Part 3 featuring Tracy Heather Strain
Welcome to our ICONversations, a series where you will hear iconic Black feminist anthropologists answer five questions about their intellectual projects and growth, what their work has meant to them, and the imprints they want to leave on the world.
We’re doing something a little different today: We had the opportunity to speak with Tracy Heather Strain, award-winning writer, director, and producer whose most recent work covers the life and times of Zora Neale Hurston. Her work aims to reveal the ways that our positionality shape lives and reflect and challenge society’s narratives.
As she says: “I feel a great responsibility to try to bring complexity and nuance to Black women’s lives on screen.”
Be sure to check out Tracy’s work American Experience presents Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space on PBS!
Other Places to Find Tracy
Zora’s Daughters Podcast: Season Three, Episode 12
Co-Hosts: Brendane A. Tynes and Alyssa A. James
Guest: Tracy Heather Strain (TS)
Title: ICONversations, Part III: Tracy Heather Strain
Total Length: 00:54:01
[0:00:00] Tracy: Lives are complicated, and I feel like Black women’s lives have often been simplified in a way that doesn’t reflect my own life and the lives of people I know, and I feel a great responsibility when I take on Lorraine Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston and anything I do.
[0:00:49] Brendane: Hey y’all, welcome back to Zora’s Daughters, the podcast where we share Black feminist perspectives and close-read pop culture and other social topics that affect Black folks. I’m Brendane, and I use she/her/hers pronouns.
[0:01:03] Alyssa: And I’m Alyssa using she/her/hers pronouns. Just in time for anthropology day and my birthday (bop pow). We’re speaking with Tracy Heather Strain about her documentary exploring the iconoclast, the iconic Zora Neale Hurston. Tracy Heather Strain is co-founder of The Film Posse, an awarding director, producer, and writer committed to using film, video, and interactive technology to reveal the ways that race, ethnicity, gender, and class work to shape lives. Since 1986, Tracy has worked on numerous documentaries for PBS, as well as videos for museums, schools, and nonprofits—the Corwin-Fuller Professor of film studies in the college of film and the moving image at Wesleyan University; Tracy also teaches documentary production, storytelling, and history while directing and producing nonfiction projects for screens large and small. Her most recent film Zora Neale Hurston Claiming a Space, documents Hurston’s life as an anthropologist. Demonstrating the way anthropology influenced her celebrated fiction. Claiming a Space premiered on American Experience on Tuesday, January 17. You can stream the documentary online at PBS.org and see extra footage that didn’t make it into the film.
[0:02:24] (BT): Which I still have to do. Because let me just tell y’all now, if you haven’t already seen this documentary, you need to watch it. Run, don’t walk. As K. Michelle says –when you don’t run, you walk. But it is literally one of the best documentaries that I’ve ever seen about a Black woman, period. It’s a really amazing film that takes a look at Zora’s life and her impact on the field of anthropology and literature. I left the film feeling angry, feeling inspired, and feeling so proud of us as Zora’s Daughters continuing her legacy. There was song straight from Zora’s vocal cords to my computer screen speakers. I love a good musical moment. It really just spoke to me to hear Zora sing.
I learned a lot about her that I really didn’t know. I was really pleased with the film. The archival material was just so rich, and you could tell they really took their time making it. We also had the pleasure of talking with Tracy afterward and getting our insider information about it. I felt like it was an orchestrated experience by the ancestors, but what did you think about the film Alyssa?
[0:03:57] (AJ): I enjoyed the film as well. Of course, — you said that it was the best– one of the best documentaries about a Black woman you ever seen. Tracy didn’t win those Peabody’s and the NAACP awards; she didn’t win that for nothing.
[0:04:16] (BT): Right
[0:04:17] (AJ): She was definitely in her bag. I went into the film thinking, you know, you would kind of hear the things we always hear about Zora, the things we already know. Because part of the purpose of the film was to introduce people to Zora, the anthropologist. I was okay; I guess I’ll see some things I know, and maybe I’ll learn some new things. But it was really refreshing to learn about her through a disciplinary outsider’s eyes, I guess you could say. Although the wonderful anthropologist Lee D. Baker was one of the main consultants. (laugher) Listen, we watched Jumping at the Sun. Compare Jumping at the Sun Lee Baker to Claiming a Space Lee Baker.
[0:05:10] (BT): Especially the outfits.
