many people think you have to be Indiana Jones or work as a stuffy academic, but in reality, a degree in anthropology opens doors to working in public service, healthcare, the media and entertainment, law and diplomacy, working for social and environmental justice, ensuring people’s cultural memories and artifacts are secured…really the list is endless. Plus, usually, anthropology graduates make between 60k-80k upon graduation. 

LWC: Personally, as a writer, I was drawn to anthropology due to its ability to draw you into cultures. I was also drawn to how the field focuses on building observational skills that not only benefit writers but also actors. Can you explain what Ethnography, the fieldwork of Anthropology, is and how to go about obtaining this information in Anthropology? 

DO: Sure, essentially ethnography is the study of human culture. We may think that when anthropologists are doing this type of work it’s done in some exotic place. But in reality, you can do ethnographic fieldwork anywhere humans gather. So that means studying how people act and react to one another, sometimes it’s about power relationships or gender, but it can also be looked at through other connections like ethnicity, language, and kinship. Then you look at rituals and see how people act within groups to verify their lifeways. It’s usually best to spend a great deal of time to get the best information, but it’s not fully necessary.  Plus there are so many techniques, like indirect or direct observation, participatory research, and surveys, really there are so many tools in the anthropologist’s toolbox to gauge human interaction. 

LWC: What are the various methods in Anthropology?

DO: Perhaps in cultural anthropology or ethnography, the two main methods are observation and interview. With observation, you try to look unbiasedly at how people interact within the context of culture, language, and geography. Interviews usually give you answers regarding self-perception. You see how the interviews and observations intersect, which gives you in real time a kind of “truth” regarding how people think, act, and produce culture. This also works in linguistic anthropology since language and culture exist to build on each other. You can’t have language without culture, and vice versa. In archaeology, you’re dealing with material artifacts created and left behind by current and past humans and their civilizations. It’s a fascinating area that helps tell the story of how humans for thousands of years created the simplest to the most complex technologies, which help tell the story of their civilization. In biological anthropology, you’re going deeper and further back into time, exploring our fossil past and the fossil and biological past of all species on the planet since life began. But this area also includes forensics, like the show “Bones,” and primate behavior, paleontology, hominid evolution, paleobotany, and so many other fields. 

LWC: What anthropological methods would most benefit writers who are interested in following in the shoes of a writer like the Black Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston?

DO: Great question and another example of an important writer who took her anthropological training to fulfill her intellectual interests. Zora Neale Hurston really used her worldview to help document and understand the African American experience in so many deep and consuming ways both through ethnography but also through fiction and other literature. She studied at Howard and Bernard and was a supporter of other black writers in the 1930s. Her work gave meaning and connection to the lives of Southern Blacks both pre- and post-slavery and well into the latter half of the 20th Century. It’s hard to know if anthropology made Zora Neale Hurston or vice versa but the combination has given millions of her readers new life and understanding and isn’t that really what matters most? 

LWC: Zora Neale Hurston’s fieldwork became 100 pages of research in the 1931 Journal of American Folklore, under the title “Hoodoo in America, and her autoethnography Mules and Men, a book of Hurston’s detailed, first-hand research, infused with her reflections. Are these good examples of viewing literature from the Black gaze in your opinion? 

D.O.: Of course! Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic work as well as her other research is memorable on so many levels. In a way, it connects issues of identity to the way W.E.B. Du Bois contemplated double consciousness. So, scholars and activists across generations from various disciplines are coming to the research and issues that the Society of Black Anthropologists and the American Anthropological Association are STILL observing and gathering data to this day. It’s because culture doesn’t have an expiration date, although cultures can and do go extinct. Hurston’s work stimulates and ensures we remember and witness those who came before.

 LWC: Zora Neale Hurston’s role as an anthropologist is reflected in her work as a fiction writer through her incorporation of different cultures and societies, her exploration of Black American and Caribbean folklore, and her use of first-hand storytelling experience. Another example from the musical theater is “Westside Story” (1957), which began as “Eastside Story”, which chronicled the Lower East Sside’s Jewish and Catholic Irish conflicts during the turn of the century NYC. Later, it became Westside Story, about the now-demolished San Juan Hill, a lost Black and Jazz community that was removed during the urban renewal in the 1950s, leading to creating historical erasure. The story shows how ethnology can be used to creatively re-envision and re-imagine lost communities through theater and writing. How do you feel about this process of using ethnography in the way in which Michael Bennett, for example, created the play “A Chorus Line” (1975) from audition slates?

