♪ ♪ NARRATOR: In spring 1940, Zora Neale Hurston, the celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer and anthropologist, arrived in Beaufort, South Carolina, to study religious trances.
♪ ♪ For more than ten years, Hurston had skirted danger, traveling alone across the American South and Caribbean, documenting rural Black people's lives and collecting their stories.
Educated at Howard University and Barnard, during her lifetime, Zora Neale Hurston was considered the foremost authority on Black folklore.
EVE DUNBAR: She's interested in all elements of Black folk.
She allows that culture to be dynamic, to have a voice in modernity.
♪ ♪ IRMA MCCLAURIN: The research that Zora Neale Hurston did in Beaufort, South Carolina, represents someone who understands that for people to trust you, you have to be in it.
And that's what she does.
She joins in with them.
CHARLES KING: She's playing a drum.
At the time, this seemed scandalous, that you weren't standing off to one side with your white lab coat and your clipboard, noting down what others were doing.
MCCLAURIN: Zora studied her own people, which is not something that is supported in anthropology at that moment.
DAPHNE LAMOTHE: Anthropology understood itself to be a science.
An aspect of scientific inquiry that's really important is to be detached and objective.
She didn't play by those rules.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: From the Jazz Age through the Great Depression, Hurston had published her extensive research in prestigious academic journals, popular magazines, and ethnographic books.
But it was her fiction, thick with dialect, cultural specificity, and richly drawn characters that over time would cement her place as one of the most important writers of the 20th century.
MCCLAURIN: She was an innovator, using stylistic conventions of literature, but the content is rooted in the research that she did.
LEE D. BAKER: She was driven by her own integrity, she was driven by her own passion, and she was driven by her own sense of how best to collect this folklore.
KING: Throughout her entire life, the powerful people around her consistently thought of her as being an outsider, less than talented, a marginal figure.
CARLA KAPLAN: We're talking about somebody who had an incredibly creative, fierce mind.
MARÍA COTERA: Her independent streak and her iconoclasm, you could say it was both her superpower and her fatal flaw.
♪ ♪ HURSTON (dramatized): I was glad when somebody told me, "You may go and collect Negro folklore."
In a way, it would not be a new experience for me.
When I pitched headforemost into the world, I landed in the crib of Negroism.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: As a child, Zora Neale Hurston possessed a keen interest in the stories she heard about people's lives and customs while lingering at Joe Clark's general store in Eatonville, Florida, one of a handful of all-Black towns in the United States.
HURSTON (dramatized): It was the habit of the men folks particularly to gather on the store porch of evenings and swap stories.
Even the women folks would stop and break a breath with them at times.
I'd drag out my leaving as long as possible in order to hear more to allow whatever was being said to hang in my ear.
She's one of those children that people would say, "Go, go away."
You know, "This is grown folks' stuff."
And the more they tell her that, the more she wants to hear it.
TIFFANY PATTERSON: Zora was nosy, pure and simple.
She had questions.
She, uh, wanted to see what was going on at the store.
HURSTON (dramatized): There were no discreet nuances of life on Joe Clark's porch.
There was open kindnesses, anger, hate, love, envy and its kinfolks, but all emotions were naked, and nakedly arrived at.
It was a case of "make it and take it."
MCCLAURIN: This gathering of people, swapping lies, telling stories, is something that's going to attract her, because there is an innate cultural anthropologist in her curiosity about people.
BAKER: Eatonville shaped Zora Neale Hurston's worldview from the beginning, and what it did more than anything else is, it showed that Black lives mattered.
NARRATOR: Hurston lived in an eight-room house on five acres of land with her parents, Lucy and John, and seven siblings.
Religion and education were highly valued in a home ruled by her preacher father.
PATTERSON: Her father was very domineering.
Zora had her own ideas.
She said, "No, I'm going to do it this way.
I see it this way."
And it would drive her father bananas.
(laughs) She was her mother's child.
Her mother gave her permission to dream, a permission to ask questions, a permission to be artistic.
(wildlife chittering) HURSTON (dramatized): Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to "jump at de sun."
We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.
MCCLAURIN: The idea that she would strive to jump at the sun really puts into place the idea that Zora is always trying to reach someplace that may be unattainable to the ordinary person and represents a real challenge for her-- and a real opportunity.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: When Hurston was 13, her beloved mother became ill and died.
HURSTON (dramatized): That hour began my wanderings.
Mama died at sundown and changed a world.
PATTERSON: That was devastating for the young Zora.
She's set adrift.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Hurston's father soon remarried and sent the shattered young teenager to join two siblings at Florida Baptist Academy in Jacksonville.
He only paid her tuition for a short time, leaving Hurston to scrub the school's floors to finish out the year.
And then she was on her own.
HURSTON (dramatized): The five years following my leaving the school at Jacksonville were haunted.
I was shifted from house to house of relatives and friends and found comfort nowhere.
It seemed that I had suffered a sea change.
I was not Zora of Orange County anymore.
I was now a little colored girl.
I found it out in certain ways, in my heart, as well as in the mirror.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Hurston spent another eight unaccounted years trying to find her way in the world.
♪ ♪ HURSTON (dramatized): I wanted family love and peace and a resting place.
I wanted books and school.
When I saw more fortunate people of my own age on their way to and from school, I would cry inside and be depressed for days, until I learned how to mash down on my feelings and numb them for a spell.
I felt crowded in on, and hope was beginning to waver.
(car horn honking) NARRATOR: At 26, Hurston landed in Baltimore with education still on her mind.
She realized by working during the day, and shaving ten years from her age, she could attend high school for free at night.
With her academic prowess evident to teachers and classmates, and sustained by jobs as a waitress, maid, and manicurist, an inspired Hurston enrolled in the elite Black college prep school Morgan Academy in Baltimore and then Howard Academy in Washington, D.C. By May 1919, she was a high school graduate ready to enroll in Howard University.
KING: It's not until she becomes an undergraduate at Howard University that Hurston feels like the gears begin to turn again, and her life restarts.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: "You have taken me in.
I am a tiny bit of your greatness."
Hurston vowed at her first college assembly in 1919, "I swear to you that I shall never make you ashamed of me."
She had initially thought that Howard was out of her league.
Chartered by the United States Congress in the late 19th century to educate Black students, Howard University, the nation's largest Black institution of higher education, often was referred to as the "Black Harvard."
A part-time student secretly years older than her classmates, Hurston formed many close relationships and joined the theater company, Howard Players, and the so-called brainy sorority, Zeta Phi Beta.
MCCLAURIN: It's almost like having Eatonville in one space again, because it's a Black space.
It is this concentration of Black knowledge and Black talent that you're not going to find in many other places.
PATTERSON: She was rubbing elbows with the developing political and cultural and social ideologies that were emerging in Black thought, and it shaped her in very important ways.
BAKER: She met Alain Locke, who was a philosophy professor, but also the midwife, if you will, of the so-called New Negro Movement.
DUNBAR: Everybody is really excited about what it might mean to be able to slough off that Old Negro, who is the product of enslavement.
LAMOTHE: Black people understood themselves to be creators of culture and art and literature, and make important contributions to how American society understood, thought about, and related to Black people in America.
One of the major projects of the New Negro Renaissance is to write about and reframe how society thinks about Black culture.
NARRATOR: Hurston majored in English, and penned poetry, stories, essays, and plays drawing from her life in Eatonville.
She wrote for Howard's prestigious literary journal, "The Stylus," and in 1924, she co-founded "The Hilltop," the university's newspaper.
Off-campus, Hurston found inspiration, support, and encouragement from a literary salon frequented by devotees of the Renaissance.
HURSTON (dramatized): I was careful to do my classwork and be worthy to stand there under the shadow of the hovering spirit of Howard.
I felt the ladder under my feet.
BAKER: At Howard University, Zora Neale Hurston was really encouraged to write and really was supported, and in some respects found her voice, her literary voice.
NARRATOR: When Charles S. Johnson, editor of "Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life," the influential publication of the National Urban League, invited Hurston in 1924 to submit work, she sent a joyful, day-in-the-life short story that drew from her own childhood.
Hurston's translation of rural Black experiences into literature so impressed Johnson that he suggested that the young woman join the flourishing literary scene in New York.
KAPLAN: She had waited a long time to have her intellectual gifts recognized.
At Howard, she was recognized.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: After five-and-a-half years of part-time study, Hurston left Howard with an associate's degree and moved to Harlem.
