For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2007

Embracing Eatonville

January 20–March 18, 2007

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems
Untitled, from the Eatonville Series, 2003
silver gelatin print
On loan from the Light Work Collection

Dawould Bey

Dawoud Bey
Jason-Ramone Filmore
pigmented inkjet print
On loan from the Light Work Collection

Lonnie Graham

Lonnie Graham
Young Eatonville Festival Patron, Day Two, January 2002
pigmented inkjet print
On loan from the Light Work Collection

Deborah Willis

Deborah Willis
Carrie at Euro Designs with Helen McLaughlin, Eatonville, FL 2003
pigmented inkjet print
On loan from the Light Work Collection

Founded in 1886, Eatonville, Florida, is the oldest black incorporated town in the United States and was home to the celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. The exhibition looks at the spirit and character of Eatonville through the work of contemporary photographers Dawoud Bey, Lonnie Graham, Carrie Mae Weems, and Deborah Willis, each of whom have created a new body of work for this exhibition, exploring the importance of place to individual and collective identity. The project is a collaboration among Light Work, a non-profit gallery supporting the work of artists in photography and digital media; A Social Studies Project (ASSP), an artists’ collective; and the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts in Eatonville.

Embracing Eatonville: A Conversation

UMMA Exhibitions Coordinator and Project Coordinator for the exhibition Embracing Eatonville in conversation with UM professors Maria Cotera and Naomi André about the town of Eatonville, Florida, the oldest incorporated black town in the United States, and its best-known daughter, Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston.

Katie Derosier: I want to thank Professors André and Cotera for taking the time to talk about our exhibition and about Zora Neale Hurston and some of the central themes of this project. First, some introductions.

Professor Maria Cotera: I currently hold a joint appointment as an assistant professor in the Program in American Culture/Latino Studies and the Women’s Studies Program and I'm working on a manuscript entitled “Native Speakers: Ella Deloria, Jovita González, Zora Neale Hurston and the Poetics of Culture.”

Professor Naomi André: I am an Associate Professor in Women’s Studies and the Residential College. My current research focuses on how race and identity are expressed in music, specifically in opera. As I work with operas written during the Harlem Renaissance, I find myself asking questions about the racial and cultural contexts in which artists were expressing blackness.

KD: This exhibition, which brings the three of us together in conversation now, has at its core a very particular place and has as its muse a unique personality. I wonder if we might begin with Zora Neale Hurston who was without question a true individual. Without oversimplifying her or her life, I wonder what shaped her and offer that perhaps there were dual influences upon her during her formative years—her mother, Lucy, with whom she had a loving relationship, and Eatonville where she lived from age 3 until her mother's death when Zora was 13...

MC: Zora’s life was both unique and in some ways emblematic of the African American experience in the early twentieth century. Her early years were steeped in the folklore of Southern black culture, but they were also influenced, as you suggest, by her mother's constant reminders of her own limitless capacities. Her mother's death was a key moment of betrayal in Hurston's life, both on the part of her mother, who left her to the vagaries of her father's wandering affections, and Hurston herself, who always felt that she failed to honor her mother wishes in the wake of her passing. There is an interesting and deeply moving passage in Hurston's autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, in which Hurston describes her mother's last days. On her death bed, Lucy Potts instructed her daughter not to let the townsfolk overseeing her passing remove her pillow, cover the clocks in the house, or turn the mirrors to the wall, all folkloric practices commonly associated with death. Of course, the communal desire for a "proper" passing superceded what was considered the willful and irrational demands of a little girl, and as the women of Eatonville turned Lucy Potts' bed Eastward and commenced all of the rituals associated with death, Zora watched in horror as her mother struggled to articulate her resistance. As Hurston recalls, "her breathing took up so much of her strength that she could not talk. But she looked at me, or so I felt, to speak for her. She depended on me for a voice."

KD: Yes, I recall that passage and feeling so deeply the sense of desperation she must have felt in being entrusted with her beloved mother’s last and arguably most important request of her daughter and then being unable to act on it— psychically and physically barred.

MC: This foundational memory of her mother's passing strikes me as particularly important to understanding the complexities of Hurston's relationship to folklore and to Eatonville itself. While it was her life's goal to create greater awareness of the beauty and creativity of black folkloric practices to the reading public, her relationship to these practices was ambivalent, especially as regards their gendered dimensions. Hurston was well aware of the ways in which folklore, however rich and wonderful, had silenced the voices of black women like Lucy Potts. Her folklore work tried to negotiate between celebrating folklore itself and "giving her mother a voice."

