Zora Neale Hurston on My Mind: ‘Claiming Her Space’ Beyond the Shadows of Anthropology

Irma McClaurin
Published in
10 min readJan 25, 2023
Author (L) with Tracy Strain (Director) on set of PBS American Experience “Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space.” Photo by Randall MacLowery, Producer.

I count myself among that generation of Black anthropologists and writers strongly influenced by Zora’s example. I cannot say that I followed Zora’s path consciously.

Nor can I say for sure now whether it was Zora who brought me to Florida to teach in the anthropology department at the University of Florida, or whether it was the warm weather, and the fact that azaleas bloom madly in the spring, and the Spanish moss drips off the oak trees lending a delicate beauty to the Florida landscape.” From “Belle Lettres: ‘Dear Langston, Love Zora’”, FlaVour: Black Florida Life & Style, Autumn 2000.

It is hard to believe that I penned those words and published the article it comes from 23 years ago.

For over the last three decades, I have conducted research on Zora Neale Hurston (ZNH); directed the Zora Neale Hurston Diaspora Research Group when I was tenured faculty at the University of Florida (1995–2006); written both academic and nonacademic articles and blogs (https://bit.ly/znhsavagemind) about her; done radio commentary (https://bit.ly/zorafhc ), and delivered talks and keynote presentations about her (https://bit.ly/HurstonHorizon).

Suffice it to say that Zora has been on my mind for a VERY LONG time.

Teaching Zora

My love affair with Zora began in the late 1970s when I designed and taught Black/African American literature courses. This was my life before I ever thought of becoming an anthropologist.

I recall taking a road trip from Amherst, MA to South Carolina, and reading Hurston’s Mules and Men out loud to the driver to break the monotony.

Mules and Men Book Cover, First edition (publ. Lippincott)

When we stopped in Tuskegee, AL to visit Tuskegee University and see the Booker T. Washington statute made notorious by Ralph Ellison in his novel, Invisible Man, I felt that the people in Zora’s ethnography had stepped off the pages and landed on the road we traveled. I will always remember asking for directions and the response we received.

Us: Sir can you tell us if there is a motel nearby.

Old man: Yep. Up the street, but I don’t know, the bedbugs there wear headlights!

That answer reminded me of the signifying and everyday conversations on Joe Starks porch documented in the pages of Zora’s Mules and Men.

By the way, we avoided the motel and ended up staying in a Tuskegee University dormitory — which had its own Mules and Men charm.

Zora as Anthropologist

“I think that you will discover that my viewpoint is that I do not consider Negroes as special oddities among humanity. I see us as people, subject to the same desires and emotions as others…That is the way I see Negroes, and that is the way I write about them.” ~Zora Neale Hurston, Belle Glade, FL 1951

By the time I began my anthropological journey at the ripe young age of 35, finishing at age 41, folklore no longer resided in most anthropology departments. It had been relocated to English departments and was viewed more as “literature” than anthropology.

At first, I thought that was the reason Zora could not be found on any required reading lists for anthropology. Only when I joined the ABA Association of Black Anthropologists (https://aba.americananthro.org/) did I learn about the breadth of her contributions to anthropology.

It was Zora who first declared herself a “native” anthropologist — maybe not in those exact terms, but she was very clearly studying her own people. And, her influence was felt by the senior members of the ABA — the very first publication was called “Notes from the Natives.”

As for me, one of my comprehensive exams for the PhD was writing a paper theorizing about what it meant to be a “Native” Anthropologist. Zora was clearly a source of inspiration for me and for other non-white anthropologists who had chosen to “go back home” and study their own folk.

But it was really in the experimentation with writing styles that Zora’s presence was evident in anthropology. She had translated her field research into plays well before Marjorie Shostak wrote the play Nisa, based on her ethnography of the same name. the book, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, first published by Harvard in 1981 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marjorie_Shostak#Selected_works ). What makes Shostak interesting is that she had no formal degree in anthropology, unlike Zora who had a BA in anthropology from Barnard, but she was embraced and supported.

In a recent interview I did with Ms Magazine Editor, Janell Hobbs, “‘Why We Still Love Zora’:Irma McClaurin on PBS Documentary ‘Claiming a Space’ and Zora Neale Hurston’s Legacy” (https://msmagazine.com/2023/01/17/zora-neale-hurston/ ), she observed, “I don’t think people have really considered how much […Zora Neale Hurston] has shaped the field of anthropology.”

