florida · miami

experimentally zora

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Here’s a still for a 3:34 minute video I made. In it, I knit images, some of them abstract, that push my thinking on my ongoing interest in Zora Neale Hurston’s understudied time in Miami. While these images appear, I narrate my present research in the most reductionistic fashion. I, indeed, deliberately break the story, which I am still discovering, down to its bare bones. I could have done that merely by typing words. But I wanted to do more.

As I am inclined to do, I decompress from my academic work while making short videos. I use I-movie software (sometimes I write and paint, too). Most of the stuff I create I keep to myself. This particular video, “Zora in Miami,” was shared. It is now part of a group of “monthly winners” that will have further consideration for a screening in the 2020 Miami Independent Film Festival. This is a novel approach to a film festival. Being in a festival that incrementally recognizes submitted work is not unwanted as my short video is very experimental. Whether it gets screened is not as important as having the courage to put it out there. I can be shy about my work as a scholar and an artist. Still, having the  chance to present in my hometown – and an area in which the acclaimed writer and researcher who figures into an in-progress manuscript addressing racial and spatial politics on the Florida peninsula, and this new project, briefly resided – is extremely cool, too.

While editing the short video in question after the spring semester ended, I noticed that I was very attentive to how I analyzed the way in which Hurston inhabited space as a woman of color in South Florida during her stay there from December 1949 to the summer of 1950. The vast number of historical writings about women of color whose mere presence disrupts the social order was never far from my mind. I hope my work expands the conversation.

When Hurston arrived first on Miami Beach before heading to the mainland that is Miami, she had plans to return to the Honduras where she had earlier worked on a book. The trained anthropologist wanted to learn more about a lost city in this central American country, one of several places from which migrants are presently traveling with the hope of entering the United States. During that planned visit, she likely also wanted to continue recovering from the pain of a recent and unfortunate false accusation. She never got there. She’d been duped by the English owner of the freighter on which she was supposed to travel.

To stay fed, she looked for work in the area. Because of the people with whom she spent time, her stay in Miami was thusly politically charged.

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Zora Neale Hurston’s movements in Florida. Courtesy of University of Alabama Cartographic Lab

She worked on a campaign for George Smathers’ successful run for a Senate seat. As The Miami Herald would report almost certainly to her dismay, she was also for a time a housekeeper, a not unexpected role for even an accomplished African American in the Jim Crow South of which Miami was still a part.

The two time Guggenheim winner and widely traveled woman continued to turn heads in other ways. She was sometimes mistaken for being Hispanic, for example.

As I continue to review the short video and study her experiences, I will doubtless be thinking through how traditional methodologies encounter this moving images detour. The above image features seagulls. It was actually taken off the coast of Orange Beach, Alabama. Notasulga, Alabama, Hurston’s little known birthplace, is about three and a half drive north east of this part of the Gulf and not far from the better-known Tuskegee. Her father moved her family from here to Eatonville, Florida, when she was a baby just before the turn of the century. Miami was founded in 1896. She and Miami grew up together even though they would not “meet” for years.

I see in the pictured seagulls the freedom she seemed to have even with her many struggles. She died penniless in Ft. Pierce in 1960. Alice Walker’s discovery of her unmarked grave led to renewed interest in her life beginning in the 1970s.

There is some other good news. I recently received an $1100 grant from the University of Florida’s Smathers Libraries to return there to continue looking at her papers and other documents. This validation has been as important as was presenting on Hurston’s time in Miami at the Southeastern Association of Women’s Studies (SEWSA) meeting at the University of Mississippi last March. I will also present a paper on her time in South Florida at the upcoming Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD) meeting at the College of William and Mary this November.

Meanwhile, I continue my research and think, among other things, about the tensions between Hurston, a woman of the diaspora whose movements pose tensions with the people who are in today’s headlines in complex ways through which I am still sorting.

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