Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of Zora Neale Hurston’s revolutionary novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In celebration, the Carter G. Woodson Institute and The Virginia Festival of the Book sponsored a panel of scholars in Minor Hall who expressed their observations on Hurston and her literary gem.
Professor Lisa Woolfork—Department of English
Professor Gertrude Fraser—Vice Provost for Faculty Recruitment and Retention
Professor Victor Cabas—Department of Rhetoric, Hampden-Sydney College
Professor Sabrina Pendergrass—Department of Sociology/ African American and African Studies
Kwame Holmes—Carter G. Woodson Institute, Post-Doctoral Fellow
Jason Saunders—Department of English, Doctoral Student
The Director of the Woodson Institute, Deborah McDowell, introduced the discussion with her own experience with the novel. She remembered reading it while “in graduate school and people were passing it around… [she’s] loved it ever since.”
The panelists drew from literary, sociological, and anthropological backgrounds to illuminate their connections and thoughts on Hurston’s masterpiece. Fraser found Their Eyes as a “breaking” of the traditional ethnographic account because Hurston “brings the self into observation” through the main character, Janie Crawford. Other interesting viewpoints focused on the sexuality of the novel, especially through Holmes’s reading, which finds Janie as “a black female heroine who is in touch with her sexuality,” a depiction that was absent in the history of sexuality when the novel was published in 1937.
One of the most creative interpretations was Cabas’s synthesis of blues and the novel’s lyrical text. As a component of his lecture, he performed Leroy Carr’s classic, “How Long, How Long Blues.” Cabas elevated the song through one of Janie’s thought-provoking lines in the book, “you’ll wake up callin’ me and I’ll be gone.”
In its 75th year, Their Eyes Were Watching God is still a common high school and college level read for students in the United States. Woolfork mentioned that there are 456 dissertations based on the novel—some of which deal with modern issues like the relationship of race and region as well as the handling of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
The Carter G. Woodson Institute will host many events throughout the semester. On Friday, the institute will present Professor Fred Moten and his lecture entitled, Fantasy in the Hold at 3:30 PM in the Kaleidoscope Room at Newcomb Hall.