How a new film captured Zora Neale Hurston’s radical authenticity
Zora Neale Hurston may have been buried in an unmarked grave when she died in 1960, but her star has been rising, posthumously, ever since Alice Walker brought her back to public’s attention in the late 1970s. Hurston’s masterful 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a staple of college reading lists. Her name has been dropped on TV series ranging from “The Sopranos” to “Godfather of Harlem.” She is widely seen as a trailblazer of Black feminism. And now she’s the subject of a new PBS “American Experience” documentary, “Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space,” which premieres Tuesday on PBS and will be available thereafter on PBS.org.
She’s viewed largely through the lens of her fiction, particularly “Eyes,” the story of a young woman striving for authenticity and independence along with romantic love. But as the new film makes clear, Hurston’s work as an anthropologist was at least as important as her literary output. Traveling alone through the South in a Nash coupe in the ’20s, a gun on her hip, Hurston collected songs, folktales and life stories from Black communities seldom seen or heard. At a time when anthropology was generally viewed as a study of the other, Hurston immersed herself in the lives of her own people.
“I thought I kind of knew everything I needed to know about her,” says Cameo George, the film’s executive producer. “But she had a marked impact on anthropology, and how we study other cultures, and certainly African American culture. Once you understand that, and you think back to the books that you’ve read of hers, you really see that anthropology is an integral part of her literary voice.”
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On the first page of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Hurston writes, “It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk.” This is precisely what the author did as a child growing up in Eatonville, Fla., one of the oldest Black-incorporated municipalities in the U.S. As the film shows, the young Hurston would hang out on the porch of the town’s general store, listening to tales tall and otherwise. They’d have to shoo her away when it was time to close. Hurston loved the people and she loved their stories. One day she would make a vocation of collecting them and weaving their tenor into her writing.
“At one point in her life she was considered the foremost authority on Black folklore,” says the film’s director, Tracy Heather Strain. “She had taken it upon herself to travel down South, facing a variety of dangers, to connect with communities and to collect folklore and stories and religious practices, because she realized that it was significant, it was beautiful, and that it was just one piece of the puzzle to help combat the idea that Black people had no culture.”
The film benefits from another tool Hurston had at her disposal. She undertook some of her research trips under the patronage of Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy socialite and philanthropist who liked to bankroll artists of the Harlem Renaissance — under her strict conditions, which included a precise accounting of every cent. Mason’s money paid for a movie camera, with which Hurston captured her subjects at work and play. This footage is used throughout the documentary.
“She is likely our earliest Black female ethnographic filmmaker,” says Strain, who also teaches documentary history at Wesleyan University. “We benefit from seeing these beautiful images of African Americans in the South, rural people doing their thing. You have children and adults. It was a real pleasure to work with that material, and try to incorporate it as much as possible into the documentary.”
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Hurston’s life was no easier than those of many of her subjects. Her mother died when she was 13, triggering a period of aimlessness and grief. But she was resourceful. Publicly shaving ten years off her age, Hurston eventually graduated from high school and went on to Howard University. She found her way to New York, where she attended Barnard College, became close friends with Langston Hughes (they later had a bad falling-out) and studied under Columbia University’s Franz Boas, widely considered to be the father of American anthropology. But while she hungered for education, academic strictures rarely suited her, and her methods, ahead of their time, struck many university gatekeepers as too unorthodox.
“Eyes,” Hurston’s literary breakthrough, was met with critical acclaim, but it was also attacked by Black male critics, most famously Richard Wright, who wrote that the book had “no theme, no message, no thought.” (Wright would get some comeuppance when James Baldwin took “Native Son” to task in the essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.”) Writing in a rich vernacular, Hurston achieved her own kind of authenticity. But she was also unapologetically country at a time when, in many circles, “real” was equated with “urban” — and anything that fell outside it was a sop to old stereotypes.
”Wright wanted to dismiss what Hurston thought of as authenticity as catering to white people, or part of a minstrel technique,” Strain says.
She ultimately suffered the fate of the outlier and innovator, sidelined twice over by the sexism and racism of her time. In her later years she worked as a maid, quipping that it was part of her research. She died alone in a nursing home. It was only when Walker published the essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” (later titled “Looking for Zora”) in Ms. magazine in 1975 that Hurston’s personal renaissance was launched.
Decades later, anyone in search of Hurston should prepare to meet a complex woman. She was openly critical of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional. “When Brown comes out, her point is ‘I don’t want to have to force someone to associate with me,’” Strain says. Today she would probably be considered a libertarian.
But the filmmakers insist her importance can’t be captured by labels, and that her driving principle — love for her people — would be a tremendous asset today.
“She is the ultimate booster of African Americans and African American culture,” George says. “Over the last couple of years we have seen a political landscape where Black people have felt like they had to actually assert that their lives matter, because in many corners, it felt like it was up for debate. She was one of these people who said, ‘This is not up for debate, and Black lives do matter, Black culture matters, and we should all respect that, enjoy it, and indulge in it.’ I think that makes her as relevant today as she was in her day.”
'Zoran Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space'
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Streaming: On PBS.org starting Tuesday night
Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.
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