[0:05:14] (AJ): He wasn’t wearing the bow tie this time, though. So, I was a little disappointed. We’re going to have to talk to him about that. (laughter)
[0:05:20] (BT): I mean. I think he has retired the bow ties after not being dean anymore. He’s like, I can wear what I want.
[0:05:31] (AJ): Speaking with Tracy, I feel we got to peel back some other layers of context around the film, and it’s production. You could see how committed she is to telling our stories well, with insight and texture. I really got to know more about Zora, the person, through the film. And to really play on our kinship metaphor, you know. It was kind of like when you meet one of your parent’s old friends, and they tell you stories about your parent that your like no way. My mom was never like that. There’s no way that my mom was like cool or fun, right (laughter)
[0:06:02] (BT): Right, Zora was in the club. What, like, Zora was in the club?
[0:06:05] (AJ): Exactly (laughter) Well, we definitely knew Zora was in the club because she definitely like to have fun. So I was like I’m nosy and also lowkey trying to study Black love in anthropology as well. It was really like seeing her in a new light.
[0:06:23] (BT): And seeing some other people in new light or maybe I should say confirming what we already know to be true about these old school white anthropologists.
[0:06:34] (AJ): Yeah, So, all of you listening out there, once you all watch we are going to have a conversation about how Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict did Zora dirty behind her back. They did her dirty.
[0:06:48] (BT): Dirty, Dirty. (laughter) I saw that, and I literally thought about the fact that we are having the same experiences in the same department nearly a century apart. It just—that part just shook the fuck out of me. I’m going to be real. It really makes you take Dr. Irma’s advice about seeing your rec letter seriously, but I digress. I can’t.
[0:07:17] (AJ): She said don’t accept a letter from someone who won’t show it to you. Take head.
[0:07:27] (BT): Take head.
[0:07:29] (AJ): Anthropology wouldn’t be what it is, without the innovative methods and ethnography of Zora Neale Hurston. This film expertly attends to that fact thanks to Tracy and the great work of her team. So, without further ado, here is our Iconversation with Tracy Heather Strain.
[0:07:46] (BT): Thank you so much for joining us today. We are ecstatic, over the moon, to have this exclusive opportunity to be able to speak with you today. We are with Tracy Heather Strain, who is the director of the new Zora documentary that everybody is talking about. We feel we have a real, exclusive moment, and so, just thank you again for joining us. We are going to go ahead and get started with some questions. Alyssa, would you like to get us started?
[0:08:22] (AJ): Alight, so your films have examined the lives of Black women like Lorraine Hansberry, and Zora Neale Hurston, and films are your passion. You frequently talk about them doing specific work in society. So we love to hear you talk a little bit about how film “allows us to reveal the ways that race, gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality work to shape lives and reflect and challenge society’s historic, artistic political and culture narratives.” And how do films about Black women do this especially well?
[0:08:53] (TS).: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. I am a big fan of your show and was delighted when you guys reached out. I feel very excited to speak with you today. Thank you. To answer your question, I began learning in college that what I learned in U.S. history K- 12 were at least incomplete narratives. You know stories and interpretations of history that centered whiteness and white agency. Usually ignoring the contributions of women and African descendent people Chinese and celebrating the taking of land from Native peoples who lived on the continent before the arrival of western Europeans as well as the United States. As the United States became an imperial power other groups of people appeared as folks to conquer.
Films buffeted these stories that I learned. They helped otherize people across the globe. When you make a film like the ones that I have made, you end of up reading a lot of secondary source material specifically about the subject, but you also read about what — if you are doing it right, let’s say— or the way I do it I’ll say, I hope it’s right you learn about what’s going on in their lifetime. You need context; you read things from different vantage points, and then, I add my own understanding as a Black woman in U.S. society. I think about what I would like to see and what’s been missing in my filmgoing experiences, my television experience, my documentary-viewing experiences. So this gets wrapped up into how I also understand historical, political, cultural things that have happened to me.
The films help place this in historical context for me, and I think for other people. I work to make these films simple as well as complex. When I say that I want to have the film to work on an emotional level. I want people to learn things from it. But I also feel like I want to have things in there that if you know a little more, there’s more there for you. Some things might be communicated in words. Some things might be communicated visual. There’re probably things that you guys saw in the anthropology montage that made sense to you because you’re familiar with those texts. But other people there are just kind of anthropology texts.
