Florida Today 22
Florida Frontiers “Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, and Zora Neale Hurston”
We recently lost two significant contributors to our culture.
Poet, author, and performing artist Maya Angelou died on May 28, at the age of 86. Actress, playwright, and activist Ruby Dee died on June 11, at the age of 91.
These strong, influential, and talented women were both significantly influenced by Florida writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.
Both Maya Angelou and Ruby Dee contributed to the new book “Reflections from ZORA! Celebrating 25 Years of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities,” published by the Florida Historical Society Press.
Established in 1887, Eatonville, Florida is the oldest incorporated African American municipality in the United States. The town figures prominently in the work of its most famous resident, Zora Neale Hurston.
Hurston was a celebrated figure of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ‘30s, and arguably the most significant cultural figure to come from Central Florida.
Since 1990, The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community (P.E.C.) has produced the ZORA! Festival, presenting academics, artists, and other creative thinkers through lectures and panel discussions, visual and performing arts presentations, and a vibrant outdoor festival.
Both Maya Angelou and Ruby Dee were involved with the ZORA! Festival from the beginning.
Maya Angelou has written more than thirty best-selling books including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In 1993, she read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She toured Europe in a production of “Porgy and Bess,” and recorded an album of calypso music. She was active in the civil rights movement, working with both Malcom X and Martin Luther King. She has written, directed, and appeared in feature films. She was Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest. While visiting Eatonville for the fifth annual ZORA! Festival, Maya Angelou praised the event:
“This festival has a singular importance. It is not a festival in New York City or in Hollywood. It’s not a festival in Chicago, or any of the big metropoli of the world. It’s in Eatonville, Florida. And it is singular in that the festival—its existence itself—educates. Without a person even having to come here, he or she is forced to recognize this was the first incorporated all black town in the United States. That’s fantastic to know. Many black people don’t know that there were any. Not to mention whites, or Spanish-speaking or Native American.”
Zora Neale Hurston is best remembered for her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” the story of Janie Crawford and her attempts at self-realization. As an anthropologist, Hurston studied under the renowned Franz Boas. Her most important collection of folklore, “Mules and Men” was written in 1929 in Eau Gallie. Hurston also wrote dozens of short stories, essays, and dramatic works.
Actress Ruby Dee has appeared in numerous stage, film, and television productions, including the stage and film versions of “A Raisin in the Sun,” the film “Do the Right Thing,” and the screen adaptation of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” As part of the first annual ZORA! Festival, Ruby Dee conducted an acting workshop at Rollins College. During a break in the workshop, she discussed what makes Hurston’s writings noteworthy:
“The thing that really intrigues about Zora is that she recognized that our intellectuals, our giant imaginations, our brilliant people weren’t necessarily the scholars and the middle class. She knew that found in the back woods are extraordinary people, who never heard of Ibsen, who are capable of putting the universe in perspective—genius storytellers who could put the elements of life into imaginative contexts, who might not be able to spell or read and write.”
Zora Neale Hurston died broke and largely forgotten in Fort Pierce in 1960. Maya Angelou and Ruby Dee, who both died recently with well-deserved accolades and recognition, helped to revive interest in Zora Neale Hurston’s work and preserve her legacy for future generations.
For more information read the book “Reflections from ZORA! Celebrating 25 Years of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.” The book includes contributions from Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, Amiri Baraka, Alice Walker, N.Y. Nathiri, and many others.
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers.” The show can also be heard online at myfloridahistory.org.
Photo 1 caption info: Maya Angelou and Ruby Dee both contributed to the new book “Reflections from ZORA! Celebrating 25 Years of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.”
Photo 2 caption: ZORA! Festival founder N.Y. Nathiri (left) with Ruby Dee (center) and actress Elizabeth Van Dyke.