This past fall marked the 80th anniversary of the publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s iconic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In honor of the novel and Hurston’s pre-eminence as a trailblazing African-American woman anthropologist and writer from the early 20th century, a display titled Our Eyes Are On Zora, is on view at the Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture’s Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division through this winter. The display was curated by myself in collaboration with Amanda Belantara (a 2016–2017 BNY Mellon Pre-Professional) and installed and designed by Shante' Cozier and James Joughin.
Among the many items exhibited, which come from various divisions at the Schomburg Center, some trace the genesis of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston discusses the idea about the novel’s characters Janie Crawford and “Tea Cake” Woods in correspondence; a newspaper article announces her winning a cash grant in 1936 from the Guggenheim Fund to conduct anthropological research in the Caribbean, which is where Hurston wrote the manuscript version of the novel; and the book was published in 1937, a year after Hurston’s trip to the Caribbean. A rare copy of the first edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God, autographed by Hurston that contains an inscription from Hurson to Arthur Schomburg, is housed in the Center’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division and an image of Hurston’s autograph is on view as part of the display.
Our Eyes Are On Zora is also a celebration of Hurston as evidenced by publications from conferences and festivals held in her honor, scholarship inspired by her work, and the state of Florida. Readers may recall that the novel is set in Eatonville, Florida, which is the nation’s first township founded and incorporated by African-Americans and Hurston lived in Eatonville during her early years. According to scholarship about Their Eyes Were Watching God, the character Jody Starks, the enterprising, but abusive second husband of Janie, was loosely based on Eatonville's mayor Joseph E. Clark.
Prior to the installation of Our Eyes Are on Zora, another celebration of the anniversary of the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God was commemorated at The University of Kansas, who sponsored Black Love: Zora Neale Hurston Symposium in Kansas. The week long series of events included keynote addresses by authors including Pamela Newkirk, N.Y. Nathiri, and Mark Anthony Neal, panel discussions, film screenings, an all day marathon reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God and other activities that examined the theme of Black love in the novel and works by artists in a variety of media.
The symposium coincided with the publication of an insightful short essay by University at Albany professor Janelle Hobson, called Zora Neale Hurston, Diaspora and the Memory of Hurricanes, which places the destruction from the recent hurricanes Havey and Maria and others into the context of the hurricane that occurs in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hobson writers that the hurricane is “apt metaphor for tensions and contentions shaping Black women’s lives and their own Diasporic consciousness."
Discover or re-read Their Eyes Were Watching God and Hurston's other titles at the Schomburg Center and NYPL’s other locations. Listen to Hurston speak on digitized sound recordings from the Library of Congress that were recorded as part of Hurston’s work with the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. Finally, come back to the library to read a copy of the highly anticipated posthumously released book of Hurston’s, Baracoon: The Story of the Last Slave, a non-fiction work that is scheduled to be available in the spring 2018.