Looking for Zora: The Many Lives of Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston, beating the hountar, or mama drum, 1937.
photo courtesy library of congress

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bates College, Lewiston

$50 fee includes a copy
of Their Eyes Were Watching God,
lunch, and coffee breaks.

CEUs will be available
for participants who are teachers.

Click here or call 207-773-5051
for more details and to register.

Zora Neal Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, has been required reading in high school English classes for at least 25 years, thanks in part to the efforts of Alice Walker to revive interest in Hurston’s work. But Hurston—a protean, shape-shifting figure; by turns anthropologist, novelist, dramatist, folklorist, and cultural critic—remains enigmatic. As the only black student at Barnard College in 1925, Hurston studied with the path-breaking anthropologist Franz Boas. She was associated with, but deeply skeptical of, the Harlem Renaissance. She opposed the New Deal, yet participated in the Florida Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. Her fiction is imbued with folklore, while her anthropological fieldwork retains a literary sensibility.

To help make sense of these contradictions, “Looking for Zora” will explore the life and work of this preeminent writer and interpreter of Southern African-American culture, without whom, some say, there would be no Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison. The program, supported by a We the People grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will take place just three months before the 60th anniversary of Hurston’s death in poverty and obscurity. Through a combination of lectures and small-group discussion sessions, scholars will present the historical and biographical background, literary analysis, and cultural context necessary to begin to understand this fascinating writer. (The two scholars of the program are profiled below.)

Every attendee will receive a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God, which has recently been embraced as a selection of the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Big Read” project. At least twenty American communities, from Boston to Bakersfield, CA, have come together to read this story about Janie Mae Crawford in the past two years. In his preface to the Reader’s Guide at www.neabigread.org, former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia explains why the novel is worthy of attention: “Although Hurston wrote the novel in only seven weeks, Their Eyes Were Watching God breathes and bleeds a whole life’s worth of urgent experience.”

Don’t miss this program on October 17, 2009.

Hurston and three boys in Eatonville, FL, June 1935; Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston, April 3, 1938
[Carl Van Vechten, 1880-1964].
photos courtesy library of congress

Cedric Gael Bryant is the Lee Family Professor of English at Colby College, where he also teaches in the African American Studies department. His specializations include African American and Southern literature, and race, gender, and sexuality. His scholarship has been published in The Southern Review, Modern Fiction Studies, The African American Review, and The Oxford Companion to African American Literature.

Tess Chakkalakal is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and English at Bowdoin College. She received her Ph.D. from York University, Toronto in 2003. She has researched and published on a number of African American writers, including Charles Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Olaudah Equiano, and Sutton E. Griggs.