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Telling Zora Neale Hurston's story took time

Zora Neale Hurston, dead these many years, put a voodoo hex on Kristy Andersen. That may be the only way to explain it.

Zora — Andersen seldom invokes the late author's last name — took possession of her thoughts and even dreams from the moment she began planning a movie.

Andersen, a veteran Tampa filmmaker, thought she'd knock off a documentary in a year or so. Zora once claimed she wrote her novels in a matter of weeks, after all. In longhand. Probably between love affairs.

Andersen, 56, was married. She used a computer. The Internet was her friend. But she was going against Zora, the enigma who resisted all attempts to know her.

Researching, Andersen would learn something new about the Florida author, something vexing, something requiring investigation — investigation that might lead somewhere but more likely ended in a blind alley.

Documentaries are expensive. As her research continued, Andersen's bank account developed anemia. She'd quit her reporting to look for new transfusions of cash from an alphabet soup of foundations, trusts, state humanities councils and private donors.

"It would have been embarrassing to give up,'' she said the other day.

So she didn't. Her 90-minute documentary about Zora is going to air April 9 on PBS.

Andersen plans to celebrate quietly with crossed fingers.

"I keep thinking Zora is going to rise from the dead and pull me back. I keep thinking I'll never be done with her.''

That's what happens when you spend 18 years on one project.

Also, Zora studied voodoo.

• • •

She was a celebrity author and red hot mama, a candle, a laser, a supernova who liked it when people called her Queen Zora. She felt sorry for folks who did not enjoy her company.

Raised in the tiny Florida community of Eatonville, an African-American enclave near Orlando, she felt at home in holy-rolling churches where congregants spoke in tongues, and in logging camps where she listened to the stories of black laborers held in near slavery.

She was also a party doll who enjoyed the nightlife of Harlem, and an intellectual who delighted in provoking the white and black intelligentsia of her day.

In the 1930s she wrote three novels, including Their Eyes Were Watching God. She wrote a dozen plays. She collected folklore in Florida for the Federal Writers' Project and won a Guggenheim fellowship. Her interest in African and Caribbean culture led her to study voodoo in Haiti.

Her personal life was in shambles. She had a troubled love life and a talent for throwing away friendships. She burned through her money. Many African-Americans worshipped her, then loathed her.

Finally they forgot her.

Queen Zora died a pauper in 1960, her magnificent books out of print. She was buried in a little town in east-central Florida, Fort Pierce, in an unmarked grave.

In Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, part of the PBS series American Masters, Andersen does her best to bring her back to life.

Zora's biographer is a pale woman who invariably dresses in black. She has gray hair and wears glasses with heavy frames. She is married to Tom Scherberger, an editor at the St. Petersburg Times; they have a son, Anders, a freshman at the University of Miami. He's 18 — as old as her life with Zora. When she was changing his diapers, she was thinking of Zora. Sometimes, at PTA meetings, when the principal was talking, she was thinking about Zora.

Often she was thinking, "Why in God's name did I take this on?''

She was born in California, grew up in New Mexico and graduated from the University of Florida. She worked at television stations, then began making documentaries, including one about sea turtles that won a Florida Emmy.

In 1990, she needed a new idea. A friend at the Florida Humanities Council suggested a documentary about Zora.

Long before Alice Walker published The Color Purple, she wrote an essay for Ebony magazine about Hurston's sad end. It sparked a brief revival in her work, especially among black readers, in the 1970s. But once again Zora fell into obscurity.

"Who's Zora?'' asked Andersen.

• • •

When Andersen told people "I make documentary films,'' they often were impressed. They thought "Hollywood! New York! Celebrities!'' They imagined her in fishnet stockings, a beret, black minidress, a Turkish cigarette in a holder, wealthy patrons opening their checkbooks.

Reality was different.

Year after unending year of work. Disappointment after disappointment. Records that had disappeared or were destroyed. Patrons told her, "Sorry, I've never heard of Zora.'' Another patron admonished, "Hey, I gave you money three years ago. You mean you're not finished?''

African-Americans, for the most part, delighted in helping Andersen with her research. But a few wondered if a white woman could do a black icon justice. And then there were Zora's own papers and records that seemed designed to throw any snoop, white or black, off her trail.

One day, on a research trip, Andersen discovered the Hurston family bible and turned to the frontispiece. Zora hadn't been born in Florida, as she told people; she had come into the world in Alabama. Zora also took 10 years from her age. She had even made up facts in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road.