My Response:

She really is at the forefront. She’s on the cutting edge. She actually anticipates a kind of anthropology, native anthropology, that really doesn’t have a name until decades later. No one’s talking about native anthropology. No one. People are telling her: You really aren’t supposed to be doing that. But she is very determined in that sense.

I also would say what she contributes is a Diaspora lens. Zora understood the connection between the American South, the Bahamas, Haiti, and Jamaica and she also did fieldwork in Honduras. She understands that. And the Crow Dance, the one that she shows, she knows the song from the American South, the Black folk culture, that Negro folk culture that she’s studying. But then she finds it in the Bahamas, and she makes the connection between the two. That’s the Diaspora.

“Claiming Her Space” in New PBS American Experience Documentary

The new PBS American Experience documentary, “Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming Her Space, the teaser (https://to.pbs.org/3Q5V6jF), and supporting digital shorts on materials that didn’t make it into the film (https://to.pbs.org/3XFf0ES), all shed light on ZNH’s versatility and contributions to the theories and methods of anthropology: she was a folklorist, ethnographer, visual anthropologist, and public anthropologist. She understood the need to translate the “science” of anthropology into everyday vernacular like plays and novels. Zora was also a novelist, playwright, producer, and sometimes journalist.

In the 1980s, the late Robert E. Hemenway published the first biography of ZNH, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography; it focused primarily on her literary contributions, and he closed it with the prediction that it takes a Black woman to write the “definitive biography” of Zora Neale Hurston. Two decades later, armed with materials Hemenway generously shared, the late Valerie Boyd published Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston in 2003.

Similar to Hemenway, in the back of my mind, I also believed that it would take a Black woman filmmaker (not Ken Burns) to give us a documentary that could reveal the complexities of Zora Neale Hurston, especially her work as an anthropologist. Enter Tracy Heather Strain.

Tracy Heather Strain, Visionary Director of ZNH: Claiming Her Space

The lens through which we get to view Zora Neale Hurston as an anthropologist in the new PBS American Experience documentary, “Zora Neale Hurston, Claiming a Space” (https://to.pbs.org/40f1cmH) is that of the Director, Tracy Heather Strain, and a host of primarily Black scholars, including myself.

Tracy Heather Strain, Film Director. Photo by J. Benjamin
@mcclaurintweets screen shot 1–18–2023. Author’s image

Tracy is a Black woman film creative who also was involved in the 2018 American Master’s documentary on Lorraine Hansberry, “Sighted Eye/Feeling Heart” (https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/lorraine-hansberry-sighted-eyesfeeling-heart-documentary/9846/#).

In addition to being a productive filmmaker and Peabody Award winner, Tracy is also faculty member at Wesleyan University. Her bio reveals someone who understands intersectionality, and would be able to shape a documentary narrative to capture the complexities of being Zora:

[She is the] …co-founder of The Film Posse and an award-winning director, producer, and writer committed to using film, video and interactive technology to reveal the ways that race, ethnicity, gender, and class work to shape lives.

Since 1986, Tracy has worked on numerous documentaries for PBS as well as videos for museums, schools and nonprofits. A Professor of the Practice in the College of Film and the Moving Image at Wesleyan University, Tracy also teaches documentary production, storytelling, and history while directing and producing non-fiction projects for screens large and small (https://thefilmposse.com/about/tracy-heather-strain/ )

Three Decades of ZNH Research Vindicated

I remember the initial email and subsequent phone conversation with Tracy, Director and Producer, Randall MacLowry, about their idea for this documentary on Zora Neale Hurston, the anthropologist, in early spring of 2022.

They shared that they had read all my articles (see list at end); listened to radio interviews I had done on Zora over the years on NPR (Spunk on WAMU in 2001: (https://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2001-08-09/spunk/ ) and the Florida Humanities Council in 2002: (https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/fhc_audio/33/ ) and again on NPR in also in 2002 (https://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2002-04-26/zora-neale-hurston/).

Most recently, I was the zoom keynote speaker for the University of Kansas virtual mini conference entitled “Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present and Future” (https://youtu.be/hU1m-pra94k).

Author’s screenshot: Hurston on the Horizon

It was a National Endowment for the Humanities funded program through the University of Kansas’ The History of Black Writing Project (https://hbw.ku.edu/about-hbw). I chose to speak on “Channeling Zora Neale Hurston and Why She Speaks to Me as a Creative and Anthropologist.”