NA: I would like to expand this question to not just “who she was,” but also “who she continues to be” for us today. Given the relative obscurity she fell into later in her life and for several years after her death, she has become an important voice for our pantheon of current black women writers and cultural icons—Alice Walker (whose article “Looking for Zora,” published in Ms. Magazine in 1975, helped kick off the Hurston revival), Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey (who not only lists Hurston’s most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in her “favorite books gallery” on her website, but also made it into a movie), to name just a few. While studying at Barnard, I remember gaining much comfort and pride in the knowledge that I was joining Hurston’s legacy of strong, smart, and sassy African-American women. I think the issue of “who Hurston continues to be” remains relevant for all who see this current exhibit; in it she is featured overtly in Weems’s installation as well as indirectly for Hurston’s role in helping Eatonville, Florida articulate who it is today.

KD: Quite soon after her mother Lucy's death Zora was sent off to school in Jacksonville, which I imagine was her first exposure to a world beyond Eatonville and to racial divides and discrimination, yet something within her held onto her sense of place and belonging and nurtured her interest in oral traditions, folklore, the stories of her people and those beyond Eatonville. Was Zora acting in opposition to her contemporaries of the Harlem Renaissance with intent by not overtly protesting racism and discrimination, or was her focus more a result of her childhood that was free of such issues and allowed her to think in different terms entirely?

MC: After the death of her mother, Hurston lived with family in Jacksonville, Florida, then slowly made her way up to Baltimore, Washington and finally to New York City, following a migration pattern set into motion by a depression in the South and a booming wartime economy in the North, as well as an alarming post-Reconstruction upsurge in violent repression by vigilante groups throughout the South. Hurston, like many of her contemporaries, was drawn to the “Negro Mecca” of Harlem in the 1920s, but unlike most of her contemporaries in the Harlem Renaissance —many of whom hailed from the cosmopolitan drawing rooms and salons of the East Coast— Hurston was from the deep South, a place she identified with “authentic Negro folklore.” And like other regionalist writers of the period, she defended this place which was often represented by cosmopolitan black (and white) writers as a kind of racial inferno that destroyed black people and transformed white people into vice-ridden half-wits. Hurston knew all too well that the South was no utopia, but she also believed that black writers who demonized the South often turned a blind eye to continuing racism and segregation in the North. Her early focus on Eatonville may well have been strategic in that it provided her a convenient way to write about black life in the South without focusing on racism, since there were, according to her, no white people in Eatonville. In this sense, Eatonville may have been less an actual place to her than an imagined site of black cultural autonomy, which, as you suggest, refused the cruel dialogics of white racism. Indeed, she remained, to the end, committed to the belief that black people needn’t look to Anglo-American culture for models of beauty, political citizenship, or identity, a sentiment vividly expressed in her works of folklore, drama and creative fiction.

KD: This reminds me of a passage in Alice Walker’s landmark essay Looking for Zora, which reintroduced Hurston to a new generation of readers after her work and legacy (and literal gravesite) had fallen into obscurity: …”the quality I feel is most characteristic of Zora’s work: racial health; a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and literature.” (p. 85)

NA: One of the themes I’ve been fleshing out in my research on music in the Harlem Renaissance is the energy and creativity that fueled this historic era. Hurston was part of that first generation of African-Americans born after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Though Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction were not halcyon utopias by any means, in the 1920s many in this first generation of “free born” blacks were coming of age. As New York became the destination of the great migration for so many fleeing the south, Harlem became a vortex for new hope as this generation sought to reinvent itself and create a new legacy that went beyond slavery. In this context, Hurston is an active participant. She has clear pride in her vision of Eatonville, which includes a side of blackness that is in counterpoint to the vision of her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries. I like to think of her work as adding to the polyphony of voices that were writing themselves a history that would bring them a new future.

KD: Even beyond New York and her days as part of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston’s life took her across the country working a variety of jobs, studying, making connections with artists, intellectuals, and scholars. I find it telling that she regularly returned to Eatonville and not for family obligations but because it was a deep inspiration. It figured prominently in her writing—in Their Eyes Were Watching God Eatonville is arguably one of the central characters. And yet I wouldn’t characterize Eatonville as a safe haven for her, the relationship was more complicated than that.

MC: For Hurston, Eatonville was "home" which, of course made it a complicated place, especially after her mother's passing. This is largely due to the fact that it was a place that she associated with her father's legacy. So in some ways it came to represent the supremacy of men like him in a post-reconstruction South, the heroic founders of all-black towns, who nevertheless suffered from all of the psychological constraints of white supremacy and racial terror, the publicly pious ministers (with less-pious secret lives), the men of action (and inaction). In her writing, Eatonville is also a place that is distinguished by lingering connections to folkloric practices and a desire for modernity and "progress," a place that aspires to middle class stability and the norms of civic culture even as it claims independence from white America. In short, it is a place of deep contradictions, especially gendered contradictions. For a folklorist like Hurston, who sought to simultaneously recover the last "glints and glimmers" of black folk culture and re-inscribe an erased female agency within that tradition, Eatonville must have been a research site that was weighted down with seemingly irreconcilable gender, race, and class contradictions. So, though Eatonville was, for her, a productive site for the elaboration of memory through writing (in her short stories, plays, memoir, and novels), it was not always a productive site for the elaboration of folklore, which suggests that as her "home" place it was perhaps overly freighted with personal connections and memories that prevented her from envisioning it as an object of study.

