Next week, I present at the SEWSA conference in Oxford, MS, my first paper addressing the acclaimed novelist-playwright-anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s understudied time in Miami during the winter and spring of 1950. On the heels of an unfortunate event that nearly drove her to suicide in 1948, she briefly lived on a boat she was duped into believing was headed to the Honduras where she had planned to continue studying Mayan culture.
She also worked as a maid and ghost wrote a book for Frank Smathers while helping his son George’s successful bid for a Democratic U.S. Senate seat. She did as much even though she was a Republican as she she was born when African Americans were associated this party since the days of Lincoln despite the move of many such blacks to the Democrats following Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.
In these days when talk of mindfulness and breathing are rampant, I am interested in how she sometimes used the natural environment as a tonic in the same way the dominant culture has routinely done when heading to sunny places for touristic and capitalistic purposes.
Having grown up in Miami, I can easily say even when one is suffering there is something about “sunshine the way it is done in Florida,” as she put it, that can be healing. Hurston, an Alabama-native who was raised in Eatonville, Florida, the country’s first black township, clearly understood this. After a brief trip to New York, she returned to the state and never left again in the years leading to her 1960 death in Ft. Pierce.
My resulting study will expand the growing body of writings that examine how the oppressed used space to resist their difficult circumstance. Stephanie Camp’s work serves as one example of this dynamic. I also want to draw attention to general audiences to how, amid debates about climate change, there is still beauty around us.
How often do we turn to nature to heal while we can?
My thoughts turn now to that poignant scene in Moonlight when Juan is teaching Little, a troubled kid in Miami, how to swim in the Atlantic Ocean.
This movie and Hurston are in a second book project investigating the across time ways the underdog uses space in Florida to enhance their position. From black pirates to the Seminoles and turn of the century Bahamians and other black migrants to the rise of UM football in the eighties, space matters to how the little guy has a bit of control.
My grandmother’s days and nights of fishing on Lake Okeechobee also come to mind. That body of water is pictured in the beautiful map above that was created by Alex Fries, an amazingly talented graduate student in the University of Alabama’s Geography Department Cartographic Lab.