HURSTON (dramatized): Being out of school for lack of funds and wanting to be in New York, I decided to go there and try to get back in school in that city.
So the first week of January 1925 found me in New York with $1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope.
MCCLAURIN: Harlem in the 1920s is a magnet.
It's a satellite.
It's a lightning rod.
It's attracting all this great talent and energy.
♪ ♪ PATTERSON: It's a musical world.
It's a world of jazz.
It's a literary world.
It's a world of politics.
And she wanted to be a part of that.
LAMOTHE: Harlem comes to symbolize this modernity, this newness, this dynamism, this idea of change.
What you see in the Harlem Renaissance is that people are very intentional in understanding what it means to write about and represent culture, and Black culture in particular.
DUNBAR: That idea of the New Negro sweeps the ethos of the Black imaginary, the exciting condition of Black people, who are, by virtue of the Great Migration, moving from the rural South to urban centers-- Chicago, New York, Philadelphia-- moving up, and participating in the 20th-century revolution of modernity.
NARRATOR: Just four months after arriving with hope and a bag of stories, newcomer Zora Neale Hurston gained a pivotal foothold in New York at "Opportunity's" first annual literary awards.
COTERA: The "Opportunity" awards introduce her to the Harlem literati of New York as it's kind of developing and rising up in this mid-1920s moment.
NARRATOR: With over 300 guests in attendance, the event was a who's who of the Harlem Renaissance: progressive New Yorkers, Black and White, from the worlds of literature, arts, education, and philanthropy.
Langston Hughes, the promising 24-year-old writer from Missouri, won the first prize in poetry.
But that evening, Hurston won the most prizes-- two second-place awards and two honorable mentions.
♪ ♪ PATTERSON: Hurston was different than others.
She'd come from the South.
She was funny.
MCCLAURIN: She is flamboyant.
She is bodacious.
She is outspoken.
And she also likes to be the center of attention.
At that moment in time, Harlem is also about respectability.
People are wanting to move away from the Southern culture, because it's seen as lower-class.
And Zora brings her Southernness with her, because she's not ashamed of it.
PATTERSON: She was smart, she had ideas, and she was interested in other people with ideas.
She fell into that world and she fit in that world.
NARRATOR: Prize-winner Langston Hughes later remarked, "Zora Neale Hurston is a clever girl, isn't she?
I would like to know her."
KING: It was at the prize ceremony where she first met Langston Hughes, and that relationship would continue to define the early part of her literary life.
NARRATOR: By evening's end, Hurston also had met and impressed two influential women who would support her academic goals.
Fannie Hurst, one of the nation's most successful writers, sought out Hurston after the event to hire her as personal secretary.
And Annie Nathan Meyer, a wealthy female founder of Barnard, the women's college affiliated with Columbia University, offered Hurston admittance on the spot so that she could resume her undergraduate studies.
KAPLAN: She was unusually adaptable.
She was somebody who could function in almost any milieu.
(people talking in background) MCCLAURIN: The fact that Zora is able to finagle a scholarship out of an event where she meets someone for the first time speaks to her prowess as someone who is able to engage people.
(talking in background) CHOIR: ♪ There's a college on a hilltop ♪ ♪ That's very dear to me ♪ BAKER: When she enters Barnard, she enters an elite world of women's education.
And as I understand, she was the only African American woman there.
CHOIR: ♪ To dear old Barnard ♪ She is what my mother would call a "fly in the buttermilk" at Barnard.
KAPLAN: She was not only the only Black student to be at Barnard at the time, she was pretending to be eight to ten years younger than she was, and she was there without the privileges and advantages that almost everybody else at Barnard had.
She did not have family sending her money, she was working to get every cent that she needed.
HURSTON (dramatized): I feel my race.
Among the thousand White persons, I am a dark rock, surged upon, overswept by a creamy sea.
I am surged upon and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself.
KAPLAN: She had to make a decision about whether she was going to try to fit in or try to play up her difference.
And in true Zora Neale Hurston style, it appears that she did both.
BAKER: Being at Barnard I'm sure gave her both confidence as well as excitement that she was as smart as anyone in the country.
She's very secure in wanting to advance herself, and she will take advantage of any opportunity to do that.
KAPLAN: When it came to needing to be popular, or get extra things, she let the fellow students in her class see her as special, and even exotic.
But she never allowed anybody to treat her as lesser than, or to minimize her.
NARRATOR: Something of a celebrity on campus, Hurston later remarked that she was "Barnard's sacred black cow."
She was a published writer, friends with Fannie Hurst, and part of the ambitious younger generation of Harlem's artists, which made progressive-minded Barnard students eager to know her.
♪ ♪ COTERA: She starts at Barnard looking to become a teacher, which was the expected path of an upwardly mobile African American woman at the time, except she has this brilliant creativity, and a storehouse of stories and tales from Eatonville.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: In her second semester, Hurston wrote a paper in her anthropology class that resulted in a summons from Franz Boas, the world-renowned founder of Columbia University's anthropology department.
It was an auspicious meeting for the aspiring writer-teacher.
COTERA: It wasn't until she encountered anthropology at Barnard and Columbia that she really began to see her culture as something that could be studied.
She arrives in New York and at Barnard at exactly the perfect time, an arrival that is converging with transformations in anthropology.
♪ ♪ (birds chirping) MCCLAURIN: The idea of anthropology, the way that it was formed, was to study the other.
We were the objects of study, but we were not supposed to be the researchers.
BAKER: Anthropology is an old discipline.
It really became a professional discipline in the 1840s as a defense for slavery.
If all men were created equal, well, we shouldn't have slavery, and so if they weren't quite men or quite human, we can justify slavery.
Well, then we come into the 1890s, and we have Jim Crow after Reconstruction.
Anthropology started to support Jim Crow segregation.
♪ ♪ Anthropology in the 1890s, before Franz Boas really comes on the professional scene, construed people in terms of "savage," "barbarian," and "civilized."
There was a great deal of research trying to pigeonhole people into this evolutionary hierarchy.
♪ ♪ COTERA: A lot of times, "anthropologists" didn't actually even visit the places that they were writing about, or, or know the people that they were writing about.
NARRATOR: These scientists, later referred to as armchair anthropologists, formed their theories and the foundations of the discipline based on the biased writings of colonizers-- explorers, missionaries, travelers, and military men.
Franz Boas, a German Jewish immigrant to the United States, rejected their methods and conclusions.
BAKER: He was one of the first people that took living with Indigenous people seriously, and he worked with the Inuits and other people.
And when you live with someone for a year, guess what happens?
You start seeing that they have a lot to say.
COTERA: Boas saw 19th-century anthropology and the discourses that emerged as being biased representations of cultural others.
He really wanted to bring more scientific accuracy in the description of other cultures.
NARRATOR: Boas landed at Columbia University.
His methodology for disputing racial and cultural hierarchies gained traction, and he became known as the father of both modern and American anthropology.
Columbia's Morningside Heights campus became a magnet for students eager to please "Papa Franz."
KING: He was helping young people to explore a completely new world of ideas that he was in the process of inventing: that people don't come prepackaged in races or ethnicities; that cultures make sense on their own terms if you spend enough time trying to understand them.
The mental characteristics of a race are not an expression of bodily form.
They are a reflection of cultural life.
KING: For the young people who came into his classrooms, these were revolutionary ideas.
BAKER: Zora Neale Hurston was excited to study anthropology at Columbia, because so much of American society and the media did not value African American culture.
Franz Boas had a good eye for talent, and he didn't care if they were Black, White, women, male, or the like.
KING: Around 1920 or so, Franz Boas said that a change had come over his seminar rooms in recent years, that, as he put it, "All my best students are women."
BAKER: Ruth Benedict, Ella Deloria, Margaret Mead, and others became anthropologists under his guidance.
Franz Boas becomes excited with Zora Neale Hurston because there were a number of White anthropologists that tried to understand the African American experience, but never really got very far.
NARRATOR: With Boas's encouragement, Hurston eagerly enrolled in more anthropology courses.
KING: Hurston signed on as a research assistant to go to Harlem and do some physical anthropological-- anthropometrical, as it was called at the time-- measurements that the Boas community and some of his students are, are engaged in.
♪ ♪ HURSTON (dramatized): I am being trained for anthropometry and to do measuring.
Dr. Boas says if I make good, there are more jobs in store for me, and so I must learn as quickly as possible, and be quite accurate.
