Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude
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Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude

Zora Neale Hurston Personifies Black Girl Magic

It's well past time to give her the flowers she deserves.

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ZORA NEALE HURSTON: CLAIMING A SPACE, is a documentary written, directed, and produced by Tracy Heather Strain. The two-hour offering provides a vivid picture of the life and legacy of Zora, who overcame too many of the challenges Black women are forced to confront and in so doing shattered ceilings, resisted being controlled, and leveraged anthropology and literature to demonstrate Black Lives Matter decades before the protracted struggle for racial equity would adopt the name.

Zora was born in Notasulga, Alabama but caught sense in Eatonville, Florida, a small all-Black town, where she moved with her family in 1894. Eatonville and the folklore surrounding the African American and Caribbean traditions that colored and curated the space would become a prominent character in many of her most noteworthy works. Alice Walker, who published an article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” (later retitled “Looking for Zora”) to shine a bright light on her novels, which went relatively uncelebrated described Zora as “a genius of the south, novelist folklorist, and anthropologists.” The life and legacy of the pioneering anthropologists, key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, founding member of the Hilltop, the award-winning student newspaper at Howard University, which she attended, and member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated is one that all Black people should learn about.

Producer Tracy Heather Strain said it was important to produce the documentary because those who know Zora may know about her literary offerings; however, not enough Black people know about the life and legacy of the Black women who refused to abide by the rules of white supremacist institutions in her pioneering anthropological efforts to challenge assumptions about race, gender, and cultural superiority in ways that honored the full humanity of Black people and communities often erased and ignored.

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Here are two reasons why you should watch the PBS documentary premiering Tuesday January 17th at 9 PM EST:

Zora centered Black people without apology and reminds the world that we have always called small, rural, and isolated communities in the American south home.

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Zora wrote about the lives and legacies of descendants of the African Diaspora, traveling extensively throughout the Caribbean and the American South embedding herself within the communities that her white anthropological counterparts wrote about, sometimes without even visiting. at a time when the cultural curators of Blackness sought to distance popular representations of Black culture away from our southern, rural roots. Acknowledge as the authority on Black folklore at the time, Zora understood the importance of centering the ways that Black people make meaning in the small, rural, and isolated communities that we have always called home.

Zora’s life and legacy are reminders to appreciate the beautiful diversity that has always existed within the Black community—the African diaspora more generally. Zora’s anthropological focus and literary musings celebrate the lives of Black people in small, rural, southern communities. In spite of the fact that Black people have always called small, rural, and isolated communities, especially in the South home, prevailing stereotypes about Black people and communities suggest that we only exist in major metropolitan cities. The lies they tell. You know who they are.

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Zora’s brilliance was nurtured in southern communities where she resisted the forces of white supremacy including those embedded within the academic requirements that regulated access to anthropological resources and the capital associated with the academy as well as social pressures encouraging an erasure of our rural, Southern roots and ways of making meaning. Much of the magic of Zora’s, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is embedded within the Black rural practices that paint the pages of the novel. Zora earned support from the Guggenheim Foundation to conduct research that facilitated the publication of Tell My Horse (1938), which genre-defining book built from anthropology, folklore, and personal narrative. She wrote Jonah’s Gourd Vine in 1934 and Mules and Men in 1935 after researching lumber camps and documenting the practice of white men in power taking Black women as concubines. She conducted research on African American song traditions and wrote in ways that remind Black people the importance of remembering and reclaiming (her)stories that have always been ours. As we continue to (rightfully) stan for Beyoncé, Megan Thee Stallion, Solange, Erika Badu and other southern bosses who remind the world that we make American history we should also hold space to celebrate the early and enduring contributions made by sister Hurston.

Zora personified Black Girl Magic.

Black women crush challenges that often break others—challenges they should not be required to meet. Zora overcame significant hardship to take up space— without explaining or apologizing for her brilliance and love of Black people, in ways that we now associate with #BlackGirlMagic.

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Zora’s mother died when she was young. Her father remarried and shipped her off to a boarding school paying only a portion of her tuition, forcing her to move into independence well before children should be responsible for the decisions the adults that invite them into the world make. Undeterred, Zora worked while studying to pursue academic passions that eventually led her to both Howard and Columbia University.

Among the things I appreciate most about the documentary is the reminder that Zora is that girl. She’s a pioneering scholar who deserves much more credit for her contributions to the discipline of anthropology and she did the work despite white people being obstructionists while posing as sponsors and supporters. Zora’s anthropological career was shaped (and at critical points stalled) by Franz Boas who has been called the “Father of American Anthropology”. I won’t be accused of spoiling the documentary; however, let’s just say I wouldn’t be mad if Shonda Rhimes considered the material. At a time when the rights of Black girls and women continue to be threatened it is important to remember Zora Neale Hurston’s life and legacy to draw lessons on how we get free!

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As we prepare to formally center celebrations of Black Excellence during Black History Month, let us hold space to give our sister Zora Neale Hurston the flowers she has earned. Join me in watching “ZORA NEALE HURSTON: CLAIMING A SPACE,” which premiers on PBS American Experience Tuesday January 17, 9 pm - 11 pm ET.