I try to mix it up but to kind of get back to what you were talking about lives are complicated, and I feel like Black women’s lives have often been simplified in a way that doesn’t reflect my own life and the lives of people I know. I feel a great responsibility when I take on Lorraine Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston, and anything I do to try to bring the complexity and nuances that I see in my own life that I bring to their life but specific to them. But it also resonates with me.
[0:12:03] (BT): Just your point about how Black women are normally represented in films where there’s a simplification, I think that even of itself is a profound point. What you’re saying about the Black woman as this complex figure and the film that can actually reflect that or approximate is a beautiful work. And, like I said, I was struck by how complex Zora was.
Even in the presentation in the film and, it wasn’t reduced or simplified right to just one aspect of her existence or even her relationships with men or her relationships with white people white women. I think when we think about documentaries about women in general and even Black women, there’s kind of focus on what about the love or whatever in her life. That was one thing that I was really like, yes. Let’s make all these other things kind of not—there part of the background of her life right but it really showed to me how passionate she was about her work, and it just showed how much she had to overcome.
And in your interview with Essence, you mentioned you wanted people, Black women in particular, to recognize that Zora Neale Hurston lived a hard life with many obstacles and obstacle after obstacle. Before we started recording, we were talking about just how much of the obstacles that she faced while she was a student at Columbia, parallel our obstacles as Black women students at Columbia now in the same department. Really just kind of shook me to see that and to also see the beauty and the creativity that was still being birthed by her during this time. What do you think is the value of reminding folks that and you have this beautiful line in your Essence interview when you say, “the hero has an obstacle to face,” and how has Zora’s struggles resonated with you as a creative writer, director, and producer?
[0:14:29] (TS): Okay, so I’m going to go back to the first part of your question first. But first of all, I don’t think that success is inevitable in any field you know. It’s easy to look at a work like Their Eyes Were Watching God and revere it and say of course this was successful, of course, we love this right. But creation for everyone is difficult, and obstacles have always existed and will exist. I think that we need to learn—we all need to learn how to face them and tackle them, which is nothing to do with—I think people need support, you know I’m not saying it should be really hard and no one should help you on your journey that’s not what I’m saying. But I think these days, with so much anxiety, attention in the lives of young people. That I think it’s really important that they understand that it is hard for everyone to create. It’s not just for hard for them. Its not easy for the rest of us, and this idea keeps being perpetrated in society through media that people are an overnight success, but that’s I don’t even know if that’s ever the case; people are usually working hard in their field with their heads down and then maybe something hits. But the media seems to like those stories of overnight success or make it appear that it was easy.
And I think young people get fed this and think there is something wrong with them if things are hard and it isn’t easy doesn’t come out perfect. But I got to see, I was privileged to see Zora Neale Hurston’s papers, and I could see her revisions and work of her time in Mules and Men and other writings. How she just kept working to refine things to get things just right so that it resonated. That’s what I had to do with this film. First of all, this film started as an hour-long film. Actually, from the beginning, I was like, how can I say all this stuff in an hour?
[0:16:15] (BT): Yeah, what, I can’t even.
[0:16:19] (TS): I’ve could have done a three-hour film but anyway the point is that if you saw the first cut of this film you would say woah. It wasn’t working yet, but I had to work at it over time to make it refine, get feedback, and not be defensive about it. I certainly had certain ideas, but sometimes it took a while to combine someone’s suggestion with a correction. Lee D. Baker was our lead advisor. He saw an early cut. He said do not put that image in here; you are going to have problems. Think about this and what about that and I did. I wish Zora Neale Hurston had more people in her life to provide that kind of support for her. That resonated with me, but also, the challenge of trying to bring black stories in the world as a Black person is a reality. It’s not easy.
There is something I saw similar in Anthropology, what I learned of anthropology. I don’t claim to be any expert in anthropology in my limited view of anthropology and my more wide view of documentary filmmaking based on my own experiences. There are so many parallels. You know, we go into people’s communities, into their lives, we ask them questions, we form these relationships to do our work; many of us of try to be ethical, and mindful, respectful, non-extractive, and then you see people who have a different way of approaching things getting supported to do work in communities that you know you could go do a better job. Or I heard you talk about this when – both of you have talked about how sometimes the work is seen as I think you call it mesearch –It’s you don’t have enough distance from it to be objective, and that’s still happens.
