Segments in this Video

1940: Interview with Zora Neale Hurston (02:13)


Against archival footage we hear the words of Zora Neale Hurston, "I am not tragically colored." She recorded Negro folk culture through photography, books and plays and was noted for audacity and independence.

Radio Interview (01:24)

Hurston appears on a radio show in New York, talking about her newly published autobiography, "Dust Tracks on a Road." She talks about the way children think the moon is following them.

Eatonville (01:37)

Hurston grew up in Eatonville, FL, a town created by and for black people. She saw it as a culture conducive to her creativity. Her descriptions of life there are recited.

Family, School and Independence (01:43)

Hurston's father tried to teach her how to avoid antagonizing whites, but her mother encouraged her strong spirit. The school was based on Booker T. Washington's ideas, but she preferred imagination and books to learning a trade.

Wanderings (01:45)

Hurston's mother died when she was 13, leaving her largely on her own, wandering, for 15 years, working as a maid and in other jobs.

Howard University and Harlem (02:55)

Hurston went to black university Howard, where Dr. Elaine Locke promoted her writing and encouraged her to go to Harlem, where he saw a black creative class emerging, and where she caught attention.

Harlem Renaissance Elitism (01:12)

Many saw the Harlem Renaissance as a movement for the cultured few to achieve assimilation as a vanguard. White patrons promoted the movement through literary contests, one of which Hurston won.

Fannie Hurst (02:29)

Hurston became a companion of writer Fannie Hurst; she describes Hurst's personality. Hurston rejected her at solidarity over hotel segregation, and in her writing consistently rejected victim status.

"Fire" Magazine (01:17)

Early black literature was written to justify blacks to white readers. Hurston helped publish "Fire," which promoted new Harlem Renaissance visions of black culture.

Rejecting Restraint (01:32)

Hurston wrote about the privileged position of light-skinned African-Americans. She rejected the restraints expected of black people, writing that at times she was independent of race.

Franz Boaz and Charlotte Mason (02:50)

Anthropologist Franz Boaz, a critic of racist theories, arranged a fellowship for Hurston to collect Negro folklore. When the fellowship money ran out, Charlotte Mason, who saw black culture as "unlearned" and "exotic" supported her.

Research in Eatonville (02:44)

Hurston went to Eatonville, FL, to begin collecting material, recording customs and children's games. She listened as people sat on the porch of the town's main store and told stories.

Taking Voodoo Seriously (02:51)

Hurston left Eatonville for New Orleans to dig deeper in black culture and study voodoo. Her writings about her initiation, in which she lay naked for days and became blood brother with snakes, are recited.

Langston Hughes (01:43)

Hurston sent samples of Negro oral tradition to close friend Langston Hughes, who shared her desire to be appreciated by black people. He joined her in her travels.

"Mulebone" (02:21)

Hurston and Langston Hughes worked on "Mulebone," a comedy set in Eatonville. Hurston suddenly disappeared, then copyrighted the play in her name, which severed the friendship.

Plays (01:13)

Hurston wrote plays intended to build drama out of authentic black life and put together a troop of traveling performers, performing herself in her plays.

Controversies With Patron (02:35)

Mason, Hurston's patron, asserted ownership of the folklore Hurston had collected and tried to control her other work. Some criticize her for pandering to her patron.

Getting Published (01:25)

Hurston talks about getting her first book published just as she was being evicted for failure to pay rent.

"Jonah's Gourd Vine" (02:15)

Hurston's book "Jonah's Gourd Vine," shows that black preachers like her father are artists. She discusses his womanizing. She rejected expectations that she write about the "race problem" or present idealized blacks.

"Mules and Men" (01:24)

"Mules and Men," based on Hurston's anthropological research, is stylized nonfiction in which she presents herself as a character taking the reader on a journey.

Celebration of Southern Life (01:58)

In "Mules and Men," Hurston presents folklore as evidence of the intelligence of rural country folk. She gave the world a new way to look at the South, not defined only by its horrors.

Celebration of Dialect (02:33)

At a time when blacks were thought to be unable to speak proper English, Hurston showed the creativity of their dialect, and its influence on whites in the South and elsewhere.

Library of Congress (01:58)

Hurston went to work for a Library of Congress project cataloguing black folk songs. Her inferior position in the project and her methods of rebelling against racial structures are discussed.

