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A Tampa filmmaker's research for a documentary explores the life and work of Florida author Zora Neale Hurston.

By NICOLE JOHNSON
Published July 3, 2006

* the dead of summer 1973, a young afro'd Alice Walker hiked her skirt to her knees and set out across an overgrown cemetery in the small town of Fort Pierce to find the pauper's grave of Zora Neale Hurston.

At the time, Walker was not yet a famous author; it was years before she published The Color Purple. On that day, in the cemetery, she was simply looking for a fellow writer - a writer who had been forgotten. Identifying the woman beneath the weed-choked earth, and bringing attention to her legacy, sparked a surge of interest in Hurston's work.

Three decades later, people are still searching for Zora.

Tampa filmmaker Kristy Andersen has spent the past 17 years uncovering details of Hurston's life. In pursuit of the author's story, Andersen traveled along the same back roads as Hurston. She visited the small town in Alabama where Hurston was born, viewed rare film footage in drafty archive rooms at the Library of Congress - even discovered some of Hurston's writing that had never been identified before.

Andersen is pouring her years of research into a documentary. The film, Blacksouth: Life Journey of Zora Neale Hurston, should be completed this fall and is intended for broadcast on public television. It promises to provide an intimate portrait of Hurston, one of Florida's most famous and elusive writers.

* * *

Hurston died in Fort Pierce in 1960. At age 69, she was broke, alone and struggling to find a publisher for her next work.

In the half-century since, seekers into her story - scholars, historians, other writers - have tried to understand her work, her life and, ultimately, her death. They've found clues, bits and pieces. And with each new discovery, another layer of Zora has been revealed.

Gun-packing anthropologist, author, style icon, divorcee, chain smoker, Hollywood script doctor, playwright, political pundit and legend of the Harlem Renaissance: Hurston was all these things, and more.

She is best known for her writing. Between 1934 and 1948, she published six

novels - including her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God - as well as at least 10 plays and an autobiography.

She also spent much of the late 1920s through the early 1940s documenting the lives and customs of blacks in the South and the West Indies. In the latter years of her life she worked as a librarian and later a maid in South Florida. When she died, she was living on welfare.

Last year, Oprah Winfrey turned Their Eyes Were Watching God into a wildly popular TV movie starring Halle Berry. For many Americans, the movie was their introduction to Hurston's work.

Rich as it is, Hurston's fiction doesn't begin to convey the complexity of the author's real life. With her documentary, Andersen hopes to flesh out the public's understanding of Hurston.

Andersen, 53, won an Emmy for her writing on a documentary about sea turtles. She is married to an editor at the St. Petersburg Times.

Talking about her work on the documentary, Andersen acknowledged that she, too, knew little of Hurston when she started this project.

"I had this one-dimensional view of her as a maverick," she said. "But, I got to this point where I wanted to find out why. I mean, yes, lots of artists struggle and die alone. But why Zora?"

* * *

Years after Hurston's death, Fort Pierce knew little of the author except that she kept a garden at her home on School Court Street and had a dog named Sport.

Before Andersen began her research, even details of Hurston's birth were not widely known.

Zora was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Ala., - not Eatonville, Fla., as was commonly believed. In the early 1990s, Andersen stumbled upon this fact during a visit to the annual Zora! Festival held in Eatonville. Going through a Hurston family Bible, Andersen noticed that Alabama was listed, in a handwritten entry, as Zora's birthplace.

In the scholarly world, establishing "firsts" is tricky business. Andersen knows she isn't the first to research Alabama as Hurston's birthplace. But no one else, she said, had nailed it down.

"What I know for sure is that nobody else had gone there looking," she said.

Shortly after Zora's birth, her parents, John and Lucy Hurston, moved south to Eatonville - the country's first incorporated black city. John Hurston would become mayor of the town.

This upbringing was the foundation for so much of Hurston's adult life, influencing her approach to writing in Southern black dialect, her politics and finally her opposition to the civil rights struggle for integration, a point discussed in Andersen's film.

"The reason she set everything in Eatonville was because, if you had talent, you were going to be encouraged in Eatonville," said Tiffany Patterson, an associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Binghamton who appears in the documentary. "She was saying, 'Look at this world that I came from . . . My imagination was allowed free range.' "

In 1920, Hurston attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. Eight years later, she earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology from Barnard College.