Boas is eager for me to start.
MCCLAURIN: There were theories that the head sizes of different so-called races is something that was going to be able to tell us more about the level of intelligence, what kind of culture they had.
PATTERSON: As anthropology evolved, this data was then used to show the opposite: to show that Black people, White people, Indians, were human beings with brains, eyes, ears and nose and all of that in the same place with the same capacity.
But they're operating against a very powerful ideology of the inferiority of populations.
(people talking in background) (cars rumbling) NARRATOR: Hurston dutifully headed down to Lenox Avenue in Harlem to measure heads she found interesting with what Langston Hughes described as a "strange-looking" anthropological device.
He was amazed that no one bawled her out.
DUNBAR: Black people understand that once they start measuring your head, they're trying to prove that you're not human.
So to go out on the street corners and ask Black people to let you measure their head would have been a big ask.
(laughs) But because of her gregariousness, they comply.
(people talking in background) ♪ ♪ NARRATOR:, In February 1927, after Zora Neale Hurston had completed most of her undergraduate coursework, she boarded a train headed to Florida to begin six months of fieldwork in the South.
Boas had convinced pre-eminent Black scholar Carter G. Woodson, director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and wealthy sociologist and anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons to fund her trip.
DUNBAR: There was a certain amount of progressiveness in Boas's vision about training, in deputizing minoritized people in order to go into their own cultures that wasn't necessarily done.
And there's a certain sense of valuing these people for what they were able to help to produce.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Hurston's assignment: collect data on Black Southerners, including their practices, beliefs, dances, and storytelling ways.
COTERA: She goes off after taking a few classes in anthropology really intent on being this good Boasian anthropologist-- following Boasian methods of participant observation.
Participant observation required that you kind of immerse yourself in another culture in order to understand it from the inside out.
NARRATOR: To motor around the South, Hurston took out a car loan in Jacksonville using Boas's name for reference-- a surprise he did not appreciate-- and secured a chrome-plated pistol.
Set with her two-seater she named Sassy Susie, Hurston took off for Eatonville.
KING: Florida in the Jim Crow era was the heart of darkness.
KAPLAN: Here is a Black woman traveling alone with an exposed revolver.
She looks like a Black Annie Oakley.
She couldn't have drawn more attention to herself at a time when one of the only ways for her to be safe is to fly underneath the radar.
HURSTON (dramatized): I hurried back to Eatonville, because I knew that the town was full of material and that I could get it without hurt, harm, or danger.
NARRATOR: Collecting did not go as planned for one of the newest members of the American Folk-Lore Society.
HURSTON (dramatized): I went about asking, in carefully accented Barnardese, "Pardon me, but do you know any folk tales or folk songs?"
PATTERSON: Black people are suspicious, I think.
And they're gonna look at you, like, "What's wrong with you?"
"You're acting like White people."
HURSTON (dramatized): The men and women who had whole treasuries of material just seeping through their pores looked at me and shook their heads.
They had never heard of anything like that around there.
Maybe it was over in the next county.
Why didn't I try over there?
I did, and got the selfsame answer.
NARRATOR: Her reports back to Boas failed to impress.
In May, he sent a stern critique: "I find that what you have obtained "is largely repetition of the kind of material that has been collected so much."
Hurston had come home, but her education made her an outsider.
She needed a methodology that would bring her back inside.
COTERA: The assumption behind participant observation was always that you were studying, as the anthropologist, a different culture.
When she approached the people as an outsider, she encountered what she called "the featherbed resistance."
The idea that they'll let you in only so far, but really you're not going to get at the truth of what the culture holds.
NARRATOR: An unexpected encounter with Langston Hughes in Mobile, Alabama, in July brightened Hurston's mood.
She agreed to drive Hughes back to New York, and he accompanied her on fieldwork in Alabama and Georgia, the pair bonding over their shared interest in rural folk culture.
Hughes told her he would put in a good word with his New York patron.
In autumn, Hurston returned north to write her reports and face her mentor.
HURSTON (dramatized): I went back to New York with my heart beneath my knees and my knees in some lonesome valley.
I stood before Papa Franz and cried salty tears.
He gave me a good going over.
♪ ♪ BAKER: Historically, folklore has been an integral part of anthropology, because people wanted to understand individuals' worldviews.
And it has been a way of analyzing systematically how people make sense of the world.
COTERA: It was anthropology that really showed Hurston that she could write about her culture and imagine a career where that could really be the source of her literary imagination.
HURSTON (dramatized): Folklore is not as easy to collect as it sounds.
I found out later that it was not because I had no talents for research, but because I did not have the right approach.
KING: Hurston had learned that if you're trying to collect folklore, you had to get people to trust you.
NARRATOR: Charlotte Osgood Mason, the White wealthy member of old New York society who was Langston Hughes's benefactor, offered Hurston a way to resume her research.
KAPLAN: Charlotte Osgood Mason was somebody who believed deeply that White American civilization was bankrupt and washed out, and that the key would come from what she considered "primitive peoples," that they had the childlike energies and the childlike insights that would reinvigorate White American society.
NARRATOR: Mason supported other writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, including Howard professor Alain Locke.
Mason, whose grandmotherly appearance belied her imperious ways, insisted that her beneficiaries call her Godmother.
(exhales heavily) Mason, uh, was a handful.
She had lots of money.
She liked having people of color around her.
She first was very interested in Native Americans.
MCCLAURIN: She is someone who believes that she has the authentic interpretation of what Black culture, Negro culture, is about.
NARRATOR: When Zora Neale Hurston arrived at Mason's Park Avenue penthouse on December 8, 1927, she was presented with a one-year contract.
The document deemed Hurston an "independent agent" hired "to seek out and compile "and collect all information possible, "both written and oral, concerning the music, "poetry, folklore, literature, Hoodoo, conjure, "manifestations of art and kindred subjects relating to and existing among the North American Negroes."
BAKER: Zora Neale Hurston was an employee.
She was employed to collect for Charlotte Osgood Mason.
COTERA: She signs a contract that she will not share any materials with anyone or publish anything outside of Mason's approval.
But she's still connected to Boas, and she still wants to stay in Papa Franz's good graces.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Six days after signing with Mason, Hurston boarded a train heading to Alabama with a guarantee of $200 a month, money to purchase a car, and a plan for yearlong fieldwork in the South.
She also had a motion picture camera, a rare and expensive tool for anthropologists, that would allow her to capture scenes of rural Black life.
Hurston felt excited and, for once, financially secure.
HURSTON (dramatized): Godmother dearest, you have given me my first Christmas.
I mean, the first Yule season when reality met my dreams.
The kind of Christmas that my half-starved childhood painted.
(bell clanging, train engine churning) (people talking in background) NARRATOR: Hurston's new methodological approach was apparent once she arrived at the Alabama home of Cudjo Lewis, one of the last known surviving Africans of the Clotilda, thought to be the last American slave ship.
Hurston used his African name, Oluale Kossola, to greet the man who had vivid memories of his capture.
BAKER: Interviewing an enslaved person that came from Africa was compelling for her.
Zora Neale Hurston was genuinely intrigued and interested in mapping and understanding the relationship between African traditions and African American traditions.
NARRATOR: Over several months, she spent time with Lewis, who was in his late 80s, in Africatown, the community he co-founded after the Civil War with other West Africans.
Hurston brought him gifts of food and drove him to complete errands.
Though she captured 24 minutes of Lewis with her camera, it was her extensive, detailed notes of his memories and speech that were the priority for Hurston and her anthropological research.
KAPLAN: As an academically trained anthropologist, getting Cudjo Lewis's voice exact was very important, that ethnography should record with accuracy, not with translation.
MCCLAURIN: He's created his own language.
It's a fusion of both Southern Negro dialect, as well as some African words thrown in there.
BAKER: Hurston's intimacy and support of his African authenticity enabled him to open up to her in an authentic way.
(train rumbling) NARRATOR: From Alabama, Hurston headed off to Florida, where men worked at felling pine trees, manning sawmill camps, boiling turpentine, and mining phosphate.
KAPLAN: She was very interested in documenting what she called "the Negro farthest down."
HURSTON (dramatized): My search for knowledge of things took me into many strange places and adventures.
My life was in danger several times.
KAPLAN: She was often the only woman for tens of miles around, with a camera, with her own car, with a gun on her hip, collecting stories.