Films about Folk Songs (02:10)

We watch excerpts from videos Hurston made that include singing and narration about black folk songs. She revealed the sophistication of black musical culture.

"Their Eyes Were Watching God" (01:48)

After breaking off an affair with a younger man, Hurston wrote "Their Eyes Were Watching God," based on the affair.

Free Indirect Discourse (02:11)

"Their Eyes Were Watching God" proved the possibility of narrating a novel in African-American vernacular. It uses free indirect discourse, in which characters educate the narrator.

Criticism by Black Literary Establishment (02:46)

Black critics trashed "Their Eyes," showing their lack of respect for their ancestral traditions. She defiantly ripped mentor Locke for his criticisms.

Richard Wright's Criticism and Hurston's Feminism (01:56)

Black protest writer Richard Wright criticized Hurston for not focusing on white racism. Jenny Crawford is a feminist character, rejecting victimhood and showing independent-minded love of life.

Commandment Keepers' Church (02:14)

Margarette Mead funded Hurston's project recording the music of a South Carolina roadside church group, which Hurston saw as a protest against ideals of a church held by "literate Negroes."

Roadside Church Music (01:42)

As we watch an excerpt from a Hurson video, a woman who is in the video talks about what the music means to her. Video is then juxtaposed with a scene from one of Hurston's books.

Misleading Autobiography (01:44)

Hurston's publisher asked her for an autobiography, which she titled "Dust Tracks on a Road." It misrepresented facts; she was not born in Eatonville, for instance.

Marriages (01:33)

Hurston never publicly acknowledged her three marriages; she rarely lived with her husbands, wanting to avoid constraint; she was married to her work.

Wartime Censorship (02:07)

Hurston's publisher censored her 1942 autobiography due to wartime unease about criticizing government. Unpublished portions are quoted. During the war she lived on a houseboat.

Conservative Leanings (01:36)

Hurston's focus on what blacks achieved without integration or government support led her out of the black mainstream toward opposition to the welfare state.

Molestation Charge and Hurston's Worst Book (02:31)

Frustrated with stereotyped expectations of black writers and feeling her own race was destroying her over a false allegation of child molestation, Hurston made a departure and focused on white "cracker" culture with "Seraph on the Swanee."

Hurston Cleared of Molestation Charges (03:28)

Hurston fled New York's pressures for calm life in Florida. When the press discovered her working as a maid, she claimed this was to research for a book, producing publicity and new opportunities.

Opposition to Brown v. Board (02:25)

In response to Brown v. Board of Education, Hurston wrote that a court order for whites to associate with blacks was an insult to her people's self-respect. She felt it insulted the institutions blacks built under segregation.

Hurston's Later Life (02:04)

Hurston worked odd jobs and her works were repeatedly rejected before she took a job for a black paper in Fort Pierce in 1958. The joys and frustrations of her last years are discussed.

Hurston's Death (01:42)

Hurston died in 1960 at 69, and was buried in an unmarked grave. In declining health, she was working on a novel and desperately writing publishers. Unfinished manuscripts were nearly burned.

Hurston's Legacy & Revival (03:24)

Forgotten for 20 years after death, Hurston Neale Hurston has enjoyed a revival, her books, films and plays rediscovered.

Credits: Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun (00:54)

Credits: Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun

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Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun

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Zora Neale Hurston, trailblazing novelist and pioneering anthropologist, is responsible for establishing African-American vernacular as a valid voice in literature. With the rediscovery by the modern academic community of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston became one of the first black women to enter the American literary canon. This definitive film biography portrays Hurston in all her complexity: gifted, flamboyant, controversial, and always fiercely original. The program intersperses insights from scholars and rare footage of the rural South (some of it shot by Hurston herself) with reenactments of a revealing 1943 radio interview—and examines her life both as a writer and as an ethnographer. (84 minutes)

Length: 84 minutes

Item#: BVL49796

Copyright date: ©2008

Closed Captioned

Reviews & Awards

Winner, Best Educational Film, Festival International du Film sur l’Arts        


“Does a fine job outlining Hurston’s life and her near miraculous achievements, drawing on an unusually impressive and interesting group of talking heads.”  The New York Times        


“An exhilarating portrait of an exhilarating woman, and a cut above the usual American Masters portrait.”  Newsday

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