I remember–with Lorraine Hansberry, for example when I would write these proposals and I was making it very clear that the story is she an activist, no one knows this. At that time, people were not aware that she was an activist. She had written A Raisin in the Sun. They knew that they read it in high school, and then she died six years later. What is there to know and somehow, I was having the worst time breaking through this idea that there is more to know, and that’s not actually her story this play isn’t the story. Its part of her story. You, I don’t think people thought it was going to be interesting. Fortunately, I was able – well, actually, the National Endowment for the Humanities was very much a supporter from the beginning. My program officers always believed in the project, and other people like California Newsreel believed in the project, and a local New England funder LEF Foundation was very supportive from the beginning -friends and family, but very few people beyond that were particularly – Black public media came in early and some other groups.
But I couldn’t get major institutional support for the film. I couldn’t understand why because A Rasin in the Sun was one of the most-read plays in North America, and you think people would want to know about the person that wrote this play that almost taught in every school in North America or at least was before it got on the list.
[0:20:18] (AJ): That list, yeah. I think it’s really interesting that people want to know the work, but they don’t always want to know the person. Particularly when the person is a Black woman, and in Zora Neale Hurston’s case, a very iconoclastic and she’s been considered a difficult Black woman. She wasn’t one who was kind of just did her work and put her head down. She was very much in people’s faces and making sure people knew who she was and getting what she needed when she could.
[0:20:54] (BT): Yes, very Capricorn (laughter).
[0:20:58] (AJ): But I wanted to go back to what you were saying about how we do our work, and one of the things that’s really striking in the documentary is the depth and richness of the archival material. There were things in there that I had never seen before, never heard of before, especially the recommendation letters from – okay, I was very upset about that. You all have to write to the doc to see what papa Franz was doing behind folk’s backs.
[0:21:29] (BT): Ooh
[0:21:29] (AJ): So, one of the questions that we had is how is the film collected, curated? What went on into the process of selecting the different images, photos, videos, documents for the film?
[0:21:47] (TS): First of all, I had to develop a story; There is so much I could say about Zora Neale Hurston. I’ve read as many books as possible. If you look through my twitter feed, you can see a photograph of us reeling back the books at the end of the process. We had a huge cart of books in and another extra cart because we had so much material. We start with secondary source material, and we do something that I never did in college which is read the footnotes to see where things came from. Just an aside, you often learn that the interpretations that people make from the primary sources are way off. I learned that on a variety of projects way back. It’s fascinating how people can twist certain things, but anyway, we pull that out.
We start making lists of places that we know we need go to look at things, and we start. I knew from the beginning that –so Cameo George, who is an African American woman, and she is the executive producer of American Experience, called me one day and said would you like to do this film on Zora Neale Hurston, and we would like you to focus on her anthropological journey as it relates to her literally output? I was like, of course, yes, and so I knew that was part of the story from the beginning, that helped narrow down certain things. I knew that Their Eyes Were Watching God was the big moment where everything is coming together. You know, the rich ethnography and the height of the writing were formed. So, I knew where I was driving to that big moment. Then it’s how you get to that moment, and so part of the challenge is okay; we need to know about Eatonville and the significance of that. We need to know about particular books, the first ethnographic book, the next one. We need to know about anthropology what is the, and this is a weird thing to say; but what is the least amount I can say about anthropology in this film because –
[0:23:55] (BT). That’s what I feel about everything (laughter). I talk about all anthropology; what’s the least I can say (laughter)
[0:24:04] (TS): I just need to do enough to provide context. I don’t want to stop the narrative and give this anthropology history lesson. But I have to give some context because you need to know not just where anthropology was when Zora Neale Hurston entered it. You have to understand what happened a little with Boas and the field overall to be able to appreciate why Boas was a significant figure and why she would want to work with him. There was those that had to be in there, so what imagery do you use to help tell that story?
And so, as I mentioned earlier, sometimes there’s some communication that’s just visual to give people impressions. People like you will know exactly what you’re seeing. Other people just get this was in the zeitgeist, and then when can I have Zora Neale Hurston speak for herself? I can talk about that more later, but those films at the Library of Congress that she shot I knew, and the team knew we wanted to get in as much of that as possible. I mean, they’re so amazing that she had it, and our goal was to use as much of that footage she shot as much as possible. I always wanted her to speak for herself in a variety of ways as much as possible.