HURSTON (dramatized): If I had not learned how to take care of myself in these circumstances, I could have been maimed or killed on most any day of the several years of my research work.
NARRATOR: To win the trust of the men, she made up stories about her life.
HURSTON (dramatized): I took occasion to impress the job with the fact that I was also a fugitive from justice-- bootlegging.
They were hot behind me in Jacksonville, and they wanted me in Miami.
So I was hiding out.
That sounded reasonable.
Bootleggers always have cars.
I was taken in.
HURSTON: ♪ Shove it over ♪ ♪ Hey, hey, hey, you, can't you line it?
♪ ♪ Oh, shack-er-lack-er-lack-er- lack-er-lack-er-lack-er ♪ (clears throat): ♪ Can't you move there?
♪ COTERA: She realized that no one was going to share songs with her or even let her into these incredibly rich spaces where people were exchanging stories and song and card-playing games if she didn't bring something herself to the table.
NARRATOR: "I had to prove that I was their kind," Hurston recalled.
She sang and danced with them at their bimonthly payday parties.
In return, they told her stories, sang work songs, and played blues riffs on the guitar.
Hurston often wrote Langston Hughes of her work from the road; the pair, with Mason's support, were supposed to be collaborating on a folk opera.
♪ ♪ HURSTON (dramatized): July 10, 1928.
Dear Langston, In every town, I hold one or two storytelling contests, and at each, I begin by telling them who you are and all, then I read poems from "Fine Clothes."
Boy, they eat it up!
You are being quoted in railroad camps, phosphate mines, turpentine stills, et cetera.
Folks began to respond to her, and even repeat back verses of Langston Hughes's poetry to her.
They even began calling it the party book, and asking for her to bring out the party book and read something else from it.
MCCLAURIN: Not only do they like it, they pick up a guitar and they start putting it to music.
That kind of spontaneous creativity is amazing, given the harsh conditions in which people were working.
♪ ♪ HURSTON (dramatized): Everybody joined in.
It was the strangest and most thrilling thing.
They played it well, too.
You'd be surprised.
One man was giving the words, outlining them out as the preacher does a hymn, and the others would take it up and sing.
It was glorious!
BAKER: She was using this contemporary poetry that was written up in New York, bringing it down south, and then the, the Southern folkloric tradition would take it, turn it up on its head, and make it anew.
And so she was documenting how folklore and culture was actually being created in front of her eyes.
Much of the impetus for cultural anthropology, ethnography, was called salvage ethnography.
KING: Salvage anthropology was the idea that one of the goals of the anthropologist was to rush in and collect things before they were all destroyed by modernity.
On the one hand, this was a very noble pursuit, that you wanted to grab things before they disappeared.
On the other hand, it could lead you to believe that you were visiting so-called primitive societies that existed in a permanent present.
That they had no past, they had no future.
BAKER: And that was believed by a lot of people, but Zora Neale Hurston understood that culture was not being replaced as much as it was emerging and on a continuum.
And that was super-sophisticated.
HURSTON (dramatized): I am getting much more material than before because I am learning better technique.
Am keeping close tab on expressions of double meaning, too.
Also compiling lists of double words.
They, to give emphasis, use the noun and put the function of the noun before it as an adjective.
Example, sitting-chair, suck-bottle, cook-pot, hair-comb.
I have about enough for a good volume of stories.
KAPLAN: She may be our first Black female ethnographer documentary filmmaker.
She uses that expensive and rare film equipment to document the lives of ordinary, everyday Black children, and Black women, and Black communities, providing for us some of the earliest footage we have of the everyday visual lives of Black Southern Americans.
(people talking in background) NARRATOR: Hurston next traveled to New Orleans.
With Mason's support for another year, she was able to rent a three-room house.
She devoted most of her time to fieldwork on a topic that she perceived White folklorists to be sensationalizing and misrepresenting-- Hoodoo and conjure: folk religion and practices created by enslaved African Americans.
LAMOTHE: Hurston's the daughter of a preacher.
And I think that Hurston had a strong investment in the spiritual life of Black people, and Black women, in particular.
KING: The closest that Boas and his students had gotten to participant observation would be to sit in on a, a ritual or religious practice and, and watch it and note down what happened.
♪ ♪ For Hurston, you had to jump off the high dive.
If you were going to study Hoodoo or Voodoo, you had to do it from the inside, and so she went through at least four initiation rituals.
NARRATOR: One Hoodoo doctor asked her to chase down a black cat in the night, boil it in a cauldron, and suck on its bones.
Another had her lie naked and fasting for 69 hours, experiencing strange and altered dreams.
The ceremony ended with the painting of a red and yellow lightning bolt down her back.
PATTERSON: That she succeeded is a testament to her resilience, her willingness to do whatever she had to do to get her work done.
HURSTON (dramatized): I am getting on in the conjure splendidly.
I have been going to every one I hear of for the sake of thoroughness.
I am knee-deep in it with a long way to go.
(children chanting and clapping) BAKER: There was this real mismatch between the goals of Charlotte Osgood Mason and the goals of Zora Neale Hurston.
Hurston was collecting folklore to demonstrate the legitimacy and the sophistication of Black vernacular, Black folk life, of African American rural culture.
Charlotte Osgood Mason was employing Zora Neale Hurston for the opposite, because she thought it was primitive.
MCCLAURIN: Zora is collecting what she thinks Mason wants to see, and she's also collecting what she wants to get.
NARRATOR: Mason found Hurston's material promising and continued her patronage.
Amidst her travels, Hurston had been collecting love letters for a book she wanted to write about Black love, which she hid from Mason.
She discussed her plans with Langston Hughes, imploring him to not tell Godmother.
COTERA: There is a complex positionality that Hurston had to adopt in order to do what she wanted to do.
So she does this, um, very, I would say, opportunistically.
HURSTON (dramatized): July 25, 1928.
Dearest little mother of the primitive world, Take care not to overtire yourself abroad.
I am attempting a volume of work songs with music for piano and guitar.
I shall send you the first song as soon as I get it finished to see if you like it.
KAPLAN: During the period when she's collecting some of her greatest anthropological and ethnographic work, Hurston is collecting material she doesn't have legal claim to.
COTERA: Charlotte Osgood Mason also controlled Hurston's expenses.
She had to list everything that she purchased with Mason's money, down to feminine, quote-unquote "feminine products."
NARRATOR: Hurston once confided in Hughes how Mason's detailed oversight and periodic angry outbursts affected her.
HURSTON (dramatized): It destroys my self-respect and utterly demoralizes me for weeks.
I do care for her deeply.
That is why I can't endure to get at odds with her.
I don't want anything but to get at my work with the least possible trouble.
COTERA: She is agreeing to certain strictures on the Osgood Mason side, and while at the same time reaching out to Boas and keeping those fires lit.
KAPLAN: He's a very important voice.
He is the gatekeeper of anthropology, who also is an influential and an important anti-racist.
Mason was a profoundly anti-academic person.
She had these notions of folklore that it had to be kept pure and kept away from the academics.
HURSTON (dramatized): My dear Dr. Boas, I was very proud to hear from you.
I have wanted to write you, but a promise was exacted of me that I would write no one.
Of course, I have intended from the very beginning to show you what I have, but after I had returned.
Thus I could keep my word and at the same time have your guidance.
The experience that I had under you was a splendid foundation.
I know where to look and how.
NARRATOR: Four months later, from a small, secluded cottage she rented in Eau Gallie, Florida, Hurston updated Boas, that she was "sitting down to write up" the "more than 95,000 words of story material, "collection of children's games, and conjure and religious material."
HURSTON (dramatized): Dear Langston, I am just beginning to hit my stride.
I not only want to present the material with all the life and color of my people, I want to leave no loopholes for the scientific crowd to rend and tear us.
MCCLAURIN: Zora also wants to write for the folk.
She's thinking of how to take this data that she's collecting as part of her formal research and then translate it into a form that is then going to be accessible to the people she got it from originally.
(men singing, tools clanging) HURSTON: A railroad rail weighs 900 pounds.
And the men have to take these lining bars and get it in shape to spike it down.
And while they're doing that, they have a chant.
They use the rhythm to work it into place.
They don't have to look at the rail, 'cause that's the captain's job to see when it's right.
Whatever song he starts, if it's a fast rhythm, they work fast, and if it's a slow one, well, they work, you know, a little slower, but they get just as much work done, it seems, somehow or another.