D.O.: Great question and I’ll answer it as holistically as possible because that’s the way I see things as an anthropologist. I think anthropology is all about not only documenting the past and present to increase our knowledge, but it is very much about creating allies in the social sciences, physical sciences, and certainly in the fine and performing arts. It’s an “all in” effort to develop and maintain history and cultural meaning. When we do this, we create new entrepreneurial ways to connect to people, places, and ideas. We’re all so different, so some people might be turned off by an academic article, but get excited to read literature about a culture, or they may see a play or artwork, and it can change their lives. Just as there’s not one right way to be a “human” there’s no one right way to discover our human connections, which are many and so diverse. Even though some people would like us to think differently. A child’s story about growing up in the Caribbean is my story. An immigrant’s story about the hardships of leaving home is equally my story. Every person and community has value and worth. The challenge specifically in ethnography and cultural anthropology is to collect, share, and inspire others to see us as connected and one human family.

LWC: Can you explain some of your research and experiences in Anthropology? What cultures have you encountered, and what countries have you traveled to? How many years have you been in the field? 

DO: I have been very fortunate in that my love of anthropology has connected me to many different people in places. My first book was an international ethnography, really an ethnology, looking at how people from across the globe work for social justice, human rights, and environmental justice as non-believers or atheists/agnostics in every country and continent. The idea is, can we be “good without god” and if so, who is attempting to heal the world not for the motivation of faith but non-faith. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with helping others if your faith and spirituality ask that of you, but it was great research to see what motivates millions of people without faith to live with The Golden Rule. My actual research isn’t in ethnography, though. I study human evolution, paleontology, primate behavior, and science acceptance. So I’ve really been all over this planet doing research, presenting my findings, and working in these areas. For instance, this summer, I’m speaking in Helsinki and London, all on anthropology. I’ve also researched in Romania and other parts of Europe and spoken in Manilla, really it’s a long list.  In 2018, I was the faculty advisor and took MEC and CUNY students to Ecuador where we worked with indigenous peoples, and assisted in doing environmental research in the Amazon Rainforest and on the Galapagos Islands.

LWC: What inspired you to study Anthropology?

DO: Well, I’ll be honest. It was my father who took me to see Planet of the Apes in 1968 when I was a child of maybe six or seven. I was hooked on the idea of inter-species communication and that got me interested in studying the primates. Fast forward and when I was an undergraduate at CUNY, I spent time working with the Bronx Zoo gorillas, interning at the Brooklyn Museum, and also spent time in California meeting with Koko, the sign-language gorilla. 

LWC: Of the many cultures that you have met, what custom, if any, inspired or changed your way of thinking in terms of traditions that you may have been accustomed to previously?

DO: Well, I tend not to be too accustomed to many traditions and really try to keep a holistic open mind, heart, and imagination when I meet all people. I’m an optimist by perception, so I come from a humanistic point of view seeing the good in all people, even if all people aren’t good to each other all the time.

I do see how the connections and rituals are connected to the past and I like to bring that out in class when we celebrate holidays like Valentine’s Day, Christmas, or other secular and religious holidays. 

LWC: New York is a large city, but a small place once you leave because many of its traditions and peculiarities are unlike anywhere else. Most places do not have a 24-hour rail system (subway), 24-hour stores, and multicultural neighborhoods. I had relatives who came to New York to visit and said they had never seen an open fire hydrant and had to take pictures; these are little things that New Yorkers take for granted. Did that affect your view as you entered into other community spaces outside of New York City?

DO: Well, I think the benefit of being born in a diverse city like New York really lays the groundwork for understanding other people. I was born in Brooklyn in the early 1960s and lived the first 12 years of my life in the Marlboro Houses, a housing project on 86th Street. So, I was kind of born into diversity and never left. My friends then, like now, really came from everywhere. I grew up believing and seeing the truth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote about living one day in a nation where we don’t judge anyone by the color of their skin but rather by the content of their character. 

LWC: What thoughts would you like to leave our readers with in terms of Anthropology?

DO: Sure, I’ll be happy to share. To me, anthropology is more than just a discipline with research interests and methodology. It is a perceptual way of living an open and humble way of life. Seeing the connections of people, culture, biology, and language is a daily event and a ticket to the best show on Earth! Of course, we also have to be mindful of the damage and dangers our species has done and continues to do related to how we care for each other and the planet. But, as noted before, as an optimist humanistic anthropologist, I conclude that we can get past the noise and build a loving world if we can be less tribal or at least see the “tribe” as all of us rather than just some of us.

LWC: Thank you so much for speaking with me. Cheers and thanks for sharing.

DO: You are very welcome, and I thank you for your time and attention. Thank you for offering me a platform to share. This is exactly what we should be doing, coming from so many different disciplines and perspectives to build a community. If your readers ever want to reach out to me, my office is on the first floor of the Bedford Building (1650 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn N.Y., at CUNY/Medgar Evers College).



2 thoughts on “Exploring the Intersection of Ethnography, Anthropology, and Black Literature: An Interview with Professor David Orenstein”

  1. After reading this interview I think most of us should have to study anthropology, thi is a good way to better understanding each other, to live in harmony!

  2. Great Interview. It correctly presents Anthropology as not just an academic discipline, but as a holistic world view. And as such, connected to all other disciplines and areas of study. Well done, Dr. Orenstein!

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