For most people who know about Zora Neale Hurston, her name is almost synonymous with her epic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. A new AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space reveals a more multifaceted, nuanced woman who was as much a social scientist as she was a fiction writer. Narrated by Vanessa Williams, with voice recording artist Bahni Turpin speaking as Hurston, the film tells the story of a determined, prolific Black trailblazer through archival footage, audio and video. Watch the film here.

A key figure of the Harlem Renaissance who gained renown in the 1920s and 1930s, Hurston also studied anthropology at Barnard College, drawing on her ethnographic studies of African American folklore and culture to inform her literary artistry, always fighting for recognition and support within tradition-bound academia.

Her story has special relevance today, says filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain. “It’s important to continue to make stories about the African American experience because there are so many people and topics that have not been explored,” she said. And it’s important, she added, to understand that there is no homogenous African American experience.

Photo Credit: Joel Benjamin

“Everyone doesn’t view the issues with the same lens,” said Strain. Hurston did not have predictable opinions or ideas in literature, arts or social issues, she said. “It’s really important to explore the range of Black life and ways of thinking.”

Hurston pushed against innumerable obstacles in her quest to get educated. She was primarily on her own from the age of 13 after her mother died. She attended Howard University and ultimately made her way to Barnard, where she studied with noted anthropologist Franz Boas and embarked on her own research, immersing herself in Black communities in Florida, New Orleans and Haiti. She embedded herself, striving to reclaim, honor and celebrate Black life on its own terms, using methods and techniques not embraced by anthropology at the time.

“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,” says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Executive Producer Cameo George. “Her research and writings helped establish the dialects and folklore of African American, Caribbean and African people as components of a rich, distinct culture, anchoring the Black experience in the Americas.”
Filmmaker Strain, who is also the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies at the College of Film and the Moving Image at Wesleyan University, has a significant AMERICAN EXPERIENCE portfolio: producer/ director of Building the Alaska Highway; writer/director/producer of American Oz; producer of Silicon Valley; and coordinating producer of The Feud, The Swamp, The Battle of Chosin, The Mine Wars and The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.

“Zora Neale Hurston saw the beauty of culture,” said Strain. “She saw that rural southern Black culture is the core of the African American experience and is always reinventing itself and adapting and changing. She saw it as central to what is considered American culture. I think Hurston provides a beautiful lens to look at really complicated issues around race, gender, culture and academia.”