Zora Neale Hurston wrote during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, contributing novels and short stories, as well as literary anthropology. She was a bold woman surrounded by male peers and unparalleled in both talent and ideas. She died alone and impoverished, buried in an unmarked grave, without having received the recognition or recompense she so strongly deserved.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was written over a period of seven weeks when Hurston was 46. Using both poetic prose and rich, palatable patois, it tells the story of Janie Crawford as she journeys from one unpleasant marriage into another, until finally finding the love of her life in the rambunctious and unexpected Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. She faced scrutiny and ostracization from her male literary peers for not being political enough.
In a forward to Their Eyes by Mary Helen Washington, Richard Wright is quoted to say the novel “carries no theme, no message, no thought.” Was the lack of politics the problem, or perhaps was it that Hurston chose to focus on the theme, message, and thought of a black woman rather than a man? As Janie Crawford says, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” It seems the literary world in Hurston’s Harlem was no exception.
In the decades since her death, Hurston’s legacy has been carried on by her literary daughters and sons who saw what her peers had missed: a brilliant mind poetically communicating the complexities of the human condition. In other words, a Harlem Renaissance-Woman. In the early 1970s, Alice Walker went in search for Hurston’s unmarked grave, laying a stone and writing a personal essay for Ms. magazine called “Looking for Zora.” This passion and dedication helped to launch a revival for Hurston’s work that continues today.
Full conferences have been dedicated to Hurston’s legacy, including one that is happening in Lawrence this week. Black Love: A Symposium celebrates the 80th anniversary of Their Eyes on and around KU campus this week (Sept 11th – 18th 2017) with esteemed panelists, cultural events, movie screenings, and a marathon reading of the honored novel.
- “Zora Neale Hurston’s Radical Black Love” by Ayesha Hardison (KU) and Randal Maurice Jelks (KU)
- Films on Black Love, available online or at local video sources (LPL included!)
- “Finding Zora” — University of Florida Dept. of Anthropology page on Hurston’s anthropological contributions
- Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography by Robert Hemenway
- Glorious by Bernice McFadden — a novel paralleling and partially inspired by Hurston’s life
- LPL Book Squad Podcast ep. 10 discussing Their Eyes
-Kate Gramlich is a Readers’ Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.