Of the two great African-American novels of the late 1930s, Richard Wright’s Native Son is overtly confrontational, urban-set and passionately concerned with the problems of racial conflict. By contrast, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is more interested in the wider questions of personal identity and is set in rural black communities where white characters are largely absent. Defiantly refusing to place the “race problem” at the heart of her literary enterprise, Hurston was chiefly concerned with documenting the patterns of individual lives—the way people speak, their daily rituals, the ethos of a community. For Hurston, this defiance formed part of a larger pattern of behavior, an outspoken earnestness which often led to controversy—and consigned her to eventual poverty—but was inextricable from the literary genius that led to the creation of a highly distinctive and permanently enduring body of work.
It is this quality of passionate expressiveness that comes to the foreground in PBS’ compelling new profile Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, the latest installment in the network’s celebrated American Masters series. Tracing a “rags to riches to rags” trajectory—except, as one commentator puts it “she never had the riches”—the program draws on a series of interviews with leading literary figures and historians, re-enactments and most rewardingly, a generous selection of rare archival footage (much of it shot by Hurston herself on her anthropological trips) to paint a portrait of the artist as a wonderfully outspoken, linguistically playful and supremely self-confident woman.
After a brief introduction, Jump at the Sun takes us quickly through the events of Hurston’s early life. After growing up in Eatonville, a tight-knit all-black community in Florida, she drifted around the South for fifteen years, eventually winning a scholarship to Howard University at the age of twenty-eight. From there, she moved to New York, where she achieved her first taste of literary success and became a leading member of the Harlem literary scene of the 1920s. But, it was not until securing a grant to document black folk customs in the rural South that Hurston found both the cultural “material” and sense of literary purpose that allowed her to embark on her mature artistic enterprise.
If we can locate a central crux to Hurston’s literary achievement, Jump suggests, it’s in her ongoing project—encompassing both novels and anthropological work—to document a vanishing way of life: the behaviors and customs of Southern black culture. Equipped with a video camera and a notepad, Hurston made a series of trips to Florida and Louisiana (and later Haiti), interviewing the local residents of various communities, observing their rituals, recording conversations and, in many cases, participating directly in their lives. If for many Northerners the South represented a region of imagined horrors, for Hurston it was simply a place where people lived. Drawing on this wealth of accumulated material as the backbone of her work, Hurston created as vivid a fictional world as any of her contemporaries—only perhaps Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County stands as a more fully-imagined depiction of the variegated fabric of a Southern community.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston channels a rich understanding of African-American speech patterns to give life to her rural characters and it is largely this privileging of the linguistic qualities of black culture that accounts for the novel’s singular achievement. According to Henry Louis Gates, the book is principally about “the capacity of the African-American vernacular to narrate a novel” and as such represents the triumphant assertion of the culture Hurston lovingly documented as every bit as valid as the more “literary” Northern culture championed by novelists such as Wright. If Hurston refused to tackle the “race problem” head on, she made her lasting contribution to black literature by foregrounding the rich tradition of Southern folk customs within the context of the literary novel.
What emerges from the PBS documentary is both a clear sense of Hurston’s artistic achievement and the image of a defiantly outspoken individual, but one who was always ready to accept life as it was, continually refusing the lure of black victimhood. Her willingness to speak directly and unreservedly often got her into trouble—as when she wrote an article decrying the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which she considered “insulting”—and ultimately prevented her from getting any subsequent work published. But the program does a good job of establishing her stubborn individualism as central to her life and work. Drawing on an impressive range of source material and an all-star cast of interview subjects (in addition to two biographers and a handful of historians, the broadcast features Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Henry Louis Gates), and despite the occasional hokiness of some of its re-enactments, Jump at the Sun presents a succinct and surprisingly rich précis for anyone interested in finding out exactly why Zora Neale Hurston matters to us today.
Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.