This Must Be the Place
by Kelli Weston

Column 2: Commandment Keeper (Beaufort, South Carolina; Commandment Keeper Seventh Day Church of God)

Any effort to trace a Black public life in this country must begin with perhaps the very first—and still today, major—Black institution: the Black Church. There, we find the birthplace of our unified cadence, our music (which is to say, American music), our superstitions, and, for better and worse, what unofficially passes as political power. The jagged genesis of the Black Church eludes easy outline (never mind, for instance, the very earliest slaves who arrived in the Spanish, and therefore Catholic, colonies; Catholicism has never and will never have a real foothold in the U.S.) But it was not, at first, exclusively Christian or, for that matter, any other religion, animated as it was by a people snatched from a continent so stunningly diverse that they could not, in their shackles, even communicate with each other, much less share the same gods. No, the original Church almost certainly operated as an archive for the vestiges of their lives before: a site of collective remembering—of collaboration and creativity that rescued frail, precious memories of home, varnished in unbearable despair and rage—and could not have failed to assume a central (indeed, divine) place in the lives of those confined to the plantation. They were reborn, a new tribe, their children marked by these private encryptions: a map to a place long lost to them. In that way, the Church—provenance of so much that still psychically unites us, the descendants of the slaves—remains today a sweeping inheritance that blankets the faithful and apostate alike.

The reasons for this are not mysterious. Many of the oldest Black churches boast centuries-old pews or wood floors under which untold scores of runaways concealed themselves on their flight northward. The Church (and the mosque, which enjoys an entirely different cachet) has been the cornerstone of nearly every Black liberation movement in this country. Perhaps bitterly, we must also recognize it as an emblem of our hybrid condition, our core and troubled American-ness, for much like the nation to which it belongs, this Church is now feverishly—oppressively—Protestant, the religion of their enslavers (murderers, rapists); which is not to say that the Catholics did not do their part, as if they had not, for centuries already, been at work in the kingdom of Kongo. Of course, a single institution could never hope to contain the full measure of a people, to say nothing of those who are not Christian at all, or, wilder still, managed to cling to the faiths of our forefathers. But we do find in the Church an ongoing performance of identity, made and remade.


By the time spring dawned in 1940, Zora Neale Hurston had already published several plays, short stories, essays, and three novels, among them the romantic epic that would eventually become her best known, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Her fiction understandably occupies a lofty place in her legacy, but it was one of many exercises in her storied anthropological efforts, centrally devoted to Black life, her ambitious, overarching project. Hurston proudly reveled in Black culture and took it seriously, especially its more sacred, metaphysical dimensions: she studied Vodou in Jamaica and Haiti, traced the genealogy of Black American song traditions to their ancestral African soundscapes, and collected ancient folk tales from around the Gulf Coast. She was a scrupulous historian of the South and later investigated the sexual exploitation of Black women by white men in Florida—so-called “paramour rights”—which led her to report on the trial of Ruby McCollum, a Black woman who had killed her white rapist. She counted Franz Boas, the “father” of American anthropology, as her mentor and was supported by the venerable Carter G. Woodson. So, it was not unusual when her good friend Jane Belo, an anthropologist studying religious trance, enlisted Hurston to observe the religious rituals of the local Gullah community in Beaufort, South Carolina. This is how she came to film services at Commandment Keeper Seventh Day Church of God, parish of Reverend George Washington, one sultry weekend in May.

Hurston was the daughter of a Baptist preacher and had famously been raised in the all-Black enclave Eatonville, Florida. She likely already understood something of the people she now hoped to document. The Gullah are the descendants of those Africans snatched from rice-growing regions. For generations, they have preserved much of their indigenous heritage (language, cuisine, etc.)—now blended into a unique Creole—owed to their relative isolation on the remote islands that crown the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

I spent this past Christmas in Beaufort, across spiraling acres of familiar marshland, in one of the many impeccably preserved antebellum-style hotels that decorate the coastline. People come here for precisely this reason, unwitting or otherwise: to live inside history; not merely among it, which you could do nearly anywhere (we ourselves were fleeing the flat urbanscape of the Midlands for the more ornate scenery of the Lowcountry, which is, too, a kind of escape from the present). An hour and a half's drive away, the perilous blue waters of the Charleston Harbor swell into the horizon. Nearly half of the captive Africans who set foot in this land had arrived here. Put another way: here is a place of “beginnings”—how many of us might locate our origins here?—which is the story the Church tells, too.

Hurston's film, which bears the same name as the church, is 42 minutes of black-and-white 16mm footage, although most have more likely seen the 18-minute edited excerpt made available on The Criterion Channel. That version depicts a lively service replete with communal musical performances and a fiery sermon. Everyone is dressed up, but modestly. In elongated, close-up sequences, congregants sing while playing cymbals, drums, tambourines, guitars. The church has always been a site of theater, by its very design, although we don't get much of Commandment Keeper's contours here. Members occupy the front pews and—although we do see glimpses of him in the pulpit—the pastor spends most of the film among them. The Church has always favored an interactive service, a call-and-response formality, but the fellowship of Commandment Keeper models a united, concerted performance that conveys their intimate proximity to their roots.

