Zora Neale Hurston was a literary giant whose ingenuity chartered a path for writers to follow during the Harlem Renaissance. She merged cultural anthropology with storytelling to create one of the most unique voices in history. As a proud southern Black woman who moved through life with a hunger for curiosity, she was often misunderstood by both white and Black America. Through carving out her own lane, she cultivated and made immense contributions in the Black literary canon although most of her accomplishments led to a life of obscurity until after her death.
The new PBS documentary Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space is about her journey from childhood to adulthood and her contributions to Black culture.
Director and documentarian Tracy Heather Strain caught up with EBONY to reflect on the making of the powerful film and Hurston's rich legacy.
EBONY: What was it like just diving through all of these personal recollections and pieces of film and narratives that people have told you about Zora Neale Hurston?
Tracy Heather Strain: Getting to dive into Zora Neale Hurston's life and work has been so rewarding. We actually often start with secondary sources. So first, we read books about her like Valerie Boyd's beautiful book Wrapped in Rainbows and other biographies and academic writings. We do this because we're also trying to figure out who will help us on this journey. Who do we pick to be on this screen to help tell this story? We look at footnotes which are very important to get to those primary sources. One of the things I love about making historical films is looking through the archives. You're touching this stuff that you know the person you are researching touched along with their contemporaries. It's really wonderful. It makes me feel very responsible.
Zora was one of the most prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance and greatly contributed to the Black literary canon. As we still pull inspiration from that era, we're simultaneously seeing a similar renaissance in how we look at gender, class, race and art. We are able to understand how those things intersect today with the benefits of technology and a more expansive knowledge base. What are some lessons we can pull from Zora's work to help contextualize the cultural renaissance that we're experiencing today?
Zora provides a lot of lessons for us. I was so impressed by her determination to get an education that it makes me want to ensure none of us take it for granted. She was well-read, consistently absorbing knowledge and wasn't just forming opinions off the top of her head. Zora had the goods to back up the things she said and how she felt through examples. I think that's really important to note; as in today's society, we have social media and people make many decisions based on feelings. Yes, she had to be creative and use her feelings. And as she was infusing her work with her creativity, she also did the hard work of collecting, rewriting and polishing. When I looked at her papers, you can see the crosshatch as she fixed things before going to the publisher. There's also a way in our society where people don't want to necessarily see Black people's hard work. We're often positioned as just intuitive and natural. Zora shows that this ingenuity didn't come out of thin air; she worked very hard for what she got.
For those learning of Zora for the first time, in what ways would you introduce her?
I think one beautiful way of getting close to Zora, if you like biographies, is to definitely read Valerie Boyd's book. I would also listen to Ruby Dee's audio rendition of Their Eyes Were Watching God. I highly recommend it. It can be very hard for a lot of people to read African American vernacular english and dialect. Not many know how to perform it, and Ruby Dee was of the right age and generation to know how it should be. She does all the different voices in the book; it's really beautiful and so moving.
From your viewpoint, do you believe that Hurston has been vindicated in her legacy now? Or do you believe that she has yet to get even just a fraction of the respect that she is owed and the due diligence her legacy is deserving?
I think that Zora Neale Hurston has received only a fraction of the respect she's due. There's so much to continue to explore with her. I keep hoping that someday, someone is going to stumble upon travel photos and realize that it's Zora Neale Hurston's photos. I'm hoping they aren't burned or just lost forever. There's a lot of intellectual work being done independently about Zora and I think more needs to be done that's for a general audience about her. I look forward to that happening in the future. I hope this documentary is considered something that might inspire people to continue writing material and creating things for general audiences about her legacy. She deserves more than she got. The sad thing is, as someone also says in the film, it's not an unusual story of Black women living in precarity. I hope that maybe this film can contribute to more people recognizing this. Lastly, I hope that more people that haven't gotten their due will get it, and more people living currently will get treated better and get support the support they need to either do their work or just exist.