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Their eyes were watching her

A Black History Month performance lets Zora Neale Hurston tell it like it 'tis

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2001


SPRING HILL -- She strode into the room smooth and strong, her hair up in a feathered hat and her shapely legs in a pair of heels.

"I'm here," she told the crowd in a proud black Southern drawl, "to tell it like it t-i-s, 'tis."

Her name, for the record, was Phyllis McEwen, a dramatic performer from Tampa. But for the moment, as she stood before a crowd at Bouma Hall on Thursday, she would prefer they call her Zora. As in Zora Neale Hurston, famous author, anthropologist and native Floridian.

The crowd of about 125 people was gathered to celebrate Black History Month. Through McEwen, the ghost of Hurston, most known for her novels Tell My Horse and Their Eyes Were Watching God, was there to remind them that every month of the year belongs to them -- even if that is sometimes easy to forget.

"(Black culture) is a wonderful culture. We contribute greatly," the actor's persona said. "But sometimes it isn't fun. Sometimes it's lonely."

As the group watched, "Zora" explained her life's work in 1930s America: gathering the culture and folklore of black Americans and putting it into words. At first, she said, it was hard to convince her people that folklore -- songs, tall tales and the like -- were worth saving.

"I told them, "I want to collect your lies,' " she said. "And they said, "What? I think you're telling the first one.' "

She took the audience through creation myths and jokes. She taught them an old song that men working on the railroad just outside Lakeland used to sing. The room filled with their words, more than 70 years old, that went something like this:

* * *

Shove it over,

Hey-hey-hey,

Can you line it?

Shacka-shacka-shacka-lacka-

Huh!

* * *

Everyone sang along, smiling when the song ended.

"Next time you all go over those railroad tracks," Zora said, "I want you to think of those men."

Her performance ended with some words of wisdom. She said she had "been in sorrow's kitchen and licked all the pots" but that life hadn't gotten her down. She had simply worked on, and raised herself up.

"Bitterness," she warned, "is the underarm odor of weakness."

As the day's program ended, Charlene Johnston, who organized the event for the African American Club of Hernando County, remarked on how things have changed from Hurston's time and even her own childhood.

"When I was in school, we didn't learn anything about black history. Now it's in television, in the schools," she said. "And I think that's important for us and it's important for the people who are not black to learn about these things."

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