Zora Neale Hurston, path-breaking novelist, pioneering anthropologist and one of the first black women to enter the American literary canon (Their Eyes Were Watching God), established the African American vernacular as one of the most vital, inventive voices in American literature. This definitive film biography, eighteen years in the making, portrays Zora in all her complexity: gifted, flamboyant, and controversial but always fiercely original.
Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun intersperses insights from leading scholars and rare footage of the rural South (some of it shot by Zora herself) with re-enactments of a revealing 1943 radio interview. Hurston biographer, Cheryl Wall, traces Zora's unique artistic vision back to her childhood in Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black incorporated town in the U.S. There Zora was surrounded by proud, self-sufficient, self-governing black people, deeply immersed in African American folk traditions. Her father, a Baptist preacher, carpenter and three times mayor, reminded Zora every Sunday morning that ordinary black people could be powerful poets. Her mother encouraged her to "jump at de' sun," never to let being black and a woman stand in the way of her dreams.
Zora's mother died when she was thirteen and for the next fifteen years she hustled, moving from place to place, taking odd jobs as a maid or waitress. Finally, at 28, she achieved her goal of entering Howard University where she began to write. In 1925, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, she arrived in New York "with $1.50 in my pocket and a lot of hope." Novelist Dorothy West, doyenne of that generation, remembers her as the self-anointed "queen" of the "niggerati," a term Zora coined. She became a close friend and collaborator of Langston Hughes, a Mid-westerner who found in Zora a link to the Southern black experience.
Zora next entered Barnard, becoming its first black graduate and a protege of Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology. He obtained a fellowship for her to document the disappearing folklore of the rural South. She returned to Eatonville with "a camera and pearl-handled revolver," launching her career as one of the leading ethnologists of African American culture. She recorded over 200 blues and folk songs with legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress and filmed "religious ecstasy" in the "sanctified" churches of Beaufort, South Carolina with anthropologist Margaret Mead. Zora combined her skill as a trained anthropologist with an inherent respect for the syncretic culture formerly enslaved people had created in the Americas. Where some saw superstition and ignorance, she saw people creating meaning and joy in the few spaces left open to them by white society.
Her ethnographic research lay the groundwork for the books and plays which secured her place as an essential voice in American letters. Zora was not ashamed to show everyday African American life, the life of rail yards, "juke" joints and the front porch of the Eatonville general store. Her work unabashedly embraced "incorrect" black English and celebrated the eloquence of its rhythms and rhetoric. Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr, names her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a classic because its use of black vernacular immerses readers in the consciousness of an oppressed people, exuberantly expressing their freedom, creativity and individual worth through everyday speech.
While Zora's writing was by and large well received by the white press, it roused discomfort, if not outright hostility, from the emerging black intelligentsia. Her uncensored pictures of black life and speech, embarrassed some. Black writers were expected to confront their white readers with the injustice of racism as exemplified in Richard Wright's seminal novel Native Son. But Zora's work is notably absent of white characters; she refused to write "protest novels" portraying blacks as victims. In the film, biographer Valerie Boyd suggests that while Wright represents the angry, sometimes self-destructive, side of the African American character, Zora expresses the exuberant resilience of black culture.
As the Civil Rights struggle gained momentum after World War II, Zora found herself increasingly out of step with her people. A boot-strap Republican and fervent anti-communist, she denounced the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education integration decision as "insulting to black people." No court needed to order white people to associate with her; bigots were simply denying themselves the "pleasure of my company" and the riches of African American culture.
A turning point in Zora's life came when she was falsely accused of molesting two pre-adolescent African American boys. Although the charges were thrown out of court, she was pilloried in the black press. Devastated, even suicidal, feeling her reputation ruined, she claimed, "My own race has sought to destroy me." She lived out her life in relative obscurity and poverty in Florida. She died in 1960 at age 69 and was buried in an unmarked grave, leaving behind numerous unpublished works and seven out of print books.
As the reassessment of America's literary canon has expanded to include the works of women and people of color, Zora Neale Hurston has been rediscovered. Alice Walker and Maya Angelou both recall how her work inspired their own while a younger generation of writers follow Zora's lead to speak in their own voices without shame.
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