KD: We touched upon the importance of place when we last met and I want to think about that again in relation to Zora. There is the larger sense of place that is Eatonville, then in her written work there are the specifics of place, such as Eatonville’s store and the porch which was the gathering place for conversation, gossip, news and which was a particular zone. Many of the works in our exhibition touch on this notion of place—the pulpit, the beauty parlor, the football field. Might these contemporary images of place be considered updated visions of Zora's Eatonville? And are they a natural evolution from her "sacred places" or do they conflict with them?

MC: I was particularly taken with this aspect of the photographs, because I do think that Hurston was keenly attuned to the politics of place, and, in particular, the gendered politics of place. Indeed, her representations of Eatonville often engage in a process of conceptual mapping that elucidates gendered differences via space. The storefront porch is, as you suggest, both a stage for the elaboration and reproduction of folklore and a site of power. The church is a place for the production and imposition of town values, even as it becomes a site for the contestation of those values. What I find intriguing about the photographs is the way in which they document the transformation of important social spaces in Eatonville, and what their documentation reveals about the social transformations of Eatonville. The church is clearly important to this place, but the storefront porch seems to have been replaced by another gendered social space, the beauty parlor, a place where women undoubtedly exchange stories, gossip, and tell a lie or two. I find this a delicious turn-about…

KD: I think, too, that looking at the photographs while considering Zora also illustrates that we are looking at a present-day (or within the last few years) moment in this place that is a rich mix of history and all that means—contradictions, gender struggles, social challenges, autonomy, successes, etc.— and that the “embrace” is one that takes in Eatonville in all its complex, complicated, rich beauty. I love that embrace of the real while recognizing the beauty inherent in imperfection.

NA: To have an exhibit centered around a named place—Eatonville, Florida—highlights the specificity of geography and complicates the notion of bounded space. These pictures are about what Eatonville is, has been, and looks forward to. The reenactment of Hurston writing her field notes, walking through the landscape, resting by the water is marvelously present in Weems’s stunningly textured black and white photographs. The sites of living—the church, the beauty parlor, the football field—all present current, yet also somewhat timeless, versions of sacred places in black communities. The people of Eatonville are marvelously captured by photographer Lonnie Graham in the two adolescent girls, one back and one white, walking together at the local fair, and the black vendor of African collectables. The future of Eatonville is lovingly captured in Dawoud Bey’s portraits of the current high school students through their expressive demeanors and verbal statements about their plans. By compiling these photographs together, Eatonville is continually redefined as each viewer brings her and his own understanding of Zora Neale Hurston into interaction with these polyrhythmic “documentary” images.

KD: I made a happy discovery at the graduate library this summer while doing research for this exhibition: A small book entitled Eatonville, Florida: A Brief History of One of America’s First Freedmen’s Towns. Fascinating reading on the incorporation and evolution of Eatonville from 1887 to today. Thinking about that history and the role Zora played in it, the town itself is far more than its most famous daughter (who, interestingly, is mentioned only once) and this brought me back full circle to the exhibition title Embracing Eatonville. Zora was the artists’ muse and inspiration, referenced overtly in some works and in others connections to her must be constructed by viewers. What thoughts do you have about the exhibition title in looking at the photographs?

NA: As I look at these photographs, I’m struck by how the exhibit allows us—the viewer—to embrace this place, Eatonville, Florida, in such multiple ways. The sense of place cuts across time as well as the realm of what is “real” and what is “imaginary.” Within the crosscurrents of the “real,” these photographs reveal an Eatonville, Florida that is on the map that we could visit it today, if we wanted. Yet one of the sources of power for this exhibit is that by their framing and capturing specific moments, these images become frozen in time and reflect a static, unchanging place; despite their immediacy, they now reflect the past. However, these snapshots of the past convey “real” moments in the faces and words of the portraits of teenagers in Dawood Bey’s series as well as “imaginary” moments in the staged reenactments of Zora Neale Hurston’s fieldwork trips in the work by Carrie Mae Weems. As we embrace Eatonville, we are putting our arms around both a geographical locale as well as a site of invention.

