In the late 1920s, Zora Neale Hurston, who would become one of the most influential writers of the Harlem Renaissance, bought a chrome-plated pistol and hit the road in a “Chevrolet,” returning south to her hometown of Eatonville, Fla. She hoped to document the culture of Black men who swapped stories each evening on the porch of Joe Clark’s general store.
“I was glad when somebody told me, ‘You may go and collect Negro folklore,’” Hurston wrote in “Mules and Men,” an “auto-ethnographical” collection of stories published in 1935. “In a way, it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism.”
White anthropologists had long struggled to document Black folklore. Black people, Hurston wrote, mostly distrusted White scientists who sought to study them and collect their culture, songs and knowledge. “We are a polite people and we do not say to our questioner, ‘Get out of here!’” Hurston wrote. “We smile and tell him or her something that satisfies the white person because, knowing so little about us, he doesn’t know what he is missing.”
Hurston’s groundbreaking work as an anthropologist, collecting the stories of her people in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s in the South, is at the heart of the new documentary “Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming Space,” which focuses on Hurston’s work as one of the country’s first Black women filmmakers and ethnographers. The film, directed by Tracy Heather Strain and premiered Tuesday on PBS, follows Hurston’s life as she challenged racist theories promoted by White anthropologists in the 19th century.
“Through her trailblazing work, Hurston would reclaim, honor and celebrate Black life on its own terms — an idea that remains radical today,” PBS said in a statement.
“To understand Hurston as an artist and writer, one must understand her as a social scientist,” said Strain, who teaches documentary history at Wesleyan University. “Once Zora Neale Hurston discovered anthropology, she never really saw science and art as being two separate things . . . She quite literally made her own field, and this was part of her genius. Understanding this other side of Hurston, the one fueled by the discipline of anthropology, is important to getting the full picture of Hurston as an artist.”
Hurston saw Black culture as beautiful and evolving. “This is a very important message because she lived during a period when some white people did not think Black people had culture,” Strain said. “Others felt like rural Black Americans were some degraded peoples of a past African greatness. There were white people who lampooned Black culture for laughs and entertainment, which includes minstrelsy. Zora Neale Hurston, like other figures who are considered to be a part of the Harlem Renaissance — the New Negro Movement — worked to bring authentic representations of Black people to the public.”
Hurston was born in Notasulga, Ala., on Jan. 7, 1891. When she was about a year old, her family moved to Eatonville, Fla., which was incorporated in 1887, becoming one of the first self-governed all-Black cities in America. “It had five lakes,” she wrote, “three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty of guavas, two schools and no jail house.”
Her father, John Hurston, a Baptist preacher and carpenter, was elected mayor of Eatonville for three terms. Hurston grew up free-spirited, with seven siblings in a beautiful Black world — a house with eight rooms, surrounded by a yard of Bermuda grass, jasmine bushes, a five-acre garden and orange, tangerine and grapefruit trees. “Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity, ‘to jump at de sun,’” Hurston wrote in “Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography.” “We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
When Hurston was 13, her mother died. She was sent away to Jacksonville to attend Florida Baptist Academy. After her father stopped paying tuition, she was forced to work, scrubbing floors.
At age 26, Hurston found her way to Baltimore. Cutting 10 years off her age, she worked by day and attended high school by night at Morgan Academy. She later moved to Washington, attending Howard Academy and graduating in 1919. She then enrolled at Howard University.
On campus, she joined the Howard Players theater company and met Alain Locke, a philosophy professor who pioneered the “New Negro” movement whose mission was to reshape what white society thought about Black people. Hurston wrote for Howard’s Stylus Magazine and co-founded the Hilltop, now one of the country’s oldest Black collegiate newspapers.
In 1924, Hurston published a short story in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. The journal’s editor, Charles S. Johnson, encouraged her to move to New York to join the literary scene. “So, the week of January 1925 found me in New York with a dollar fifty, no job, no friends and a lot of hope,” Hurston wrote.
She arrived in Harlem, considered the “Mecca for the New Negro.” Months later, Hurston was invited to a literary awards ceremony, where she met Langston Hughes, who won top prize for his poem “The Weary Blues.” Hurston won four awards. That night, she also met Annie Nathan Meyer, a founder of Barnard College, who raised scholarship money for Hurston to attend Barnard, where Hurston would become the first Black female student.
“I feel my race,” Hurston wrote. “Among the thousand white people, I am a dark rock surged upon and over swept by a cream sea, but through it all I remain myself.” There, Hurston met Franz Boas, known as the founder of modern American anthropology, who publicly rejected entrenched anthropological racist theories about Black people. Impressed by Hurston’s work, Boas assigned Hurston to travel to the South to research the beliefs, dances, songs and storytelling of Black people.
In Florida, Hurston rented a two-seater Chevrolet and drove to Eatonville but was met with suspicion. She later explained that her newly acquired “Barnard” accent shut her out. She returned to New York “with my heart beneath my knees,” she wrote.
In New York, Hurston continued to write. Hughes introduced Hurston to his benefactor, Charlotte Osgood Mason, a pushy white philanthropist, who agreed to finance Hurston’s research, providing Hurston with a motion picture camera.
Hurston returned to the South, collecting rare footage of Black life. She was on a mission to document “the Negro furthest down.” On that journey, Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, then the oldest living formerly enslaved man who had been abducted on the Clotilda ship, the last slave ship to the United States. Hurston called him by his African name, Oluale Kossola, and captured film footage. Hurston wrote his story in the book “Barracoon; the Story of the Last Black Cargo,” but publishers insisted she translate his words. Hurston refused to dilute the authenticity of his voice. “Barracoon” was finally published in 2018, becoming a bestseller.
In years that followed, Hurston would publish at a rapid-fire pace, winning critical acclaim for “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a 1937 novel informed by her anthropological research. In 1938, Hurston published “Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica.” In 1942, she published her autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road.”
Despite acclaim, Hurston never made enough money to fully support herself with writing. In 1950, the Miami Herald published an article about Hurston working as a maid. Ten years later, on Jan. 28, 1960, Hurston died of heart disease after a stroke. She’d been living in a racially segregated nursing home in Fort Pierce, Fla. She was working on a novel at the time.
Her grave lay unmarked in obscurity until the 1970s, when writer Alice Walker, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Color Purple,” led an international push to honor Hurston.
“It was not death she feared,” Hurston wrote in “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” “It was misunderstanding.”