Written by Nicole Alicia Watson

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One aspect of this past weekend’s Margaret Mead Festival at the American Museum of Natural History was to celebrate the life and work of Franz Boas. Boas was a pioneer in the field of anthropology and Zora Neale Hurston was one of his students at Columbia University. Hurston was an anthropologist, folklorist and novelist in her own right and is most famous for her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. The panel Visions of Zora Neale Hurston celebrated her anthropological work, showing selections of Hurston’s own footage taken in 1928-1929 in Eatonville, Florida, making Hurston one of the earliest documentarians. Hurston was most interested in every day African-American life and although most of her films are lost to us, panel member Elaine Charnov was able to show short selections of Hurston’s work. The clips showed young children playing as well as older men at work. Photographer Deborah Willis and Lonnie Graham also shared their work on Hurston and their own photographic documentation of life in Eatonville, Florida, Hurston’s home town. Professor Willis included in her presentation, an excerpt of a correspondence between Hurston and Boas while Hurston was working on her book “Of Mules and Men”. She wrote, “Is it safe for me to say that baptism is an extension of water worship as a part of pantheism just as the sacrament is an extension of cannibalism? Isn’t the use of candles in the Catholic church a relic of fire worship?” One wishes that more of Hurston’s films had been preserved and that there had been more time to hear about her work.

  • Robyn

    Wow, this sounds great. Wish I had been there. Ever since I read her autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road, I have been obsessed with ZNH!