Black History Month: “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

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Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937).

This novel from the Harlem Renaissance has gained in popularity in the last 30 years or so, since Alice Walker wrote an essay called “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.”

From the Zora Neale Hurston Web site:

The epic tale of Janie Crawford, whose quest for identity takes her on a journey during which she learns what love is, experiences life’s joys and sorrows, and come home to herself in peace. Her passionate story prompted Alice Walker to say, “There is no book more important to me than this one.”

When first published in 1937, this novel about a proud, independent black woman was generally dismissed by male reviewers. Out of print for almost thirty years, but since its reissue in paperback edition by the University of Illionois Press in 1978, Their Eyes Were Watching God has become the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.

With haunting sympathy and piercing immediacy, Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford’s evolving selfhood through three marriages. Light-skinned, long-haired, dreamy as a child, Janie grows up expecting better treatment than she gets until she meets Tea Cake, a younger man who engages her heart and spirit in equal measure and gives her the chance to enjoy life without being a man’s mule or adornment. Though Jaine’s story does not end happily, it does draw to a satisfying conclusion. Janie is one black woman who doesn’t have to live lost in sorrow, bitterness, fear, or foolish romantic dreams, instead Janie proclaims that she has done “two things everbody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

The novel also has been selected this year for the NEA’s Big Read, which libraries in the Capital Region will be taking part in. For information, go to http://www.neabigread.org/books/theireyes/theireyes07.php

You may also be interested in the following events:
The Big Read
May 4 (Friday): Biographer and scholar Lucy Anne Hurston
An Afternoon With Lucy Anne Hurston – 2:00 p.m., Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland
THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (United States, 2005, 98 minutes, color, DVD) film screening followed by commentary by Lucy Anne Hurston – 7:00 p.m., Page Hall, 135 Western Avenue, Downtown Campus Lucy Anne Hurston, niece of major 20th century writer Zora Neale Hurston, is the author of the remarkable multimedia biography, “Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston” (2004), which consists of text, photographs, a CD, and various pieces of removable memorabilia.
Cosponsored by the Upper Hudson Library System as part of “The Big Read,”an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Arts Midwest.

Barbara Smith also recommends these books:

Albany Public Library
The Big Read
May 4-June 3, 2007

If you liked Their Eyes Were Watching God, you might also enjoy…..

Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd

Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Lucy Hurston

*Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

*The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. DuBois

Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folktales From the Gulf State by Zora Neale Hurston
Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston

Beloved by Toni Morrison
*The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
*Sula by Toni Morrison

Miss Muriel and Other Stories by Ann Petry
*The Street by Ann Petry

Cane by Jean Toomer

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
*In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women by Alice Walker

*Black Boy by Richard Wright
Native Son by Richard Wright

Here’s a previous post on the Big Read.

Thanks especially to Barbara Smith, author and Albany Common Council member, for her recommendations for this post, and others. Also to Lisa Stevens, my co-worker, and Eleanor at Flights of Fantasy, for their contributions. You were all very helpful.

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog for Black History Month:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Sonia Sanchez
“Black Girl in the Ring” by Nola Hopkinson
June Jordan
“Flight to Canada” by Ishmael Reed
Gloria Naylor
“Fledgling” by Octavia E. Butler
Chester Himes
“Apex Hides the Hurt” by Colson Whitehead

Black History Month: “Apex Hides the Hurt”

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Colson Whitehead’s 2006 novel “Apex Hides the Hurt” once again delves into issues of race and identity through a “nomenclature consultant” hired to help rename the town of Winthrop so it can be revived for the 21st century, but who is also going through his own crisis having named a successful but shoddy product, Apex, a Band-Aid competitor that comes in a variety of shades so the bandage can “disappear” on the skin of most anyone (and it is specifically targeted across the country by ZIP code).

Listen to an audio interview here.

Click “more” to read my review of the book.

Continue reading

Black History Month: Chester Himes

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These two novels by Chester Himes, written about 12 years apart, show a bit of a transformation of a novelist who never felt like he fit in. “If He Hollers Let Him Go” tells the story of a black L.A. dockworker, a leader, who supervises both blacks and whites, and feel racism every step of the way, fueling his anger and his desire for violence.

The publisher says:

Robert Jones has a lot going for him – a steady job, a steady relationship and plenty of prospects… until a white woman accuses him of rape and, all of a sudden, his prospects seem a lot less bright.
Immediately recognised as a masterful expose of racism in everyday life, If He Hollers Let Him Go is Chester Himes’ first book, originally published in 1945.