After graduation, Hurston embarked on a career as a folklorist, sweeping through Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. She posed as the girlfriend of a bootlegger while scooping up folktales and other cultural information. Hurston carried a small pearl-handled gun for protection during her travels, according to pictures of the author during that period. In 1935, she recounted these travels in Mules and Men, an anthology of folktales. In 1937, she published Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Although they received mixed reviews, the two books catapulted Hurston into a growing circle of authors, artists and intellectuals creating the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s.

Still, Hurston remained largely an outsider because she focused on the customs and language of rural Southern blacks, which included an oral tradition based on stories of nature, history and spirituality. The rising tide of black intellectuals, including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, were portraying the black struggle and a more introspective portrait of blacks.

"She didn't want to be in what she called 'the sobbing school of Negro-hood,' " Andersen said. "She was not a race champion. She wanted to celebrate black life even if it was rural Southern black life. While everyone else was saying the South is a source of sorrow, she saw a different South."

* * *

During her travels, Hurston went places no other anthropologist thought to go. She visited country churches, bootleg joints and turpentine camps. She was documenting an African-American experience from inside places that at the time weren't even considered culturally relevant.

Tracing her footsteps, Andersen discovered two examples of Hurston's pioneering work.

In 1995, at the Library of Congress, Andersen tracked down a 40-minute film recording of Hurston partaking in dance-praise at a church in South Carolina. Hurston was both studying the church's practices and taking part in the service. It was her signature style of immersion anthropology.

Three years later, combing through files at the Smithsonian, Andersen came across several hundred pages of notes, all typed. Scanning the pages, Andersen realized she was reading unpublished material; these were Hurston's notes from her interviews on the road during the late '30s and '40s. The notes were full of folktales she'd written down, along with accounts of lynchings.

Andersen turned the material over to the Hurston estate, which eventually adapted the notes into a manuscript that was later published as Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales From the Gulf States.

The year before Andersen found the folktale notes, 10 unpublished plays of Hurston's were discovered at the Library of Congress.

The discoveries were another reminder of how much remained unknown about Hurston.

* * *

It wasn't until the 1980s that the Hurston estate - made up of eight of the author's heirs - began to formally organize her work. As they proceeded, they turned repeatedly to the work of various researchers, including Andersen, who were uncovering revelations about Hurston.

"Almost everything I have learned about her initially was presented through Kristy's work," said Lois Gaston, Hurston estate spokeswoman and president of Hillsborough Community College's Ybor campus. "She presents Zora's independent streak. And her pride."

The Hurston estate has agreed to an exclusive contract with Andersen, which prohibits them from giving information used in her documentary to others for an undisclosed period of time.

"I think all of us felt really comfortable with Kristy because she's been working on it for quite some time," Gaston said from her Ybor office. "I think she's committed to making this happen."

For Andersen - a white woman whose greatest acclaim came from a piece documenting marine life - it hasn't been easy gaining acceptance while researching one of the most notable black-centric authors of the past century.

One recent Wednesday afternoon, Andersen sat barefoot on her living room couch and talked about all she has learned on this project. Dozens of black-and-white photos of Hurston were scattered around her on the couch. Nearby, thick binders choked with clippings and notes lay open.

So far, she explained, the documentary has cost about $1-million to produce. Some of that money has come from her own pocket. Local funding has been hard to generate.

"This project has a lot of cache," Andersen said. "You go places, and people love it, but nobody will fund it."

The lack of support has been hard enough. But Andersen has also been surprised at how little the public - even those in the arts community - know about Hurston and the experiences she chronicled.

"I think white people are kind of naive in how they live in America," she said. "They think they understand race, but how can you understand your white race unless you understand the black race? How can you embrace being an American unless you can try to understand the other ethnic identities?"

On the flip side, Andersen has experienced skepticism from blacks regarding her ability to make a film about Hurston. She acknowledges that she has had a great deal to learn, both about Hurston and African-American history. She points out that the documentary's crew has been racially diverse. And she rejects the notion that the color of her skin keeps her from understanding Hurston.

In August, Andersen and others begin making final edits to the project.

"My life is on hold until I finish," she said with exhaustion and giddiness in her eyes.

Outside, the afternoon had turned into evening, and lawn workers and home repairmen were tossing equipment into the back of their dusty work trucks.

"It's been a long road," Andersen said. "But in the end it will be worth it to bring Zora out of the dark."

Nicole Johnson can be reached at 727 445-4162 or njohnson@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 3, 2006, 00:08:58]


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