(men singing) HURSTON: And then the boss hollers, "Bring on the hammer gang," and they start to spiking it down.
(playing rhythm) (men laughing) ♪ ♪ HURSTON (dramatized): Darling Godmother, at last "Barracoon" is ready for your eyes.
I pray so earnestly that I have done something that can come somewhere near your expectations.
NARRATOR: In 1931, with Mason's continued support, Hurston finished a book-length manuscript based on the interview she had conducted three years before with Cudjo Lewis.
Hurston began submitting "Barracoon" to publishers.
MCCLAURIN: Zora was very committed to authenticity.
She wrote that book in dialect.
She tried to replicate Cudjo's own language.
Publishers wanted her to translate it for White readers into Standard English, and she refused.
BAKER: That was the authenticity, that was scientifically valid and genuine, and she did not want to go against that.
I think that was an important form of resistance.
MCCLAURIN: That speaks to her belief that there was value in the way that Cudjo had created his own form of communication.
That value did not need to be diluted or translated for a White audience.
(seagulls squawking) NARRATOR: Hurston had other publishing successes.
Her ethnographic writing debuted the previous year in "The Journal of American Folk-Lore."
With Godmother's approval, she had submitted "Dance Songs and Tales from the Bahamas," based on three months of fieldwork in the country.
♪ ♪ MAN: How do you learn most of your songs?
HURSTON: I learn 'em, I just get in the crowd with the people, and if they're singing, then I listen as best I can and I start to joining in with a phrase or two, and then finally, I get so I can sing a verse and then I keep on till I learn all the songs and all the verses, then I sing 'em back to the people until they tell me that I can sing 'em just like them, and then I take part and I try it out on different people who already know the song until they are quite satisfied that I know it, and then I carry it in my memory.
(man singing indistinctly) NARRATOR: In 1931, the "Journal" printed Hurston's 100-page article "Hoodoo in America," which began cementing her as the American authority on the topic.
When she wasn't trying to find a home for "Barracoon," Hurston spent much of 1931 focused on theater, including her play "The Great Day."
It was a showcase of Black culture that incorporated her Bahamian ethnographic research.
Mason very reluctantly supported the production, and the stakes for Hurston were high.
KAPLAN: Most of the great artists of the Harlem Renaissance had their money in Black fiction.
Hurston believed deeply that it was going to be Black drama brought to wide audiences that was going to do more to counter racism than anything else.
HURSTON (clapping): ♪ Oh, Mama, come see that crow ♪ ♪ See how he fly, oh ♪ BAKER: Zora Neale Hurston really believed that you could not just read the folklore on the page.
She believed that you had to perform it, that you had to see it, you had to hear it, you had to feel it.
All your senses need to be engaged in this beautiful creation.
HURSTON: But what they're talking about is what we know in the United States as a buzzard.
And the buzzard comes to get something to eat.
And they are talking about it and they dance it.
KAPLAN: She was running up incredible debt.
Everybody was opposed to what she was trying to do.
(audience murmuring) NARRATOR: On January 10, 1932, "The Great Day" premiered on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre.
HURSTON: ♪ You may leave and go to Halimuh Fack ♪ ♪ But my slow drag will bring you back ♪ NARRATOR: "The New York Herald Tribune" praised her production as "the real thing; unadulterated and not fixed and fussed up for the purposes of commerce."
HURSTON: ♪ Oh, Mama, come see that crow ♪ Caw!
(audience cheering) ♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Despite the show's promising reviews, no producer picked it up.
KAPLAN: It was an enormous disappointment for her, one of the heartbreaks of her life.
She thought it was going to be the artistic production that told people who she was.
NARRATOR: Sick, exhausted, and bankrupt, in April, Hurston reached out to Mason for financial help as she packed up to relocate to Eatonville.
HURSTON (dramatized): One other item of expense, Godmother.
I really need a pair of shoes.
You remember that we discussed the matter in the fall and agreed that I should own only one pair at a time.
I bought a pair in mid-December and they have held up until now.
My big toe is about to burst out of my right shoe and so I must do something about it.
NARRATOR: Hurston's relationship with Mason, almost five years of support, had soured over time.
Mason paid Hurston's theater bills and came through with six dollars for the new shoes, money for a one-way ticket, and $75 in spending money.
KAPLAN: Charlotte Osgood Mason was unable to control Zora Neale Hurston.
It would be like trying to get a shooting star into a Mason jar.
And Charlotte Osgood Mason could not be controlled by Zora Neale Hurston.
NARRATOR: Hurston's last check from Mason arrived in October 1932, just as the nation was heading toward record unemployment.
The Great Depression had dashed the dreams of many Americans.
Hurston had hoped for a teaching position in Florida that did not materialize.
Income from periodic writings never secured her enough money on which to live.
KAPLAN: It wasn't just that Zora Neale Hurston lost a meal ticket.
She honestly did lose somebody she saw as a kind of spiritual mother.
NARRATOR: Hurston had not just lost her relationship with Mason.
A year earlier, her friendship with Langston Hughes had ended on very bad terms, in part over their collaboration "Mule Bone," a comedic play based on one of Hurston's unpublished Eatonville tales.
KAPLAN: He and Zora Neale Hurston were enormously important to one another in every sense: emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually.
And when their relationship exploded, they were both profoundly wounded by it.
(ship horn blows) NARRATOR: When Hurston's mentors at Columbia failed to facilitate funding for her research, she turned to the Guggenheim Foundation.
On July 25, 1933, Hurston submitted an application for a fellowship focused on anthropology to continue the work she had begun in New Orleans.
HURSTON (dramatized): My ultimate purpose as a student is to increase the general knowledge concerning my people, to advance science and the musical arts among my people, but in the Negro way and away from the White man's way.
DUNBAR: "The Negro way" means in a way that is respectful, that is set on debunking Black inferiority.
I think it speaks to her, again, desire to participate in the knowledge production of anthropology.
KING: Hurston is an early practitioner of what would later come to be called native anthropology.
That is to say, she's someone from the communities that she is studying.
NARRATOR: Hurston chose long-time mentor and "Journal of American Folk-Lore" editor Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas, and three others-- people she felt supported her goals-- to submit recommendations.
KAPLAN: Most of the letters in her file are extremely problematic.
NARRATOR: Papa Franz wrote, "On the whole, her methods are more journalistic "than scientific, "and I am not under the impression "that she is just the right caliber for a Guggenheim Fellowship."
Benedict assessed that Hurston had "neither the temperament "nor the training to present this material "in an orderly manner when it is gathered, nor to draw valid historical conclusions from it."
And added in a separate letter, "I don't think she is Guggenheim material."
DUNBAR: Basically, you send her to go in and collect, but have somebody who's trained write up the material.
Trained, meaning credentialized.
And I think that's probably the hardest hurdle that she has to get over: that she's not just a vessel for the academy to get into these specific cultures.
KAPLAN: She does not yet have the academic credentials that are considered appropriate for Guggenheim.
Which is not to say the Guggenheims only go to people with doctorates, but it remains an issue to this day: What kinds of credentials are assumed to have to go along with that kind of recognition?
Did Franz Boas consider her lack of a PhD an issue?
BAKER: Even as liberal and as important and empowering as Franz Boas and, and some of the professors were, there was still some implicit bias that there was not equality of intellectual engagement, if you will.
DUNBAR: That doesn't mean whatever relationship they had was inauthentic, but I don't think that the academy imagined Hurston as ever being part of the knowledge it produced, or a knowledge producer in her own sake.
MCCLAURIN: At the moment that Zora is claiming her space as an anthropologist, anthropology doesn't know what to do with Black folk.
They didn't know what to do with Zora, and I think it was a level of gatekeeping.
KAPLAN: She was remarkably forbearing, much more forbearing than most people could be in the circumstances she faced as a Black woman in mostly White society, in mostly sexist society, in mostly racist society, in mostly Northern and urban society.
NARRATOR: Zora Neale Hurston was determined to have a career.
"I shall wrassle me up a future or die trying," she had once written to Mason.
KAPLAN: Hurston worked across many different disciplines, many different fields, many different kinds of artistry.
She worked in drama; she worked in writing; she worked in academia; she worked in teaching.
Often she was working on her own.
She was not somebody who could work well for very long for anybody else.
MCCLAURIN: She alienated a lot of people.
Zora is the kind of person, you either love her, or you hate her.
KING: She could be insufferable.
The truth was, she was in many ways undisciplined.
