Interlude: International Women’s Day/ Martha Warren Beckwith

Today, Nature and Supernatural Nature is taking some time out from its investigation into the spirit lore associated with Jamaican plants to celebrate International Women’s Day https://www.internationalwomensday.com/ and pay tribute to the woman who provided the inspiration for this blog, Martha Warren Beckwith

Martha Warren Beckwith (1879-1959) was an American anthropologist, folklorist and academic who is perhaps best known today for her work on Hawaii. However, her Jamaican research was pioneering as not only did she focus on the Caribbean when it was considered an unfashionable area for study by many anthropologists but she also took African-Jamaican folk religions seriously. She was writing at a time when Jamaican folk stories, song and dance were starting to be celebrated but the island’s folk religions and spiritual beliefs were still denigrated by many commentators.

Beckwith’s Jamaican fieldwork, which took place between 1919 and 1924, resulted in a number of articles and the books, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life (1929), Jamaica Proverbs (1925), Jamaican Folklore (1928) and Jamaica Anansi Stories (1924). Her Caribbean research influenced Melville Herskovits, who himself went on to influence a generation of “American anthropologists who studied the Caribbean, including Katherine Dunham, Zora Neale Hurston, and George Eaton Simpson” (Forde and Paton, p. 17)

Beckwith was not only ground-breaking in her approach to her Caribbean fieldwork. She also played an important role in the development of folklore studies in academia. In 1920 Beckwith became research Professor of the Folklore Foundation and Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Vassar College, making her America’s first chair of folklore. In the early twentieth century, folklore studies at university level were based in either anthropology or literature departments. Beckwith disagreed with this, considering folklore to be a subject worthy of study in its own right and, under the auspices of Vassar’s Folklore Foundation, Beckwith was able to bring literature and anthropology together in the study of folklore as a distinct subject.

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So on this International Women’s Day I’m raising a glass to all those who work to make women’s lives better and also to the inspirational Martha Warren Beckwith

Next time…

Normal service will be resumed as I look at the duppy prevention and vermifugal qualities of Worm-weed.

Sources

Maarit Forde and Diana Paton, “Introduction” to Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2012).

Picture credit: by Davide Restivo at

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