Reviews
‘Youthful, insulting, risky, brash, bad-assed, revolutionary, violent, and struts about as if to say, here come cocky Chester Himes, you litterateurs, and I hope you don’t like it’ Ishmael Reed

‘The greatest, most brutally powerful novel of the best black novelist of his generation’ Chicago Tribune

‘Hard and fast and sure’ New York Review of Books

Meanwhile, A Rage in Harlem:

For the love of fine and wily Imabelle, hapless Jackson loses his life savings to a con man who knows the secret of turning ten-dollar bills into hundreds and steals from his boss, only to lose the stolen money at a crap table. Luckily for him, Jackson has a savvy twin brother, Goldy, who, disguised as a Sister of Mercy, earns a living by selling tickets to Heaven in Harlem. Now for the big payback…
Review:
“Himes undertook to do for Harlem what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles.” Newsweek
Review:
“Himes wrote spectacularly successful entertainments, filled with gems of descriptive writing, plots that barely sidestep chaos, characters surreal, grotesque, comic, hip, Harlem recollected as a place that can make you laugh, cry, shudder.” John Edgar Wideman
Review:
“Chester Himes is one of the towering figures of the black literary tradition. His command of nuances of character and dynamics of plot is preeminent among writers of crime fiction. He is a master craftsman.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The move from social realism to genre writing is intriguing, and the biographical information about him seems to suggest he had an inability to fit in anywhere (his writing career began with his first published story while a prisoner; he moved from America to Paris and basically stayed in France until he died), coupled with an amazing talent for writing and an active and restless mind.

The Norton Anthology of African American Literature quotes from his autobiography, “My Life of Absurdity”:

“I traveled throughout Europe trying desperately to find a life into which I would fit; and my determination stemmed from my desire to succeed without America. … I never found a place where I even began to fit, due in great part to my inability to learn any foreign language and my antagonism toward all white people, who, I thought, treated me as an inferior.” A web of contradictions, Himes spent a good deal of his life among “all white people.” As we might anticipate, his varied writings reflect the intense conflicts within Chester Himes himself.

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog for Black History Month:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Sonia Sanchez
“Black Girl in the Ring” by Nola Hopkinson
June Jordan
“Flight to Canada” by Ishmael Reed
Gloria Naylor
“Fledgling” by Octavia E. Butler

Black History Month: “Fledgling”

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Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler is another recommendation from Eleanor at Flights of Fantasy in Loudonville. She writes:

Fledgling was the last novel of the recently deceased Octavia Butler (she died a year ago today), who received a MacArthur genius grant. She was a really good author and Fledgling is a really good vampire novel, about a black girl who wakes up with amnesia & discovers what she is is called a vampire. She has to find food & find out where she comes from. It is completely (very completely) different from Laurell K. Hamilton’s vampire stories, but just as good.

From the Washington Post Book World:

“Butler is one of the finest voices in fiction — period…. A master storyteller, Butler casts an unflinching eye on racism, sexism, poverty, and ignorance and lets the reader see the terror and beauty of human nature.”

Seven Stories Press, which publishes Fledgling, includes this quotation from Butler on its Web site:

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

Here’s another quote from Butler, from the Voices from the Gap Web site:

“I’m not writing for some noble purpose, I just like telling a good story. If what I write about helps others understand this world we live in, so much the better for all of us,” Octavia Butler told Robert McTyre. “Every story I write adds to me a little, changes me a little, forces me to reexamine an attitude or belief, causes me to research and learn, helps me to understand people and grow … Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself” (Stevenson 210).

Thanks again to Eleanor at Flights of Fantasy for this recommendation.

I’ve posted about her novel Kindred before. The link is here.

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog for Black History Month:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Sonia Sanchez
“Black Girl in the Ring” by Nola Hopkinson
June Jordan
“Flight to Canada” by Ishmael Reed
Gloria Naylor

Black History Month: Gloria Naylor

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Gloria Naylor is perhaps best known for her novels. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature says:

One of the first African American women writers who has studied both her African ancestors and the European tradition, Naylor consciously draws on Western sources even as her writings reflect the complexity of the African American female experience.

Some of her novels are mentioned in this excerpt from the Voices from the Gap Web site:

Naylor’s first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, is a celebration of the riches and diversities of the black female experience. She focuses on seven women who commit a victory by simply managing to survive in an impoverished and threatening neighborhood by bonding with each other and finding refuge. The novel received strong reviews, won many awards and was made into a television movie.

Linden Hills, Naylor’s second novel, is a story of resistance and rebirth. It portrays a world in which black Americans have achieved status and some measure of power, but in the process they have forfeited their hearts and souls. It follows Dante Alighieri’s Inferno by employing Dante’s moral geography, adapting his narrative strategy as the journey through hell as her main organizing principle and offering an allegory intended to warn and instruct her intended audience–black Americans.