Lifting Zora Neale Hurston from the Shadows of Anthropology

To watch Zora being lifted up in a two-hour excavation that many have written to tell me revealed so much about her that they didn’t know, suggests there is still work to be done.

And, I am ready; many of my works on ZNH appeared in non-academic spaces (alumni magazines, blogs, lifestyle magazines).

L:FlaVour: Black Florida Life & Style , Aug 2000; Explore: Research at the University of Florida, Spring 2002 & Fire!!!, Vol 1, №1 (2012), published by ASALH

Now, it’s time for me to help Zora show up and show out by giving her due and contributing to ZNH “claiming her own space.” This documentary, and my contributions, according to Dr. Marcyliena Morgan, Harvard professor and Founding Director of the Hip Hop Archive and Research Center, does a number of things:

[It]…includes the true and critical story of anthropology and included so many important theories. …Zora]… unveiled the truths that others couldn’t see or believe. So many aspects of her life, words and work continue to mean so much!

To bring my own love affair with Zora to completion, I am working on a book-length manuscript entitled “Lifting Zora Neale Hurston from the Shadows of Anthropology.”

As I stated in a recent Ms. Magazine interview (https://bit.ly/zorainms ) with Ms. Editor, Dr. Janell Hobson, my main goal is to position Zora “…as an innovator and groundbreaker in the areas of interpretive anthropology, writing culture, and native anthropology.” I want her to truly jump at the sun in the canons of anthropology and receive long overdue recognition.

Final Words

Eatonville Plaque. Zora Neale Hurston Festival, 2010 © Irma McClaurin

It is ironic that for decades, the grave of Zora Neale Hurston laid without notice or recognition in Fort Pierce, FL until Alice Walker gave her a long overdue headstone years after her death.

Image of ZNH grave from the book “Zora! Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman and Her Community.” Compiled & Edited by N.Y. Nathiri. With an Essay by Alice Walker, 1991.

The irony is that in 1945, Zora wrote to W.E. B. DuBois and proposed “…a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead.” She explained:

Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness. We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored. You must see what a rallying spot that would be for all that we want to accomplish and do.” (Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, Collected and Edited by Carla Kaplan: Doubleday, 2002).

When it is all said and done, to me, Zora Neale Hurston, anointed by Alice Walker as a “genius of the South,” embodied in her practice what the late Eric Wolf, characterized as anthropology’s uniqueness — “…[it is] the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences.”

She Will Be Remembered and Recognized

So if we look at it squarely, the Negro is a very original being. While he lives and moves in the midst of a white civilization, everything that he touches is re-interpreted for his own use. ~Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” In Negro: An Anthology, Collected and Edited by Nancy Cunard, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, New York, 1934.

Author with Eatonville Resident who remembers Zora as a girl (center) and Dr. Riché Barnes (University of Florida). Zora Neale Hurston Festival, Eatonville, 2011

Zora’s contributions of ethnographic practices, ethnographies, theatrical performances and plays, folklore, films, novels, short stories, and newspaper articles cannot be erased or continue to be relegated to the shadows of anthropology.

Her work illustrates not only her creativity but also her tenacity and resilience as she navigated “white civilization. It is fitting that this film ensures that Zora will no longer be relegated to “inconspicuous forgetfulness” as an anthropologist.

And the historic town of Eatonville has not forgotten its notorious prodigal daughter; each year the Association to Preserve Eatonville, Inc. remembers and honors her with the “Zora! Festival” (https://zorafestival.org/ ) held in January, the month she was born.

© 2023 Irma McClaurin

Irma McClaurin (https://bit.ly/DrIrmawebsite / https://twitter.com/mcclaurintweets ) is the Culture and Education Editor for Insight News (, columnist, and a commentator on “The Conversation With Al McFarlane” (https://bit.ly/TCWAM), an activist anthropologist, and was named “Best in the Nation Columnist” by the Black Press of America in 2015. She is a recipient of the 2021 American Anthropological Association’s Engaged Anthropology Award and is an award-winning writer as well as a former Fulbright Specialist. A collection of her columns, Justspeak: Reflections on Race, Culture & Politics in America, is forthcoming in 2023 and she is working on a book-length manuscript on Zora Neale Hurston entitled “Lifting Zora Neale Hurston from the Shadows of Anthropology.”



Irma McClaurin
Writer for

Award-winning author/ anthropologist/consultant & past prez of Shaw U. Forthcoming: JUSTSPEAK: Race, Culture & Politics in America: https://linktr.ee/dr.irma