We keep track of everything in a database; we had interns helping us. I just didn’t do the research; we had a team of people working on that—one of the things I like to point out about the film camera is that is so amazing. I mean we may have our issues with Charlotte Osgood Mason, but if it wasn’t for Mason, we wouldn’t have those motion picture images that Hurston shot. But anthropology was not at all interested in motion picture cameras at that time. They thought it was expensive cumbersome and based on my research they felt like they being the discipline it required – it couldn’t capture the level of detail required for the discipline at that time. Everything was about the written notes and observation that way. – Its just one more example of how she is ahead of her time.
[0:26:30] (BT): Yes, always.
[0:26:32] (AJ): Absolutely.
[0:26:34] (BT): The discipline now dealing with all these questions around okay, how do we account for the fact we are the ones doing this research and these things you mentioned in the film that she had already—That she had already constructed a path for. Even in understanding what an interdisciplinary Black studies degree is. When I think about Zora, I think about her contemporaries’ academics and literary; Richard Wright as well as W.E.B DuBois and others who were very much about preserving a certain type of cannon. Then inserting Black experience into that or filtering Black experience through a certain kind of cannon. Zora being really ahead of the time and saying we actually don’t have to do that. We can defy these kinds of logics. So, that was very moving for me.
You mentioned just now, thinking about including Zora’s voice; for those of you who haven’t had the chance to watch the film yet, you actually get to hear Zora singing. You get to hear a dramatized version of her voice throughout, and I was just watching it very curious how did you decide who would do that voice, and what was the process for determining that dramatized sound because it very much sounds like a Black Southerner woman. So, it’s just like, oh, how did you know to do this? How did you know Zora needed to speak too in the film?
[0:28:21] (TS): I always – if you saw the Hansberry film, I did a similar thing. It’s something very important to me to have the protagonist, the hero, narrate her own story as much as possible. I think of this documentary as a film. I want to take you on an emotional journey on a variety of levels, but particularly emotionally, with the main character, Zora Neale Hurston, so she can tell us how she’s thinking. I think that makes the film stronger, and I think it provides better insight into what she was facing and how she felt. It’s very difficult with Lorraine, and Zora did not always share their feelings about certain things. So. It was a challenge to do this sometimes, but fortunately she wrote letters to Langston Hughes for example, and she shared not only what she was working on, and so we kind of have some field notes in a certain way in those letters. As well as how she felt about the work Dust Tracks on the Road has some insight but she even suggests I’m not going to tell you all my business that type of paraphrase. (laughter)
I had to weigh it with a grain of salt, but I always wanted her to be in here and of course we were going to mix it with her authentic voice. She is a Black female southerner and so was my maternal grandmother who is from Orlando, whose voice sounded very much like Zora’s voice.It kind of freaked me out sometimes. There’s actually a picture in the film that my whole family every time anyone saw it was like oh my gosh that’s Grandma Maura. I felt connected in that way. I wanted to find a southern voice and fortunately Bahni Turpin who had done recordings of Zora’s work for a variety of books. She actually by the way was in Daughters of the Dust. She just had – we listened to different people, but she just had what we thought we needed. You don’t want to have a voice that sounds exactly like Zora’s voice because you don’t want to mislead the audience. I still have to do some of the same things, letting people understand when it really is and isn’t her. That’s why we have those lowercase identifiers on the screen. Zora’s voice, Zora’s footage. It’s funny jumping away from the voice for a second. You remember that screen that moment when guys are working on the railroad?
[0:31:16] (BT): Yes, yes.
[0:31:16] (TS): Even though we only say Zora’s voice everyone thinks that Zora Neale Hurston shot that footage, and she didn’t. I was kind of worried that would happen but anyway it was amazing to find footage that perfectly fit what she was saying even though she didn’t shoot it. That was one of our big archival triumphs when the editor showed us that. I was like this has to go in the film. — It wasn’t just that it was her voice you could see what she wasseeing and what was important and what she was getting out of watching the men work. The rhythm and the musicality of them. That was a joy.
[0:32:02] (BT): Yeah, I was going to say the joy of it.
[0:32:05] (TS): Even though they’re working.
[0:32:06] (BT): Right, I was going to say that is a very Black thing, find the joy in your work and song is the way that we do that. From our ancestors and the moment they stepped on this land to now. I thought — the moment that Zora’s singing voice broke through in the film. I paused. Wait a minute I literally pressed my little space bar on my computer and I just sit and said wait, Zora sings too, of course. I’m from South Carolina so, Black girl from the South right even if you can’t sing you can sing. And so the idea is that everyone is singing in some ways but just to hear her sing, it just really touched me.
