Women on college campuses and in living rooms in the mid-1970s were passing around out-of-print, dog-eared copies of her books, especially “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” U.Va. English professor Deborah McDowell was in graduate school when she first read Zora Neale Hurston.
“At that time in institutions of higher learning, no one was reading novels or any other literature by black American women,” said McDowell, who directs the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. “We are now teaching this, perhaps her most popular book, certainly the most legendary book, in colleges and universities around the world.”
Published in 1937, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” turns 75 this year on Sept. 18. The Woodson Institute is planning a celebration, including a panel discussion about Hurston and her groundbreaking work – save the date and stay tuned for more details.
Although Hurston has been called the most significant and acclaimed black female writer in the first half of the 20th century, she died penniless in 1960 and her writing slid into obscurity. She wrote four novels and two books of folklore, having studied with anthropologist Franz Boas at Barnard College.
“In much black American fiction, the focus has, alas, been, and in many cases to great successes, on inter-racial contacts and connections,” said McDowell, whose memoir, “Leaving Pipe Shop,” was published in 1998.
In contrast, “‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is rightly credited with providing to black Americans and to any other readers a sense of black life lived from the inside,” McDowell said, “a group of people unabashed, completely self-contained, completely at home, if you will, in their own lives, their folkways, their morés, their food ways, their music – you name it.”
Readers of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” also meet an untraditional woman – Janie Crawford, a free spirit determined to live an independent life, looking for love without its usual ties that bind.
The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.
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