“A woman by herself is a beautiful thing,” intones the narrator of Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space, a two-hour documentary produced in 2023 by PBS for the American Experience series. This vibrant film speaks well about a heretofore under-recognized anthropologist, playwright, novelist, and researcher.
The viewer sees Hurston “claim her space” by doing the work she wanted to do: to tell the stories of Black people as lovers and workers, as mothers and fathers and children, and as inventors and creators. In spite of racist and sexist adversities, Hurston wanted to and did go beyond accepted stereotypes to show the real lives of African Americans in her works.
She immersed herself in the communities she was researching, a radical change from what anthropologists did at the time. And her efforts bore fruit that is still appreciated today.
Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Hurston was fascinated by the tales told by people in her majority Black hometown of Eatonville, Florida. She would sit and listen for hours, writing down what she heard. Her mother understood and encouraged the young girl’s dreams, “You may go and collect Negro folklore.” And Zora did.
Her mother died when Hurston was 14. Left to fend for herself Zora got her degree at Howard University through hard work and perseverance. She was a protégé of renowned anthropologist Franz Boas and a close associate and friend of Langston Hughes. Her research and writings made her a mainstay in the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. She often knocked heads with friends and mentors, refusing to conform to the vision of others.
She said, “I’m feeling my race. I am dark black. I will remain myself.” This particularly moved me, a Chinese American woman writer. Hurston was true to herself, undaunted, courageous for herself and her people, from the rural South to the urban North. Indeed, authentically being human, not othered, but as researcher, as doer.
This strength came at a price. She died in 1960, poor, unheralded, her prolific works buried, treasures waiting to be found. Writer Alice Walker began a journey of (re)discovery when she learned that Hurston was interred in an unmarked grave in Pierce County, Florida. Thanks to Walker, the works of Zora Neale Hurston once again are out in the world. Black feminist writers finding each other calls for celebration.
I read Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God many years ago and I look forward to reading Mules and Men, Hurston’s 1935 autoethnographic collection of Black folklore.
Claiming a Space opens a window into the life of this exceptional woman and the lives of the people she interviewed. Indeed, Zora Neale Hurston’s powerful words showcase, then and now, the importance of all Black lives.
Claiming a Space can be viewed on the PBS website.