The song is integrated throughout the film and as you mentioned that moment was another moment for me when I was like if we did not have the song, here we just had the images, maybe we if we just had music, it would not have had the same kind of impact as the song overlaying the images. The kind of message throughout and so I wanted to know for you like what impact does song have on the film? For me song is essential to understanding Black life but do you believe that song is essential for understanding Black life and understanding Zora?
[0:33:41] (TS): I do. Especially because she thought it was so important and just music overall is important to me. Working with a composer was wonderful to just bring music. We had these great conversations about the score and how to integrate the score with Zora Neale Hurston’s music. To not undercut it, to help amplify it at times to set it up and her. Again, it’s just this idea of how many aspects of her we can include in this and how much can we connect, not just hear her performing these songs but you could see this was an important part of her research and work. She was so dedicated. We could not just hear her singing, but we had her on an audio recording explaining how she learned these songs and collected them. She’s not just saying that listened to people. She would go back to practice and go back to people to see if she was doing it right. – then went back, wrote it down and transcribed it.
Which leads me to think you know when we see the musical bars in Mules and Men and other places, she had to understand music too, so you’re like how many things could this woman do? I think that music has always been important in an another work, I did a film that included the birth of bebop. It’s always been this form of expression that unfortunately gets appropriated and even then, Zora Neale Hurston was talking about our material gets taken. I found it fascinating in singing steel that she fought to have –have it presented raw. She didn’t want it recomposed even by African Americans. She just wanted the authentic expression to be performed on stage. Did you know she almost went to Yale Drama School?
[0:36:03] (AJ): No. I saw it in one of your other interviews and I was not surprised at all. She definitely seems like someone who would have done great in theater as well.
[0:36:15] (TS): I was just going to say when she was applying to Rosenwald she was at first trying to go to Yale Drama School. It looked like it was going to work out but for some reason I’m not clear on. She switched to going for the Ph.D. in anthropology.
[0:36:31] (AJ): I found in watching the documentary, –her to be such a courageous person. Not everyone could do what it was she was doing. Going into these communities, being rejected at first and then going back anyway. Learning all of their songs, not knowing them at the beginning, then going back and saying hey do I have this right? It definitely shows her dedication and I think that her contemporaries as we were talking about in the documentary we learn about Richard Wright, and those who kind of lampooned Their Eyes Were Watching God and their writing fiction and philosophy and they get to write from a little bit of a removed distance from their subjects.
Where she is really spending time, you know I guess we would call deep hanging. She really spending time with people and learning a lot about them. Truly participating and in this really courageous way which was very different then the kinds of things that her contemporaries were doing. Your film really bought that out and definitely made it very poignant for me that she was quite a brave and courageous person.
[0:37:42] (TS): Following up on that, it’s also disappointing how Richard Wright who hadn’t written his book yet. –That’s why I just refer to him as writer Richard Wright which is a little awkward thing to say but he wasn’t famous. She was this famous person, he’s like attacking her and you know just the sexism and the dismal of—it feels intentional to misread Their Eyes Were Watching God. Especially since people knew she was studying anthropology, this was an interest of hers, she had spent work.
You know it’s also hard to account for jealousy also in this world. You can’t unless we can find the document that says – where are those documents. But I think sometimes it appears to me that sometimes people make their names on bring people down as they are trying to rise up. I’m not sure about Alain Locke and what his excuse is. I was thinking about that a lot when I put that section in to include Richard Wright.
[0:39:00] (AJ): Yeah, You is a hater.
[0:39:04] (BT): Yeah, so much of the work of this is time intellectually. I would say late 19th early 20th century Black men are entering into a world in which where only a certain kind of complexion them in is allowed to enter and then you can’t bring your other folks with you; you kind of have to I guess I would call it taking a passing approach to the work that you do and the way that you build community.
Zora as an undeniably, unmistakably Black woman who says I am not going to sit here and write a Victorian brand novel. I am going to write about Black folks in the south. Could it have posed a threat to the ways they moved through the world and the ways that eventually had success, in Richard Wright’s case gain success. But I think his book Native Son and the way that he kills off Bessie and the way that becomes part of the plot in the novel. The way that Bessie is killed and the treatment of that speaks a lot to how he viewed Black women at the time. But that’s just me as someone who was reading stuff and I think his work actually really tells it all.
