Tracy Heather Strain's new film shows Zora Neale Hurston as anthropologist

Zora Neale Hurston is profiled in a new PBS documentary "Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space," which focuses on her work as a folklorist documenting Black culture. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
1 of 5 | Zora Neale Hurston is profiled in a new PBS documentary "Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space," which focuses on her work as a folklorist documenting Black culture. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- In the new PBS documentary Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming A Space, director Tracy Heather Strain focuses on the writer's research on Black people in the South and the obstacles to her work being taken seriously.

Hurston was a native of Eatonville, Fla., the oldest all-Black town in the United States. After a series of life challenges, including the death of her mother, Hurston made her way to Washington, and then to New York City, where she would become part of the Harlem Renaissance, a group of Black writers, scholars and artists.


"Zora Neale Hurston is a name that, for some people's outlook, is particularly natural because there are a couple of recent releases of books," Strain told UPI in a recent Zoom interview ahead of Tuesday's documentary premiere.

"But I don't think a lot of people know who she is. Some people will know that she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, but they won't know her story and they won't know her interaction with anthropology and that her writing weaves in her ethnographic research."


Years after her death, Hurston was rediscovered and lauded for her groundbreaking 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Hurston wrote four novels and more than 50 short stories, plays and essays throughout her 25-year career.

In 1975, author and poet Alice Walker helped lead the renaissance of Hurston's work by writing an article, finding her grave and adding a marker. Among other works published after her death, You Don't Know Us Negroes, a collection of Hurston's essays was released in 2022.

"So, she has books that are more ethnographic that weave in more of her literary style in a personal narrative," Strain said. "And then she has books like Their Eyes Were Watching God that is considered a literary text but incorporates lots of the ethnographic research she collected, as well as memory and stories that she knew of from her childhood."

Her life has been examined before. Hurston wrote an autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road, in 1942. In 2005, the documentary A Heart With Room for Every Joy was released, and in 2004, the late University of Georgia Professor Valerie Boyd penned a definitive biography, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.


Hurston studied at Columbia University under the tutelage of famed German anthropologist Franz Boas but had trouble having her work taken seriously due to her race and lack of academic credentials.

The history series American Experience asked Strain, the Corwin-Fuller professor at Wesleyan University, to direct the documentary after she wrote and produced Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, a feature documentary about Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

Strain said the focus on Hurston's contributions to anthropology was intentional.

"It was a mandate from the beginning because you may or may not know, there was a [Hurston] documentary done in the '90s," she said. "It's always great to do new biographies as we learn more information about people. On this one, [producers] decided that the anthropology should be foregrounded because that's what a lot of people don't know about. And so, we were excited about that.

"We love mixing science or so, in this case, social science, with biography. It was a great challenge, however, to try to do that. What do you pick to tell? How do you balance the arc of her life with making sure the audience understands the anthropological and ethnographic challenges she was facing as well?"


In the two-hour documentary, Hurston is shown learning from the people she knew best -- African Americans who lived in the South. Once she befriended them and gained their trust, she was incorporated into their lives where she recorded how they lived, worked and loved.

In one scene, Hurston narrates footage she shot of Black workers building a piece of railroad track. They did so with a spoken cadence and a physical flair to make the difficult work easier to manage.

Hurston was a proponent of recording the authentic African American experience from the inside out, which went against the tenets of anthropology at the time to study various cultures from the outside in.

While Hurston's subjects were often laborers and other people at the margins of society, she prioritized education. After her mother's death when she was 13, Hurston's father remarried and left her on her own.


She led a hardscrabble existence that was mostly lost to history until she showed up at Howard University in her mid-20s. She lied about her age to take classes there for more than five years, earning an associate's degree, then secured a place at Barnard College, where she worked with Boas.

"She was creative. [But] Her creativity had a foundation, and that foundation was education. She was quite well-read. And she studied hard," Strain said. "She worked hard. I saw all of the changes she made in her manuscripts.

"She kept refining and refining. And I think in today's society, sometimes we look at people and we think they're overnight successes, we think their successes have come easy. But usually, that's not the case at all. People put in a lot of hard work that's unheralded and unrecognized. I think it seems often easier to suggest that someone just appeared on the scene. But Zora Neale Hurston provides an example."

Hurston's commitment to African American traditions and experiences often brought her the disdain of her peers, including esteemed male writers like Richard Wright. Her relationship with Langston Hughes frayed over a project they collaborated on.


She dropped out of a doctoral program with restrictive research protocols. But her financial situation was always Hurston's biggest hurdle. She entered into a patronage with Harlem Renaissance benefactor Charlotte Osgood Mason, who expected to control her life and work in exchange for financial assistance.

When that relationship predictably ended, it caused financial repercussions that Hurston never truly recovered from. Though she died in a welfare home at age 69 in 1960, Hurston left a legacy that resonates to this day. In Claiming A Space, you get to see why.

"Yes, she's a pioneering African American woman, writer and anthropologist. But she speaks a story I think anybody could relate to," Strain said. "It's a story of tenacity. It's a story of someone who, against all odds, succeeded in many ways.

"It wasn't easy for the success that she did achieve. And she didn't get to achieve everything she wanted in life, unfortunately. Had she been better resourced, we would have heard a lot more from this woman I consider a genius."

Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming A Space premieres on American Experience at 9 p.m. EST Tuesday on PBS, and the PBS Video app.

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