Ruth Behar and James Baldwin: Ethnographic Treatment of the Burden of the Author

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Contemporary literary writing and the anthropological discipline of ethnography have spawned a new breed of writing. There is a melding of the ethnocentric writer and the literary ethnographer. The result is an approach to culture and communication that employs rather than avoids empathy, personal experience and a connection to the scenes and people studied.


There exists this question regarding "ethnography" as a kind of writing, perhaps, as a form of literature. In The Vulnerable Observer, Ruth Behar defines the shifting definition of 'ethnography' in terms of responsibility, poly-vocality, empathy, power and the post-modernist view of the fragmented self. Moreover, she presents ethnography as a means towards a cathartic end for the ethnographer, perhaps as an apology for neglecting self, in the hope of finding someone else's truth, where truth can be shared by all the dwellers in the world, and seeking is the one true power which directs our relational identities, that ultimately colors the "burden of the author."
As a "bastard of the West," an "interloper," a "suspect late-comer, bearing no credentials," James Baldwin's burden pointed towards his struggles to adopt, or adapt to, parts of the culture that preceded him. (Baldwin, Notes of a Native a Son, 6-7, 164) Empathy, trust, and love were not ingredients personally practiced by Baldwin, but throughout his literary characterizations, they were pervasive. And, as a literary ethnographer observing America's political and social climate, Baldwin grappled with the same notions as Behar - the need for love, subjectivity, truth, self and the Other, and racism.
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