As I head up Hwy 985 North from Atlanta in bumper to bumper traffic, I have no mental image of Gainesville, nor Gainesville State College where my film “Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun” will be screening. Although the city is very close to Lake Sidney Lanier, a lake that could easily house the entire city of Atlanta, its boundaries are not the water but rather the highways and newly blacktopped roads that have created the suburb of Oakwood. The college looks like others that have answered the call of commuter students, and the Continuing Ed building is a new one. The Arts Council, Inc. has sponsored me and they are the sort of entity that The Southern Circuit was made for. Gladys Wyant, the Ex. Dir, has heavily promoted the event and the Council relishes the opportunity to have the film and a filmmaker in their little community. There is a videotaped sit-down interview following the screening with Professor Jeff Marker, an opportunity for their Communications Department to create programming, with students operating cameras, under the caring guidance of another Prof. Dave Smith. Loved it! Now, on to Indianola to the BB King Museum. Goodbye, Georgia.
I’m so happy to be in Madison, Georgia, a city fully in bloom. Dogwoods, azaleas, camellias, tulip trees. What’s not to like about this? Do the people of Madison have any idea how beautiful their city is, as they drive casually through their hood? The trees are trumped by the homes, some selling for millions of dollars, before the crash, still beyond my reach now. Had Scarlett and Rhett had great-grandchildren, they’d now be ensconced in one of these antebellum homes in Madison, Georgia.
The Madison-Morgan Cultural Center is a gem of a building, built in 1893 as a school. It sits back from the road, a sculpture garden gracing the lawn. My screening is in the old auditorium, a theatre in the round with wood walls and floors, old padded theatre chairs. The Sister’s – a group of black women who live in Madison – are there in full. A book group has told its members to attend. And there are many locals. They all know each other and the reception is lively.
I always listen to hear whether the audience laughs at the places in the film where I want them to laugh. This Southern group laughs alot – they like to enjoy themselves. And here in Madison they are particularly fond of one line in the film: “Langston Hughes said he’d rather be a lamppost in Harlem than the Mayor of a town in Georgia”.
Today, if Langston were alive he might change his mind. I can see him sitting on one of those antebellum porches in a rocker. And I can imagine Zora zipping through town in her red convertible. She would have felt right at home with her Sister’s in Madison, Georgia, attending the screening, looking fine.
On March 14, I began a tour of southern cities, sponsored by South Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. As part of that tour, I blog about the events. Here is my first blog after my screening at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee. By the way, I’m still looking for that pair of shoes so whoever finds them in Jefferson City, please send them my way.
This small college in Jefferson City is surprisingly ranked one of the best Liberal Arts Colleges by US News & World Reports – surprising only because the college, with its quaint campus and brick buildings, is in a town that barely boasts a hotel. Its big city neighbor is Knoxville, less than an hour from woodsy Jefferson City (unless you mistakenly misread Johnson City as Jefferson and head 50 miles out of town before realizing your error – doh!). My host, Mark Borchert, has turned the Henderson Humanities theatre on the campus into a film screening room with an audio system that surpassed many where I’ve screened in newer more modern venues. They just don’t make buildings like they used to. In fact, the screening was flawless. The students ranged from Communications to Theatre to English majors, the faculty reflected the same, and it appeared there were some civilians in the audience. I had a feeling that this was new information to these students, that they had not pondered the Harlem Renaissance to any degree. But I’m sure Dr. Bethany White will make sure that what they learned about Zora Neale Hurston stays with them.
Teachers in the Bronx a couple of weeks ago pondered the life of Zora Neale Hurston at the Casita Maria Educational Center through a screening of Jump at the Sun, my feature film about Hurston’s life. There they discussed how to use Zora’s books as a way to reach their multicultural students in this strongly Latin and African-American community and help them to read and write English.
On Saturday (Nov. 20), JUMP AT THE SUN will be screened at the annual National Council of Teachers of English convention at the Disney Coronado Resort in Lake Buena Vista. This is almost their 100th meeting, as the very first meeting of the NCTE was held on December 2, 1911, in Chicago where 65 educators attended to discuss the role of English on college entrance exams.
With more than 1000 teachers expected to attend, and perhaps as many at a sister conference of the National Writing Project at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, one has to wonder who’s minding the classroom and teaching our children English.
English was the language of our British colonizers, and is the official language of many countries colonized by the Brits. In Pakistan, for instance, where there are dozens of indigenous languages by just as many tribes, the official language is English. All official documents, all official business is in English.
Reading early American writers – Emerson, Thoreau – one gets the impression these writers liked the writing and enjoyed hearing ye olde English – the words, the pronunciations. And why not? It was the language of their ancestors.
That’s why it was important that Zora Neale Hurston (the first writer to use the word “cool”) and her school of writers came along and wrote stories that included the voices of other Americans, those who had never had the benefit of education, former slaves for whom learning to read and write had been forbidden. It was only by learning to read and write English herself that smart and gifted Zora was able to give a voice to the voiceless. The contributions have embellished our English language, making it much more American today than British.
The current twist on teaching English today embraces storytelling by school children whose topics are more likely to include racial or class conflicts, or parents returning from Afghanistan. As the teachers ponder ways to keep children reading and writing amid a huge sea of visual storytelling that includes television, movies, computers, video games, Zora’s old ideas seem even more relevant today.
Organized in 1934 in a humble East Harlem apartment, New York’s Casita Maria was a place to provide Hispanic families with the educational support needed in their new homeland. It was a place where “the young could lead their parents and their community to full participation in the American Dream.” Among the “Casita Kids” alumnus were Tito Puente, Rita Moreno, and Tina Ramirez, the founder of Ballet Hispanico. The little apartment eventually became the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education and moved from Harlem into the South Bronx. This past summer, it moved into a brand new beautiful building, complete with a new theatre.
And that’s where Zora comes into the picture. On November 5, a slew of educators will meet and screen the film and discuss how to use the film and Zora’s books in their classrooms. I know those teachers and their students will take heed of the films message that their native culture is important, that there’s no need to assimilate into the culture du jour. Hopefully, we’re past the point when we all need to talk, look, and act alike – after all, America is a big melting pot, which is what keeps us vital and fresh.
Thanks to Carolyn Butts and African Voices Magazine for including the film in her many important undertakings.