[0:40:35] (AJ): Preemptive misogynoir.
[0:40:36] (BT): He’s like have you ever heard of hating Black women? Let me show you how it’s done. Also W.E. B. Du Bois does a good job of that too. I’m sure there is some people who will hate me for saying that but there’s a lot of—
[0:40:55] (TS): He was one of her favorite people.
[0:41:00] (AJ): I want to know about that. But I think what this goes to show is that she faced a lot of obstacles throughout her life. What we see in the documentary is her overcoming these constant obstacles, whether it’s money, personalities that were around her–. One of the questions we wanted to ask you what was the most difficult part of creating the film? Were there any obstacles that you faced, if so, how did you overcome them?
[0:41:37] (TS): I think figuring out how to include anthropology was really hard for us. It took—there’s animations that you see, those took a long time to figure out. They didn’t get figured out until the last minute. How do you visualize what is being said about folklore, that took a long time. I literally actually was Randy and I. Randy is my partner, he was a producer of the film we were – I had this idea of having the words of different folklore people on the screen and we got these images and some interns helped us. We printed them out, literally we were in our living room cutting out the stuff and pasting. Putting them down and took a picture of for the animators, can you animate cause there was like how do you represent something that you really can’t get into. That was the stuff that was really hard.
How much can you tell of the New Negro Movement which becomes known as the Harlem Renaissance so that people appreciate that. I don’t want to leave it out, but I can’t get into it in a major way. When you think about classic storytelling, I got to get to her discovering anthropology that’s like the inciting incident. That’s when the story is really taking off. Of course, I have to do Eatonville and all these things. Of course, I’m not going to leave out you need to know there’s this period of time after her mother dies that she is on her own. You need to know that she is at Howard of course. Then we get her to Barnard. –
But how to situate that New Negro Movement it was very hard. It kind of moved around in different ways. And so, did certain things about anthropology and folklore. We were even trying to define ethnography, but we just had to stop. Also, there were discoveries along the way and it becomes difficult. How do you not lose what is working but add this other stuff. Sometimes it was a writing thing that could do it other times it was just something that had to go. One of the things that did go; we didn’t talk about her love life. The men that were in her life. That used to be in the film. I wanted to try to show that she was so dedicated to her work that every time she thought she wanted to be in a relationship, she realized it was going to interfere with her work.
[0:44:09] (BT): Capricorn
[0:44:10] (TS): She was not going to stay home and be a traditional housewife or whatever people were calling it. I don’t know if they were using that term then, but she was like nope got to go you know. Even this Percival Hunter who she loved so much, she of basically fled to Haiti and Jamaica to escape this intense attraction and the relationship because even though he was this younger guy he wanted her to fit into this box. She was like no this is not happening. I do think it was challenging to try to think about how to make this an hour long film, that was really hard. It was kind of a relief on the one hand when it grew. But the deadline didn’t change so that was actually really stressful to get this film done on time to make it to air date. It worked out in the end. You two are – if you guys are happy then I know I’ve done it right.
[0:45:19] (BT): Very happy. I think one of the things though that I really enjoyed about the film was that there was not as much of a focus on her love life. We know that Zora is a Capricorn and if anybody has any Capricorn placements work is the center of their life. In so many ways. Nothing gets that gives them purpose- nothing gets in the way of that. Classic Capricorn behavior always being about the bag–. I really liked the treatment of her relationship with Langston Hughes too and her friendship with him. How instrumental it was and how pivotal it was. But that was a part of the film but the film kind of did not dive into that. Yeah, he was there, he was a friend and then they had a friendship break up. It negatively impacted her later, but she still continued to do her work. I thought that the film was like a beautiful reflection of what we can capture of Zora’s legacy. There is such much we will never know or be able to say. We’re curious what in your opinion do you believe is the most enduring part of her legacy?
[0:46:47] (TS): Do you mind if I just address one another thing?
[0:46:49] (BT): Yeah.
[0:46:50] (TS): Before I address it, okay, It was very intentional not to go into big detail about Langston Hughes because and we actually had people saying I want to know more about that relationship and I had to keep saying that’s not what this film is. This film is about Zora Neale Hurston. People latch on to what they think they know. But Langston Hughes wasn’t Langston Hughes yet. He was still a college student and so they know about him now. But back then he was—she was actually giving him money and things like that. The other intentional thing I’ll just through out there you will notice we don’t talk specifically name Alan Lomax in the film and that was intentional he was also a college student at that time.
