Learn about Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston

Documentary looks at the life, works of acclaimed Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston plays with children in Eatonville, Florida. This photo was taken during the Lomax-Hurston-Barnicle recording expedition to Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas. June 1935. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Zora Neale Hurston’s words live on forever through her many novels.

Yet, what some may not realize, is the acclaimed author became a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain set out to capture Hurston’s story in the documentary, “Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space.” The documentary is under the American Experience umbrella for PBS and will premiere at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17, on New Mexico PBS, channel 5.1. It will also stream in the PBS Video app.

Both Randall MacLowry and Cameo George serve as producers on the film.

George says the biography about the author shows how her groundbreaking anthropological work would challenge assumptions about race, gender and cultural superiority that had long defined the field in the 19th century.

Raised in the small all-Black Florida town of Eatonville, Hurston studied at Howard University before arriving in New York in 1925. She would soon become a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, best remembered for her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

Zora Neale Hurston was friends with Carl Van Vechten, famed photographer during the Harlem Renaissance, who took this portrait on April 4, 1935. (Courtesy of Yale University Library)

As she gained renown in Harlem literary circles, Hurston was also discovering anthropology at Barnard College with the renowned Franz Boas. She would make several trips to the American South and the Caribbean, documenting the lives of rural Black people and collecting their stories. She studied her own people, an unusual practice at the time, and during her lifetime became known as the foremost authority on Black folklore.

George says Hurston immersed herself into the worlds of the participants and built trust.

In 1936, with the help of two Guggenheim fellowships, Hurston traveled to Haiti and Jamaica and focused on her literary and scientific work. While in Haiti, she wrote “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” mixing memory, fiction and research. In 1937, the novel was published to acclaim, followed by “Tell My Horse,” her second ethnographic book, in 1938.

But royalties from both books were not enough to give Hurston financial security.

Despite her success, the end of Hurston’s life was marked by money woes and a multitude of setbacks. To make ends meet, she published her autobiographical book “Dust Tracks on a Road” in 1942. While the book helped establish her as a literary celebrity, Hurston still struggled financially. She eventually landed in the Black community of Fort Pierce, Florida, where she worked a series of odd jobs.

On January 28, 1960, at the age of 69, Hurston died in near obscurity following a stroke in a nursing home.

“Zora Neale Hurston has long been considered a literary giant of the Harlem Renaissance, but her anthropological and ethnographic endeavors were equally important and impactful,” George says. “Her research and writings helped establish the dialects and folklore of African American, Caribbean and African people throughout the American diaspora as components of a rich, distinct culture, anchoring the Black experience in the Americas.”

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