NARRATOR: She had once written to her friend the poet Countee Cullen, complaining about the "regular grind at Barnard," "Don't be surprised to hear "that I have suddenly taken to the woods.
I hate routine."
KAPLAN: Once she was done with something, or someone, often she was completely done and she couldn't look back.
NARRATOR: No longer beholden to Godmother, or "the Park Avenue dragon," as she once referred to Mason in a letter, Hurston could freely pursue fiction.
♪ ♪ She had been sketching out a story loosely based on the lives and experiences of her parents in Eatonville.
HURSTON: I didn't even have a typewriter then.
I got $20 from, uh, "Story" magazine for this short story.
And so on the strength of that, I decided to sit down and write a novel.
Took me about seven or eight weeks to write the book.
NARRATOR: Hurston's instincts paid off.
In May 1934, that novel, "Jonah's Gourd Vine," was published to good reviews.
"Miss Hurston has made the study of Negro folklore "her special province.
"This may very well account for the brilliantly authentic "flavor of her novel and for her excellent rendition of Negro dialect," gushed "The New York Times Book Review."
The title was immediately selected for the Book of the Month Club.
♪ ♪ Also that year, White wealthy shipping heiress Nancy Cunard, a regular fixture in Harlem society, published "Negro Anthology," an extensive, groundbreaking collection of music, poetry, historical studies, and examinations of racism.
The book featured seven of Hurston's ethnographic writings.
MCCLAURIN: Those pieces are evidence of her theorizing.
She's really articulating a theory of how she views Negro culture at that moment in time.
HURSTON (dramatized): The Negro is a very original being.
While he lives and moves in the midst of White civilization, everything that he touches is reinterpreted for his own use.
He has modified the language, mode of food preparation, practice of medicine, and most certainly the religion of his new country.
NARRATOR: That summer, Hurston wrote Boas about her manuscript for "Mules and Men," a book about her early anthropological forays into the South.
She hoped that he would like the ethnographic-focused work, despite her publisher's request to add additional material to appeal to a more general audience.
The revisions resulted in Hurston weaving the folklore stories into a first-person narrative.
BAKER: She wanted a much more comprehensive and much more scientific sort of tone, including a lot of religion, and the children's games, and sort of almost an encyclopedia.
HURSTON (dramatized): Dear Dr. Boas, I am full of tremors, lest you decide that you do not want to write the introduction to my "Mules and Men."
I have inserted the between-story conversation and business because when I offered it without it, every publisher said it was too monotonous.
Now three houses want to publish it.
So I hope that the unscientific matter that must be there will not keep you from writing the introduction.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Hurston headed to Chicago in October 1934 to stage a version of her production of "A Great Day," now titled "Singing Steel."
Her arrival was met with a blur of invitations to dinners and speaking engagements.
The "Daily News" advised, "The fascinating Zora Neale Hurston is too good to miss."
Hurston received an early Christmas present when her production so impressed the Rosenwald Fund that the philanthropic organization, focused on African American education, offered her a scholarship to pursue a PhD.
♪ ♪ HURSTON (dramatized): Dear Dr. Boas, Great news!
I have wanted the training very keenly and tried very hard to get Mrs. Mason to do it for me.
She would give money for everything else but that.
I realize that this is going to call for rigorous routine and discipline, which everybody seems to feel that I need.
So be it.
I want to do it.
NARRATOR: The Rosenwald Fund had agreed to provide $3,000 over two years to support Hurston's doctorate.
"The major problem, as I see it," Hurston wrote in her application, "is the collection of Negro folk material "in as thorough a manner as possible, "as soon as possible.
"In order to see it objectively, one must have great preparation, "that is if to be able to analyze, to evaluate what is before one."
For the first time since childhood, Hurston would be able to focus on being a student.
PATTERSON: There was rarely a moment that she didn't have to worry about money, that she didn't have to borrow or work more than two or three jobs.
HURSTON (dramatized): I have been on my own since 14 years old, and went to high school, college, and everything progressive that I have done because I wanted to.
I have had people say to me, "Why don't you go and take a master's "or a doctor's degree in anthropology, since you love it so much?"
They never seem to realize that it takes money to do that.
MCCLAURIN: Columbia at that moment has organized all of its courses around salvaging information about Indigenous Native Americans.
What Zora wants to do is create what I call an independent PhD in Negro studies.
We would call it Black studies.
She convinces Boas that she should do this independent PhD.
NARRATOR: But just one month after awarding Hurston the fellowship, the Rosenwald Fund rejected the long-term plan that she and Boas developed for her study, and informed her that they would only support one semester for a total of $700.
Frustrated and stressed, she lodged a soft appeal.
HURSTON (dramatized): This is not to over-persuade you in the matter of the two-year plan.
I am not being trained to do a routine job.
I am being trained to do what has not been done and that which cries out to be done.
MCCLAURIN: They decide, and this is the language that is in some of the correspondence, that "Zora Neale Hurston is like a rough piece of iron that needs to be honed into a fine piece of steel."
And they want to insist that she follow the curriculum at Columbia, which has absolutely nothing to do with what she wants to study.
BAKER: This is after she had already been a novelist and had been a member of the American Folk-Lore Society, and the American Anthropological Association.
And she had published for the American Folk-Lore Society.
NARRATOR: Hurston agreed to the new terms, enrolled, and began attending classes, but after a few months, she reconsidered.
BAKER: Zora Neale Hurston did not want to be in another relationship dependent like, um, Charlotte Osgood Mason, so she was, like, "Peace out."
Like, "We're not going to do this, because I've been there before."
MCCLAURIN: They have already decided what she can and can't do.
And she resist, as she has resisted most of her life against the conventions of gender and race, and now intellectuality.
It would have been easy.
She could have gone, studied those courses and everything, and gotten a PhD.
She chose not to.
♪ ♪ COTERA: She was never going to be the nice and silent and acquiescent Black woman, ever.
This is not who she was.
DUNBAR: It is an unwillingness to be disciplined in the sense of academic disciplines-- anthropology-- and disciplined in the sense that she won't be contained.
KAPLAN: There were very few Black women with doctorates of any kind in the 1930s.
And it would have drawn even more attention to her, and mostly positive attention.
COTERA: Benedict and Boas went out of their way to ensure that Margaret Mead was able to get a PhD.
So we have to ask ourselves, what other aspects of her difference played into this lack of support?
NARRATOR: Hurston, who was likely 44 years old by then, decided to stop attending classes and focus on her own writing instead.
Her book "Mules and Men" would soon be published.
"Working like a slave and liking it," she wrote a friend in Florida.
"But I have lost all my zest for a doctorate."
PEOPLE: ♪ Catch this guy ♪ ♪ Never comin' back till the Fourth of July ♪ ♪ Yeah, Lord, come pay the money ♪ NARRATOR: Hurston headed south mid-June 1935 to the Georgia Sea Islands, Eatonville, and the Everglades on a job to collect folklore.
Her latest travels were to facilitate the work of two White folklorists recording Negro folk songs for the Library of Congress, but it wasn't easy.
Sensitive to Black stereotyping, at one point Hurston adamantly stopped one of her colleagues from photographing a young boy eating a watermelon.
And, due to segregation laws in Southern towns, Hurston frequently slept in her car while her colleagues rested in a motel.
HURSTON: ♪ Bluebird, bluebird ♪ ♪ Through my window ♪ ♪ Bluebird, bluebird ♪ NARRATOR: Sometimes the researchers captured Hurston's own singing.
HURSTON: ♪ Bluebird, bluebird, through my window ♪ ♪ Oh, honey, I'm tired ♪ ♪ ♪ NARRATOR: That fall, "Mules and Men" hit the stands.
Hurston opened her story explaining how she had known folklore since she was a child.
HURSTON (dramatized): But it was fitting me like a tight chemise.
I couldn't see it for wearing it.
It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else, and stand off and look at my garment.
Then I had to have the spyglass of anthropology to look through at that.
MCCLAURIN: It is Zora's first formal collection of stories, folklore, and it cements her as a native anthropologist.
DUNBAR: Why a text like "Mules and Men" is so important is that she resists the simple extraction, cultural extraction.
It becomes an opportunity for her to tell what she feels to be a more authentic story of that Black experience.
KING: Hurston is reporting on a set of experiences that she had, using the first person.
Whether it's a juke joint or a turpentine camp or a lumber mill or a Hoodoo initiation ritual, she's taking you as a reader into a society that she, as a scientist, is desperately trying to understand.