MC: In one of my previous responses, I mentioned Hurston's ambivalence regarding her home place (one that many of us, no doubt, share about our own home places), but I think this question reverses this ambivalence and necessarily raises the spectre of the Eatonville's opinion of its most (in)famous daughter, Zora. I remember reading a wonderful collection of essays entitled Zora in Florida (Glassman & Seidel) that evaluated her work and her influence from a regional perspective. In one essay, "Excursions into Zora Neale Hurston's Eatonville," author Anna Lillios, included interviews with several of Eatonville's elderly residents, some of whom actually knew Zora Neale Hurston. They recall complaints about Hurston's representations of Eatonville, and, in particular of what town elders considered her lack of propriety regarding the town's rather more colorful characters. Remember that Eatonville had a reputation to uphold as the first incorporated "Negro" town in the U.S., and that in the 1930s, towns like Eatonville would have staked much on their status as progressive, orderly, and well-run communities. Though Hurston's folklore and fiction brought attention to Eatonville, it was not necessarily the kind of attention that the respectable "race men " and "race women" of the town would have welcomed. These days there are different stakes to the representational politics surrounding Eatonville. On the one hand, Eatonville is an historical place largely due to the force of Hurston's reputation as a folklorist and novelist. On the other hand, that same reputation, and, undeniably, the sheer force of Hurston as an historical persona who continues to intrigue both scholars and the general public, has transformed Eatonville from a living breathing community into a kind of nostalgic backdrop for both her stories and her life. Indeed the Eatonville she created, "embraced," promoted, and made everlasting in our collective memories, has largely replaced what one might call the "real" place. I myself was unaware of how crystallized Zora's vision of Eatonville was in my mind until I confronted the "real" Eatonville through the evocative portraits and poignant landscapes (and townscapes) that constitute the bulk of this exhibit. Did I feel a twinge of disappointment at not seeing Joe Clarke's front porch, or old Mr. Pendir's "one-room shack...near Lake Belle"? In these photos I find a real living place, as real and as alive as the place Hurston cobbled together from her childhood memories and her research notes. And I find it interesting that this tension between fact and fiction, between the real and the imagined was also central to Hurston's iconoclastic brand of ethnographic meaning making (shuttling as she did between the stories she invented and the ethnographic facts she collected). So yes, these pictures are about Eatonville as it exists today and they force us to "embrace" that place in all of its materiality, sociality, and "realness," but (as Carrie Mae Weems's work so slyly suggests) they are also about the Eatonville that Hurston invented and popularized, a place that exists side-by-side with the "real" Eatonville in a kind of parallel universe of the imagination.

KD: This leads me to consider the critical role of representation— these photographs represent individuals but also stand for the entire town and, I would argue, beyond work in a universal way. This connects so closely with the work of one of our artists, Carrie Mae Weems, whose art has historically referenced the critical role of representation, moving individuals from the margins to the center—in many ways paralleling the way in which Zora herself worked. What, for you in looking at the works in our show, is the significance of the representations?

MC: I find Carrie Mae Weems's pictures (I use the term intentionally) less nostalgically satisfying than wickedly funny. Photographing herself as Zora's restless ghost wandering the back roads and hidden places of an "Eatonville" that exists primarily in the sepia-toned world of the false (?) literary memories of people NOT from that place, Weems demonstrates that Zora Neale Hurston haunts an imaginary place we call "Eatonville" even as she stands as its literary embodiment. And while she is responsible for "putting Eatonville on the map," the photos in this exhibit (even Weems's) militate against us reading Eatonville exclusively through her lens. Taken together, they demonstrate that Eatonville is much more than the backdrop for Hurston's life or even her folklore and fiction writing. In this sense they suggest an undeniably ambivalent stance with respect to her legacy, and point to the ambiguities of Eatonville's status as Zora Neale Hurston's home place. As Weems's lonely somewhat gothic, pictures suggest, Hurston, a notorious figure herself, at once shadows the place, and accounts for it's notoriety....

KD: Within the first few minutes of our last meeting, Naomi and I discovered that we had both grown up in New York City, and lived (at different times) within seven blocks of each other on the Upper West Side. I think it is human nature to in large part identify ourselves by what we consider home whether or not that place is where we still live or simply the place that has the most resonance for us in memories, histories, and to which we maintain a lifelong connection.

NA: Having spent a good deal of time in Zora’s “home” on the Upper West Side in New York by living in the same general vicinity and being a student at the same school, I feel a special type of bond with her—despite the fact that we were there at very different points in time. By feeling connected to one of Zora’s New York homes, this exhibit makes me feel as though I have been invited into one of her other homes. Though I have never been to Eatonville, in fact I have not even spent much time in Florida, through the medium of photography I feel a sense of entry into this place. With these iconic images of the important spaces (the beauty parlor, the football field, the church, the fairgrounds, inside the high schools), Eatonville becomes visible and Zora becomes imaginable in new ways.

KD: For me, the heartbeat of this exhibition is Zora, and the heart of it is the idea of home. As Maria said earlier, home is a complicated place…

MC: Indeed....


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