Andersen started digging again. Then she spent another year raising funds. Then she dug some more. Learned interesting things. Got interesting people on tape, including Henry Louis Gates and Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Edwidge Danticat.

Five years passed. Another five years.

At a cocktail party, a thoughtful hostess asked, "Kristy, when are we going to see your documentary?''

The hostess meant well, but Andersen was mortified. She was not even close to the end.

• • •

Hurston apparently was born in Notasulga, Ala., on Jan. 15, 1891.

Her family moved the following year to Florida. Zora thrived until her mother's death in 1904. She left Eatonville, managed on her own, attended Howard University in Washington, discovered what it was like to be an African-American in the white world, published her first short story, moved to New York City, wrote her first plays, became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance and loved many men.

She received a scholarship to Barnard College and studied with anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia. She married. Divorced. Studied hoodoo — a voodoo offshoot — in New Orleans. Returned to Florida.

Their Eyes Were Watching God was published to great acclaim in 1937. It tells the story of Janie Crawford's life in an African-American Florida town in the 1920s.

Janie and her friends talk like rural black Floridians of the period. They say "dis" for this and "dat" for that. Hurston's characters are complicated people, Janie especially, with her problems with men, including her third husband, Teacake, whom she loves even though he beats her. They survive the 1928 hurricane that kills thousands of farm workers near Lake Okeechobee.

Hurston must have been disappointed by the reaction of many black intellectuals. Focusing on the dialect, author Richard Wright complained the novel was a "minstrel-show turn that makes the white folks laugh.'' Ralph Ellison called it a "blight of calculated burlesque.''

Hurston complained she was a novelist, not a propagandist with a political agenda.

"I am not tragically colored,'' she said in 1940. "There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes . . . I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. No, I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.''

Some black intellectuals wanted to know why she wasn't writing novels about idealistic black men and women who take on white racism. Was she not a part of the struggle?

Book publishers stopped answering her calls; certain white magazine editors were happy to print her pro-segregationist diatribes. She wrote that she had never felt inferior to whites. So why was integration necessary? Her words brought dismay to Civil Rights advocates and pleasure to racists.

Zora became a pariah.

The end of the road turned out to be Fort Pierce.

She did some substitute teaching. She cleaned motel rooms. She went on welfare.

She suffered a series of strokes and moved to a nursing home. After her final stroke, the janitor gathered her things, including the manuscript of an unfinished novel, The Life of Herod the Great, and lit a match. A bystander said, "I think Miss Hurston was a famous lady,'' and put out the fire.

It was Jan. 28, 1960. The newspapers said Zora was 57, but she was actually 69.

The Life of Herod the Great was never published.

• • •

Kristy Andersen's hair turned from blond to gray. Her infant grew into a young man.

In 1995, the Library of America, which had previously printed lovely editions of Herman Melville, Mark Twain and William Faulkner books, chose Zora Neale Hurston as its first black author.

Andersen's unfinished documentary was not ready in time to take advantage of publicity.

In 2000, National Public Radio chose Their Eyes Were Watching God as its book of the month for February.

In 2003, Valerie Boyd wrote an award-winning biography of Zora, Wrapped in Rainbows.

In 2005, the most powerful woman in America, Oprah Winfrey, produced a television film version of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie Crawford was played by Academy Award winner Halle Berry.

Andersen, still wrapping things up, missed what could have been a publicity bonanza.

• • •

Her documentary, after 18 years, is now ready. Her friends and family are happy for her, though she is still nervous. She isn't rich; the documentary cost about $1-million and she is hoping to recover about $100,000 owed her.

The other day Andersen drove 90 minutes from Tampa through Orlando to Eatonville. She said hello to friends, returned research material and took a last look around.

At the police station, she drove left on Kennedy Boulevard and passed City Hall, the water department and the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. Where Kennedy Boulevard met Peoples Avenue she stopped her car and gazed out the window.

She was trying to figure out the location of the old home site.

There was nothing to see, not even a "Zora slept here'' sign. There was only an empty field enclosed by a fence.

"Well, I guess this is where it must have been,'' Andersen said. Her documentary, in a small way, is a welcome home.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.


The documentary

Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun airs at 9 p.m. April 9 on WEDU-Ch. 3.

Telling Zora Neale Hurston's story took time 03/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014 12:48pm]
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