HURSTON (dramatized): I went outside to join the woofers, since I seemed to have no standing among the dancers.
I stood there awkwardly, knowing that the too-ready laughter and aimless talk was a window-dressing for my benefit.
His laugh has a hundred meanings.
MCCLAURIN: Part of what she's trying to tell us is that your very presence changes the dynamic, and so you have to account for your presence in the data that you're collecting, as well.
This idea that you're objective, when you go and observe and participate in these cultures, is really a misnomer.
KING: And that is a way of doing social science that we now take as kind of normal.
At the time, this was a revolutionary and, as Ruth Benedict would have put it, an "undisciplined" way of doing social science.
NARRATOR: Boas, declining to write a major introduction, submitted just three paragraphs.
KAPLAN: He didn't write a full-scale introduction and treat her work with that kind of seriousness.
NARRATOR: The inclusion of Boas's text nevertheless helped the publisher promote the critically acclaimed book.
HURSTON: ♪ Cap'n got a mule ♪ ♪ Mule on the mount, called him Jerry ♪ (exhales heavily) BAKER: I think it's really both endearing but also telling that Zora Neale Hurston, in "Mules and Men," begins to blend her fiction with her science and her science with her fiction.
And I think "Mules and Men" is one of the best examples and the first examples of that.
HURSTON: ♪ I out had told her ♪ ♪ Must be the hellfire captain ♪ (exhales heavily) ♪ He had blue eyes ♪ ♪ Lawd, Lawd, he had blue eyes ♪ ♪ Oh, don't you hear them, a... ♪ HURSTON (dramatized): March 7, 1936.
I think I must be God's left-hand mule, because I have to work so hard.
The press of new things plus the press of old things yet unfinished keep me on the treadmill all the time.
HURSTON: ♪ I got a rainbow ♪ ♪ Wrapped and tied around my shoulder ♪ (exhales heavily) ♪ I got a rainbow ♪ ♪ Wrapped and tied around my shoulder ♪ ♪ It look like rain ♪ ♪ Lawd, Lawd, it look like rain ♪ NARRATOR: With the success of her books, Hurston streamlined her focus, deciding that her life work was literature.
But she remained committed to exploring and documenting Black lives.
PATTERSON: She said, "I have to keep going and answer the questions about my people."
And to her, she's talking about the diaspora.
She's talking about Black culture not just in the United States, but in the Caribbean, as well.
NARRATOR: Hurston again looked to the Guggenheim Foundation for support.
In this new application, she indicated a unique description of her field of learning, literary science.
And this time, she only asked one anthropologist to serve as a recommender.
Melville Herskovits, a prominent former student of Boas, wrote, "I think it is not saying too much to state "that Miss Hurston probably has more intimate knowledge of Negro folk life than anyone in this country."
Hurston won a Guggenheim in March-- the first of two.
And by the next month, she was off to Jamaica and Haiti.
FILM ANNOUNCER: Join a cult whose roots go back to darkest Africa.
Exotic, barbaric: the cult of Voodoo!
DUNBAR: She wants to remedy to a certain extent the sensationalism that Americans are consuming, Haitian culture and Voodoo.
She feels like she can go in and tell a story about that religion that is free of the sensationalism.
(drums pounding) NARRATOR: Zombies existed in the minds of Western society as part of a forbidding, sexual, and mysterious culture associated with Haiti.
LAMOTHE: When it comes to Haiti and Jamaica, the Caribbean space, she is very much an outsider.
MCCLAURIN: It's where Zora steps into the traditional anthropology, where she's studying the other.
She is not a member of that society.
She doesn't belong, so she has to figure out how to get inside of it.
LAMOTHE: I think that Hurston had an understanding that at the root of it, whether people in Haiti thought about and talked about zombies as a kind of folklore, or a phenomenon that actually existed, that at the heart of it, this kind of fascination with the zombie is really about free will.
KING: She's saying that if you need a category for someone who is both living and dead at the same time, that is deeply revealing about the society that you're from.
And for Hurston herself, having grown up in Jim Crow Florida, she knew what that category meant.
For someone to be fully, wholly alive but socially dead, socially invisible to the people she was surrounded by.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Months of fieldwork in the Caribbean had distracted Hurston from an intense romantic relationship with a younger man.
But she could no longer ignore the narrative that had been welling up inside her.
Hurston mixed memory, history, personal experience, fiction, and research into a story told through the eyes of a Southern Black American girl-turned-woman named Janie Crawford, who lives part of her life in Eatonville.
MCCLAURIN: It's now what we call autoethnography, because it's rooted in some of what she has lived herself, but also what she's researched in her own community.
NARRATOR: In September 1937, her book "Their Eyes Were Watching God" was on its way to becoming a mainstream critical success.
It is a "lovely book," stated a review in "The New York Herald Tribune," praising Hurston as "an author that writes with her head and her heart."
MCCLAURIN: That book is a great illustration of Zora blending her literary skills and talent as a writer and also her skills and talent as an anthropologist and ethnographer.
DUNBAR: Janie's a storyteller.
She has this full life experience.
She's a survivor in a variety of ways, and she goes home to tell her girlfriend.
♪ ♪ MCCLAURIN: Zora is doing a gender analysis.
She's really telling us about the conditions of Black women and what they have to confront against social norms, against a patriarchal society.
HURSTON (dramatized): "A woman by herself is a pitiful thing," she was told over and again.
Besides, she liked being lonesome for a change.
This freedom feeling was fine.
These men didn't represent a thing she wanted to know about.
LAMOTHE: There are scenes where some of the very stories that she collected when she was doing fieldwork in Eatonville are incorporated into the plot.
MCCLAURIN: She's also depicting the ways in which people interact.
That's what anthropologists do-- they observe social interaction and document that.
And so the novel is rich with how people gossip, and how they make judgments about things.
The language is so rich.
♪ ♪ HURSTON (dramatized): The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky.
It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road.
It was the time to hear things and talk.
These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long.
Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins.
But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human.
They became lords of sounds and lesser things.
They passed nations through their mouths.
They sat in judgment.
♪ ♪ BAKER: We call it in anthropology "thick description," which is throughout "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
♪ ♪ HURSTON (dramatized): All night now the jooks clanged and clamored.
Pianos living three lifetimes in one.
Blues made and used right on the spot.
Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour.
Work all day for money, fight all night for love.
The rich black earth clinging to bodies and biting the skin like ants.
BAKER: "Mules and Men" was science informed by fiction, and "Their Eyes Were Watching God" was fiction informed by science, because there's very little distinction between the signifying happening on Joe Starks' porch and Joe Clark's porch.
They're the same thing.
COTERA: "Their Eyes Were Watching God" is to me to be the most personal of all of her books.
I think she's really laying it out there.
I feel like she knows it's going to be an important book.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Despite her publisher's robust promotional campaign and rave reviews in national publications, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" did not sell well.
What surely did not foster African American support were negative reviews from Hurston's Black male contemporaries.
Writer Richard Wright attacked Hurston's book, stating that it "carries no theme, no message, no thought," and continued what he described as "the minstrel technique that makes the 'White folks' laugh."
And Alain Locke's critique in a one-paragraph review suggested that she was drawing on old literary traditions.
Hurston was livid, and she wrote that Locke knew "less about Negro life than anyone in America."
"I will send my toenails to debate him "and I will come personally to debate him on what he knows about literature on the subject."
Her scathing response was never published.
COTERA: The critical reception of her work by the Black intelligentsia is extremely disappointing, and does smack of sexism.
When the novel is dismissed as a romance or a love story, or even worse, as a kind of dialect novel in some cases, what I think is lost there is the incredibly complex vision of power and oppression and racism that is presented in that novel.
LAMOTHE: The '30s was really understood to be the protest era, where the fiction was much more explicit in addressing questions of interracial conflict, of racism, and their impact on Black people.
By the time "Their Eyes Were Watching God" was published in 1937, the Harlem Renaissance had really kind of reached its peak and was on the wane.
(birds chirping) (people talking in background) NARRATOR: For "Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica," published the next year, Hurston drew on the material she had collected during her back-to-back Guggenheim fellowships.
She filled this second ethnographic book with photographs, lists, music, and essays exploring religion, history, politics, and culture of Black people in both countries.