Naylor’s third novel, Mama Day, marks a signal change in her development. She uses alternating narrators which both reflects and reinforces the novel’s thematic concerns with reality and truth. The novel is concerned with examining, deconstructing and redefining the past. Its strongest elements are the bonds shared within the female community and between the generations of women. It is “about the fact that the real basic magic is the unfolding of the human potential and that if we reach inside ourselves we can create miracles,” according to Naylor.

Bailey’s Cafe, Naylor’s fourth novel, explores female sexuality, female sexual identity and male sexual identity. “The core of the work is indeed the way in which the word ‘whore’ has been used against women or to manipulate female sexual identity,” says Naylor. She also intends to employ the blues and jazz into the novel’s structure by using lyrical language. The characters tell their own stories and sing their own songs which empower them to generate the hope for necessary living.

What I find fascinating is an essay she wrote about the meanings of the word “nigger.” Click “more” to read it:

Continue reading

Black History Month: “Flight to Canada”

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Ishmael Reed’s 1976 novel Flight to Canada is many things: a slave narrative of escape (though it includes buses and planes), a satire, a comedy.

This is what the publisher says:

Brilliantly portrayed by a novelist with “a talent for hyperbole and downright yarning unequaled since Mark Twain”, (Saturday Review), this slave’s-eye view of the Civil War exposes America’s racial foibles of the past and present with uninhibited humor and panache.

Mixing history, fantasy, political reality, and comedy, Ishmael Reed spins the tale of three runaway slaves and the master determined to catch them. His on-target parody of fugitive slave narratives and other literary forms includes a hero who boards a jet bound for Canada; Abraham Lincoln waltzing through slave quarters to the tune of “Hello, Dolly”; and a plantation mistress entranced by TV’s “Beecher Hour”. Filled with insights into the political consciences (or lack thereof) of both blacks and whites, Flight to Canada confirms Reed’s status as “a great writer” (James Baldwin).

“A demonized Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that reinvents the particulars of slavery in America with comic rage”. — The New York Times Book Review

“Wears the mantle of Baldwin and Ellison like a high-powered Flip Wilson in drag…a terrifically funny book”. — Baltimore Sun

Here’s an excerpt from an interview:

RM: Addison Gayle, Jr., speaks critically about your perception of the relations between black men and women when he reviews “Flight to Canada” in relation to “Eva’s Man” by Gayl Jones. He writes: “Reed, of course, is an anomaly, and if much of his fiction, “Louisiana Red” and “Flight to Canada”, proves anything, it is that black women have no monopoly on demons, real or imaginative. These two novels demonstrate that, like the ‘buyer’ in “Caracas,” like blacks in general, male and female, the web of folklore which has circumscribed much of our relations with each other from the days of slavery to the present time, have been impervious to the best efforts of conscientious men and women to tear it down. Thus, Reed’s central argument, as developed in both “Louisiana Red” and “Flight to Canada,” may be summed up thusly: since the days of slavery, collusion between black women and white men has existed in America. The major objective of this collusion has been the castrating of black males and the thwarting of manful rebellion.”

IR: Well, I think that anybody who reads that ought to go and read his autobiography, “The Wayward Child,” and pick up on some of his notions on black women and white women. As I said in a letter to “Nation” magazine recently, women in general make out better in my books than black men do in the works of black women and white women, feminist writers. And I gave the example of Gayl Jones’s “Eva’s Man”–not to mention “Corregidora”–in which black men are portrayed as brutes, apes, but also Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” in which the character Jude is burned alive by his mother, something I had heard of in black culture. And Alice Walker’s fascination with incest–which can always get you over, if you have the hint of incest. I mean, it got Ellison over; there are a lot of male critics who are interested in that, who are interested in black male sexual behavior–they’re fascinated. There was recently a review on Louis Harlan’s book on Booker T. Washington, by Malcolm Boyd–he used to be a hippie preacher or something; I don’t know what he’s doing now. And he spent a whole lot of the book–he spent the whole article on this story about Booker T. Washington being caned for knocking on a white woman’s door or something like that. Of all the things Booker T. Washington had done! This man was just fascinated with this. He spent three or four paragraphs talking just about that! So there’s an obvious fascination with incest and rape, and Alice Walker picks up on things like this. I tried to get my letter published in “Nation” magazine. I finally had to go to the American Civil Liberties Union here in northern California to get my reply published to what I considered to be a hatchet job done by Stanley Crouch. He had all the facts about my career and publishing activities wrong. They see Al Young and myself as leaders of some multicultural revolt threatening the things they’re doing–against their interests. But in “Nation” I wrote that the same charges that Alice Walker makes against black men were made about the Jews in Germany. I guess we don’t have a large organization like the Anti-Defamation League or a large pressure group or lobby–

RM: And remember it is a black criticizing another black, so others may not be interested.