And just as in theater everyone in church has their role, often delineated by gender. In a pan across the room, it appears men and women of Commandment Keeper sit separately. The stately perch annexed by certain, usually older women in the Church (however narrow and ambivalent the conditions that produce this post) would crumble upon even cursory inspection, but Hurston composes a refined picture of their prominence, which reflects the institution's innate organization: women are the pulse, integral to all parochial operations. The camera lingers on one woman dancing, then dips to reveal the elegant action of her feet, a flurry of rhythmic kicks as she spins in place. At intervals, she surrenders to jerking movements, her eyes shut and her head tilted skyward. Behind them are glimpses of exposed walls and large paneled windows, but there are not many sustained or wide shots of the church's interiors. The film culminates in an outdoor service, where the congregation sings and plays their instruments while assembled around the pastor. A jarring cut reveals a group of white boys and men huddled nearby. One boy appears to drop a coin in the collection hat; others snicker. Their spectatorship shatters an otherwise intimate, seemingly hermetic profile of community.

Hurston and her skeleton crew could not, during filming, synchronize the sound, which took the restorers some effort to recover, and there exists another 90 minutes of audio of prayers, songs, and sermons. The prologue announces that the sound retroactively matched to the film is meant to “suggest the atmosphere in which the footage was shot.” So the final portrait is narratively asymmetrical, fundamentally uneven in architecture. In part, this tension between sound and image lends a certain texture to the proceedings: a portrait of religious ecstasy layered with the sensorial haze cast by a hypnotic, ubiquitous symphony of worship. This formal conflict shifts the film from (solely) archival to someplace liminal, bridging—in the tradition of Hurston—the academic and literary.

But we also have a tale half-told, which is, perhaps, the uneasy story of ethnography altogether. Despite even the best intentions, outside intervention, however earnest, will inevitably produce something compromised, perhaps even crude in its representation. And collaboration hardly ensures that the subjects of these projects will not ultimately find their authorship decentralized. Hurston the anthropologist prided herself an “insider” whose racial membership allowed her to access marginal communities. Her experimental strategies, deeply informed by her literary impulses and her vivid authorial presence, may well account for her longtime obscurity in the field.

Hurston not only directs this film, but participates in the services, a distinct and often controversial fixture of her methodology (she had, similarly, participated in Vodou ceremonies). You can spot her several times in the film, playing the drums at the end of a pew. Her performance of subjectivity deconstructs the traditional hierarchy of looking relations that plague the form: she looks from the inside. But she does not quite relieve the film, nor the two modes—science and nonfiction cinema, fraught with their own racialized legacies—that she weds here, of the persistent ethical questions her (functionally outside) presence invites. For Hurston, it was most important to define Black culture in continuity and coherence; but even as she nobly destabilized the disingenuous objectivity and authority of the discipline, she does not quite upend the colonial configurations of an institution that has generally pathologized Black life and transformed it into spectacle. By the end of the film, she makes these uneven looking dynamics transparent, by turning briefly to the white gatherers, which alerts us to the long history of such intrusions.

In fact, the author had already weathered similar criticism about her portrayal of Black folk life in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston believed the South to be a “relic” of England, and therefore the dialect of Black Southerners retained the signatures of Elizabethan (that is, colonial) speech; take, for instance, the colorful Shakespearean metaphors that charge Southern speech. Not coincidentally, censures of Hurston’s novel largely came from Black intellectuals and artists who were, if not generations removed from the rural Black South, then desperate to elide association with all they seemed to embody: principally, the unsophisticated past. Richard Wright, among her most famous detractors, accused her of reproducing minstrelsy ("...that makes the 'white folks' laugh," as he wrote in his review). Even if Wright had not so publicly and repeatedly betrayed his own, often spiteful, frankly hysterical relationship to Black women in (and outside of) his work, his critique exposed the true origins of his discomfort. Wright and several others were not merely unsettled by the vision of Black life she created (one Hurston was specially qualified, given its setting among Black Floridians, to render), but by who was doing the looking; what might this fictional portrait look like to white people—that is, implicitly not respectable, lowly, humorous even. In this way, Commandment Keeper embodies the two foremost elements of Hurston's aims: the private culture made public and authenticity without critique. In part, she could depict the subaltern classes so well because she considered herself—however increasingly complicated her own gaze—one of them, an insider.

Commandment Keeper does not shrink from acknowledging the disparate racial framework inherent in its project. It remains such a precious filmic document, a not uncomplicated survey of Black life, because it strikes at the root of this nation's identity-making. The film also reveals what still lends its creator such distinction: Hurston remains such a singular figure because she sought, above all, to expose the hidden, to shine light upon truth, knowing that poetry comes later.