♪ ♪ LAMOTHE: The most compelling parts of it are the sections where she's writing about Haitian Voodoo: its rituals, its cultures, its meaning in the lives of the people who are practitioners.
The political commentary that she provides, the social commentary is much more problematic.
Her Americanness really comes through in how she writes that work.
There are so many sections of it that don't really center Haitian perspectives about their own culture in the way that she does with her ethnographies that are centered in the American South.
BAKER: I just don't think the American reading public was interested in the critical assessment of Caribbean history and history of dictatorship and colonialism.
Although they were interested in the zombies.
NARRATOR: Though her publisher promoted the most sensationalistic aspects of her research, Hurston's "Tell My Horse" was not a commercial success.
Most reviews were mixed or negative.
One very positive review must have warmed Hurston's heart: "The judges who select the recipients "of Guggenheim fellowships honored themselves "and the purpose of the foundation they serve "when they subsidized Zora Hurston's visit to Haiti.
"I hope the American reading public "will encourage her further wanderings.
She ought not to be allowed to rest."
Back in Florida, Hurston continued writing for herself and for others, including a position with the federal Works Progress Administration's Florida Writers Project.
In 1939, she released another novel and took a job teaching theater at North Carolina College for Negroes.
The next year, her friend, anthropologist Jane Belo, asked her to conduct research on religious trances in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Hurston eagerly quit teaching mid-semester to get back into the field.
At Hurston's insistence, a camera crew documented the services.
(people exclaiming and murmuring) (playing rhythmic song) BAKER: That image of her playing the drum, you feel like she's coming around full circle.
You can see her as a vivid participant-observer.
You can see that she is at home at this church.
(singing) MCCLAURIN: The research that Zora Neale Hurston did in Beaufort, South Carolina, represents the culmination of her work as an authentic anthropologist.
♪ ♪ (sawing through wood) NARRATOR: "We have been shooting, shooting, and shooting," the film crew reported.
"If the gods "of anthropological investigators are with us, "we have some swell photos and films.
Without Zora, most of it would have been impossible."
HURSTON (dramatized): What will be the end?
That is not for me to know.
Life poses questions, and that two-headed spirit that rules the beginning and end of things called Death has all the answers.
NARRATOR: At first, Hurston resisted her publisher's desire for her to write an autobiography.
PATTERSON: I think she said, "It is difficult to discuss what the soul lives by."
I'm not sure she wanted to do that, was ready to do it, but she needed to write something, because that's how she made money.
NARRATOR: In 1942, "Dust Tracks on a Road" was published to great fanfare.
Hurston promoted the work, which helped establish her as a prominent literary figure.
MCCLAURIN: Zora's autobiography is complex.
There are those who argue that she wasn't authentic, that she didn't tell everything because the notion of an autobiography is that it traces the life from the beginning to the end.
There's a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that we really don't have access to.
HURSTON (dramatized): I am supposed to have some private business to myself.
Whatever I do know, I have no intention of putting but so much in the public ears.
BAKER: Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography is itself featherbed resistance, she's wearing a mask, it's a pack of lies.
On the other hand, it is the truth as she saw it.
It is a memoir.
You get her spirit, you get the feeling of her life.
COTERA: What I find really fascinating about that book is her admissions-- they're very stealthy-- that some of the folklore she collected she collected actually when she was seven years old, nine years old, when she was a child growing up in Eatonville, immersed in this culture that she later collected.
BAKER: "Dust Tracks on a Road" is highly edited.
She had some biting lines about the United States and the role of freedom abroad versus freedom here.
But the editors, they took it out, and I guess Zora was looking forward to that royalty check and didn't want to fight for it.
NARRATOR: The book, with its strong sales, validated the significance of her anthropological study, but success did not translate into funding for her continued fieldwork.
Though she never stopped writing articles, reviews, and opinion pieces, she would get by working at a variety of jobs, sometimes as a teacher, librarian, and journalist.
♪ ♪ PATTERSON: She still has a lot she wants to do.
I think Hurston had a lot of courage to put her ideas out there, but she was also getting older.
MCCLAURIN: It's also the period of time where she's falsely accused of having improper relations with a minor.
People abandoned Zora Neale Hurston.
That accusation is dropped.
It turns out that the woman had a vendetta against Zora.
But the people who abandoned her never really come back into her life.
NARRATOR: When it was discovered in 1950 that she was serving as a maid, Hurston played it as if the work was just part of her research.
LAMOTHE: She's having a really difficult time finding people who are interested in publishing her work.
DUNBAR: She's an aging Black woman, with no children and no husband.
The Negro is no longer in vogue.
And so you just watch what happens to Black women who almost always live in precarity in this society.
PATTERSON: By the last ten years of her life, she has all of the ailments of older Black women.
High blood pressure, gaining weight.
She's still desperately trying to get enough money to continue her work, and it's slipping through her fingers.
NARRATOR: Hurston's tendency to speak her mind entangled her in the emerging national civil rights debates.
Her opinion on the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that ended legalized racial discrimination in schools put her at odds with many Americans.
HURSTON (dramatized): How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?
DUNBAR: People cite her letter to the editor where she disparages Brown v. the Board of Education as retrograde, as anti-Black.
But she understood that just having proximity to White people did not make Black people smarter, better, more valuable.
We needed equality and equity and financial support.
HURSTON (dramatized): It is a contradiction in terms to scream, "Race pride and equality," while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association.
DUNBAR: She was articulating something where her investment in a particular version of Blackness was not valued.
PATTERSON: She ends up back in the community of Black people.
KAPLAN: The Fort Pierce community in which she lived loved and adored her.
But her struggles as a woman and her struggles as a Black person in racist society were profound.
NARRATOR: Zora Neale Hurston died from heart disease after a stroke on January 28, 1960, shortly after her 69th birthday, in a segregated nursing home in Fort Pierce, Florida.
She was working on at least one novel at the time.
At her funeral, over 100 people, the vast majority African American, attended.
One of the ministers remarked, "The Miami paper said she died poor.
"She died rich.
She did something."
Zora Neale Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave.
MCCLAURIN: As the story goes, when you die in a poor house, they burn your stuff.
And a Black deputy sheriff comes along and he remembers that this woman was someone.
And he literally snatches materials, her belongings, out of the fire and hangs on to them.
KING: She had thrown herself into the world to try to rescue, redeem the things that were held by outsiders to be unimportant about marginal societies, and it was somehow fitting that the last act of her papers, her own legacy, was itself an act of rescue.
NARRATOR: Zora Neale Hurston fell into obscurity until the 1970s.
After writer Alice Walker read "Their Eyes Were Watching God," she began a journey into Hurston's life, work, and death that catalyzed another Hurston rescue, this one led by literary scholars-- Black women.
♪ ♪ MCCLAURIN: I think anthropology hasn't acknowledged her enough.
Not only for her writing style, but also the fact that she put herself into that ethnographic landscape.
How she impacts, how she's impacted, how people see her, as well as what she's collecting.
And that's unique.
DUNBAR: That is what she modeled very early, and what the discipline at that point wasn't ready for.
I think it gives a lot of minoritized people access and legitimacy to the work that they most value, which is to go into their own communities.
BAKER: One of the few anthropologists that were doing work in the '20s that would sort of hold up to the integrity and the ethics of contemporary anthropology is Zora Neale Hurston.
COTERA: People are invested in saying she was a Black anthropologist, but another part of me wants to disinvite anthropology from her recuperation, because there were so many moments when folks worked behind the scenes not to support her, and so that is very painful.
KAPLAN: She's somebody who succeeded against all the odds and whose life was marred by lack of resources, who could have done five times as much if she had had the financial wherewithal she so richly deserved.
KING: We now recognize her as being not only critical to the canon of American literature, but a figure whose work as a prose writer, as a social scientist, is closer to what we would now think of as good, self-aware, self-critical social science.
♪ ♪ BAKER: Sometimes when you're ahead of your time, you're also an outlier.
You are marginalized and seen as sometimes a little crazy, but in many respects, people that are ahead of their time are geniuses, and indeed she was a genius.
PATTERSON: Hurston left us beautiful novels.
She left us her vision of the legitimacy of Black people as a people, as a culture.
She fought for us in her writing.
She fought for Black women in her writing and her anthropology.
She believed in our worth, and she said so over and over again.
She jumped at the sun.
HURSTON (dramatized): Negro reality is a hundred times more imaginative and entertaining than anything that has been hatched up over a typewriter.
Go hard or go home.
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