To answer your question about Zora’s legacy. Zora Neale Hurston’s literary writing will probably be the biggest part of her legacy. There is good reason for that, but I think that is because of the meticulous depictions of culture and her clear love for Black people. That is a product and Black women in particular. In the ways it is situated in this literary work is if I speak on Their Eyes Were Watching Godis because of study of anthropology and her interest in folklore and ethnographic research. I love in the film when Lee Baker talks about thick description. I tried my best to represent that in Their Eyes Were Watching God scene to try to sort of work with the text of her book, music and those images to have an audience feel what she was trying to convey. That to me is what is important about her legacy.
Her tenacity, her deep belief in the work she is doing as part of her legacy even though she faced all these setbacks. She never stopped trying, and that’s why I had to end the film with that quote from You Don’t Know Us Negroes where she says “go hard or go home” I just think that sums her up. I think that’s her legacy, passion, love of her people and she expressed it in so many different ways. But her literary output is where we see this most expressed.
[0:49:23] (BT): Our last question and its one that’s more a reflective, one that we have been asking everyone that we talk to this month. What do you see as your legacy and if you could describe your career in three words what would you say?
[0:49:44] (TS): I actually think this is your most difficult question of all. I don’t know what other people said but I’ve actually never thought about my legacy. I’ve just been so focused on trying to get things done in the present. But in terms of my career, if I had to pick three words which you’re making me do. Three words about my career I would say underestimated, patient, and determined. I hope that my legacy I don’t know what my legacy would be, but I hope that it would include notions of someone who is kind, helpful, and crafted stories that made a difference in the lives of people who experienced them.
[0:50:32] (BT): Well, you are definitely doing that. No need to keep it as a hope, it is accomplished, happening and we are two of the many.
[0:50:42] (AJ): Yeah.
[0:50:44] (BT): Of the thousands, millions. Thank you so much for your work and we are just so excited to have been apart of this and to have these moments with you. Alyssa do we have anything else we want to say as we close out?
[0:51:05] (AJ): No, I just was going to say the reason I love that question is because usually what we explain is that Zora is always, she is often described in three words genius, iconoclast, avant-garde. I heard that in the documentary. We always ask would she see herself in those terms? We ask that question to give our guests the opportunity to define that for themselves.
[0:51:40] (TS): I wonder I do think that she would say genius I bet she was someone who had so much confidence. I’m not saying that inner Zora was maybe as confident as the outer Zora was because when I think of her childhood and what she had to endure I think she had to create the identity–
[0:51:46] (BT): Ooh yeah.
[0:51:47] (TS): Create that identity as an armor but I think she would answer in very affirmative ways. How else could she have gotten through things.
[0:52:12] (AJ): Absolutely. Thank you so much for speaking with us. This has been incredible I am inspired to spend some time in the archives and read all of these documents and books and everything for myself. I am really glad that we got this deep look into a little bit of the background of the film from you, the director, producer, writer.
[0:52:39] (TS): Thank you for having me. It was a delight speaking with you and a real honor. I hope to meet you guys in person at some point.
[0:52:49] (BT): Yes, that would be lovely
[0:52:50] (AJ): Absolutely
[0:52:51] (TS): And discuss your work. I’ll be listening in, maybe not on this podcast (laughter) on the other ones that don’t include me.
[0:53:03] (BT): That’s all we have for you today. Thank you all for listening. This episode was produced by Alyssa James and Brendane Tynes and distributed in partnership with the American Anthropological Association. This season of the podcast is generously funded by a grant from the Arts & Science Graduate Council, the Heyman Center Public Humanities Graduate Fellowship, and donations from listeners just like you.
[00:53:25] (BT): Thank you all for your support. If you like this episode, please share it via social media, text message TikTok because, girl we ain’t going on there. We would love to hear what you have to say about this episode be sure to follow us on Instagram at Zorasdaughters and Twitter at Zoras_Daughters. For transcripts, syllabi, and information on how to cite us or become a Patron to access exclusive content, visit our website zorasdaughters.com.
[00:53:54] (AJ): Last but not least, be kind to yourselves. Bye
[00:53:58 ] (BT): Bye!