IR: Well, when Hannah Arendt criticized the Jewish people for collaborating with the Nazis, saying that American Jews could have saved two-thirds of the victims if they had cared about them, there was a controversy. But when you look at the Pulitzer Prize committee, there’s a president from Dow Jones on it, and mostly white males–and on the American Book Awards, which we began out here, there’s still a dispute; we began the American Book Awards out here, and our American Book Awards are really more representative of what’s happening in American literature than theirs–but knowing these things, you can see the motivation behind some people making the black male into a pariah. I think that Addison Gayle hasn’t read my books carefully because he doesn’t consider that there are all kinds of women in my books; and although I may exaggerate, I mean use hyperbole, those people are real, they exist. And if you go out to the grass roots where I stay, I think those people will tell you that those characters exist.

The full interview is here.

Here’s a list of Reed links from the University at Buffalo.

Reed’s Poets.org page.

Here’s a link to Reed’s online literary magazine Konch.

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog for Black History Month:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Sonia Sanchez
“Black Girl in the Ring” by Nola Hopkinson
June Jordan

Black History Month: June Jordan

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Here’s a poem from the poet, essayist, author and educator June Jordan, who lived from 1936 to 2002 and was influential in the Black Arts movement and beyond. The poem is taken from the Web site Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American themes:

I Must Become A Menace to My Enemies

Dedicated to the Poet Agostinho Neto, President of

The People’s Republic of Angola: 1976

I will no longer lightly walk behind

a one of you who fear me:

Be afraid.

I plan to give you reasons for your jumpy fits and facial tics

I will not walk politely on the pavements anymore

and this is dedicated in particular

to those who hear my footsteps

or the insubstantial rattling of my grocery

cart

then turn around

see me

and hurry on

away from this impressive terror I must be:

I plan to blossom bloody on an afternoon

surrounded by my comrades singing

terrible revenge in merciless

accelerating

rhythms

But

I have watched a blind man studying his face.

I have set the table in the evening and sat down

to eat the news.

Regularly

I have gone to sleep.

There is no one to forgive me.

The dead do not give a damn.

I live like a lover

who drops her dime into the phone

just as the subway shakes into the station

wasting her message

cancelling the question of her call:

fulminating or forgetful but late

and always after the fact that could save or

condemn me

I must become the action of my fate.

II

How many of my brothers and my sisters

will they kill

before I teach myself

retaliation?

Shall we pick a number?

South Africa for instance:

do we agree that more than ten thousand

in less than a year but that less than

five thousand slaughtered in more than six

months will

WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH ME?

I must become a menace to my enemies.

III

And if I

if I ever let you slide

who should be extirpated from my universe

who should be cauterized from earth

completely

(lawandorder jerkoffs of the first the

terrorist degree)

then let my body fail my soul

in its bedevilled lecheries

And if I

if I ever let love go

because the hatred and the whisperings

become a phantom dictate I o-

bey in lieu of impulse and realities

(the blossoming flamingos of my

wild mimosa trees)

then let love freeze me

out.

I must become

I must become a menace to my enemies.

Source: Trouble the Water (325-327)

Click here to hear her read the poem: A Poem about Intelligence for My Brothers and Sisters, from 1992.

Her official Web site is here.

Here is a biography from the Voices from the Gap Web site.

From an obituary in the Guardian:

June Jordan, who has died aged 65, after suffering from breast cancer for several years, defied all pigeonholes. Poet, essayist, journalist, dramatist, academic, cultural and political activist – she was all these things, by turn and simultaneously, but above all, she was an inspirational teacher, through words and actions, and a supremely principled person.

Among African-American writers, she was undoubtedly one of the most widely published, the author of well over two dozen books of non-fiction, poetry, fiction, drama and children’s writing. She emerged onto the political and literary scene in the late 1960s, when the movements demanding attention were for civil rights and women’s liberation, and anti-war.

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She engaged with all of these and more, for her battles were for freedom, whether that involved planning a new architecture for Harlem with her mentor Buckminster Fuller, or speaking out on the Palestinian cause. She spoke out against, or did something about, oppression wherever it was to be found.

It was as a political essayist that Jordan stood head and shoulders above most of her contemporaries. Her collection Civil Wars (1981) was the first such work to be published by a black woman, dealing with battles both external and internal. In subsequent volumes, including On Call (1985) and Technical Difficulties (1992), she wrote about South Africa, Nicaragua and Lebanon, as well as myriad aspects of race and class in the US. She championed the use of black English in the education system 30 years before the emergence of the debate about “Ebonics” (a term she hated).

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog for Black History Month:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Sonia Sanchez
“Black Girl in the Ring” by Nola Hopkinson