Jump at de Sun | The Nation


Jump at de Sun

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Crushingly, Hurston's closest circle of white friends and colleagues betrayed her, as Boyd indicates, in their letters of recommendation for her 1934 Guggenheim fellowship application. In a confidential note, Hurston's mentor, anthropological giant Franz Boas, accused her of using "methods...more journalistic than scientific." Hurst called her an "erratic worker" and a "curious example of a sophisticated negro mind" (whatever that means), and even Carl Van Vechten had so little to say (two sentences in all) that his support could hardly be deemed enthusiastic.

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Kristal Brent Zook
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But with the setback came a profound and wonderful turn of events. Charged by her new publisher, J.B. Lippincott, with transforming a collection of folklore, Mules and Men, from a "scientific manuscript into a narrative [for] average, nonacademic readers," Hurston rose to the challenge brilliantly. Emerging with a work that was "part folklore, part hoodoo chronicle, and part immersion journalism," as Boyd describes it, Hurston wove each of these elements together seamlessly. The book received rave reviews, and when Hurston again applied for a Guggenheim in 1936, she was approved for two consecutive years.

For me, it is this era of her life that is most fascinating. For a brief moment, Hurston is free of the confines of social mores, white patronage and even the narrow parameters of the black-college bourgeoisie (where she made several fleeting attempts to teach over the years). Again we see a glimpse of the writer who in the fall of 1929 stumbled upon a Bahamian "jumping dance" while collecting folklore in Florida and within weeks, if not days, was headed for Nassau to explore Bahamian culture further. Even contending with the effects of a storm that destroyed more than 300 homes (including the one she was staying in before making a narrow escape), Hurston managed to collect twenty songs and three reels of dance footage in two weeks, including a "Fire Dance" that would later become part of her critically acclaimed theatrical production The Great Day.

I love this Zora: the adventurer who doesn't have to answer to anyone. And she emerges most poignantly in both books: the inner artist who finds her creative voice, at long last, during the fourth decade of her life.

Now, as she writes in her second Guggenheim application, she wants to "study obeah practices in the Caribbean," but this time "without the scientific constraints" of being a PhD candidate. Hurston intended to continue collecting folklore--in Jamaica and Haiti--not just for its own sake but as the raw material for her fiction. Energized by "internal pressure," she began work on a new novel during that same period, working nights after spending long days in the field. In just seven weeks she completed Their Eyes Were Watching God: a feminist classic universally regarded as her greatest masterpiece (and the basis for a long-awaited Oprah Winfrey production starring Halle Berry, no less).

With Guggenheim support, Hurston tracked the Maroons of Jamaica, where she witnessed a conjure doctor successfully commanding "thousands of croaking frogs in the bush to hush." She traipsed across the mountainous terrain with a team of men on a wild boar hunt, "[stumbling] along with my camera and note book," as she noted, "and a few little womanish things like comb and tooth brush and towel." And in Haiti she found eight "authentic cases" of zombies, one of whom she photographed in a hospital. This woman with "blank face and lifeless eyes" was identified by her brother as having died and been buried thirty years earlier. We see this Hurston sporadically throughout her life--for example, in the 1940s when she travels to Honduras to collect folklore among the Paya and Zambu Indians. But never again do we see her with this degree of artistic and financial freedom.

Indeed, most of her peers had given up trying to make a living as writers. Jessie Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson and Marita Bonner had all retreated into teaching or domesticity, while Nella Larsen, rocked by a "plagiarism scandal and a humiliating divorce," became a nurse. Nor were the men having much luck with longevity. Countee Cullen became a high school French teacher and Wallace Thurman "burned out" prematurely, dying at age 32. Even Langston Hughes struggled with a "pile of rejection slips." In fact, many prominent Harlem Renaissance figures--Alain Locke, Sterling Brown, Charles S. Johnson--relied on the institutional support of universities for their survival. In short, Hurston seems to have been the only notable black woman of her time attempting against all odds to make a living at her craft.

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