Zora Neale Hurston, American Experience
American Experience | The Films of Zora Neale Hurston | Season 35 | Episode 2 | PBS
- This is a HUGE story with much to tell. The link included gives a viewing of the PBS special, “In Her Element” and “Claiming a Space.”
Zora Neale Hurston became a fixture of New York City’s Harlem Renaissance, due to her novels like Their Eyes Were Watching Godand shorter works like “Sweat.” She was also an outstanding folklorist and anthropologist who recorded cultural history, as illustrated by her Mules and Men. Hurston died in poverty in 1960, before a revival of interest led to posthumous recognition of her accomplishments.
- Instead, I want to focus on her book “Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” published in May 2018, 35 years after her death. Zora started assembling this book in 1927-1931. I’ve decided to read it, even though I now know the story of the slave ship Clotilda that has been featured in other documentaries. I did not know of Zora. What a woman, in every regard.
- Descendant Documentary Tells the Story of ‘The Clotilda’ and Africatown: TRAILER – Netflix Tudum
She didn’t just study and record the stories, she made them come alive by “living” among those still living in the settlement of “Africatown” where the last slave ship landed and was burned to hide the crime. Here Zora interviewed and filmed Cudjo Lewis, who was among the last living of the black cargo. Zora had procured a camera and took both still photos and actual film footage. For this single project alone, she would gain her place in history. But it was how she got there and how she did it her way that impresses me.
For instance, she used the exact words and phrasing of Cudjo as it was and why she became an anthropologist. Publishers wanted it “white-washed” which would not have had the same impact as a poor former slave’s words would. Thirty-five years after Zora’s death it was finally published, which then began a new documentary on the rediscovered Clotilda and its descendants, including Cudjo’s who have yearly reunions today.
“My name, is not Cudjo Lewis. It Kossula,” he said in Hurston’s book, which was published posthumously in 2018. “When I gittee in Americky soil, Mr. Jim Meather he try callee my name, but it too long, you unnerstand me … Den I say, ‘You callee me Cudjo. Dat do.’”
Oluale Kossula: That’s the name author Zora Neale Hurston used when she greeted Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the transatlantic slave trade and the subject of her nonfiction book “Barracoon.” He was delighted at being addressed by the name his mother gave him, according to Hurston’s account of the hours they spent in 1927 piecing together his life on that balmy summer day in Alabama.
Since the revival of Zora’s story her gravesite and museum grounds is lovingly cared for.
I do hope you do click on the link and read more about Zora. She was a force to reckon with and did it her way. We are all richer for knowing our uncomfortable past histories. Its why transparency is on the radar today more than ever. When we know better, we can do better.
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