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: “Apex Hides the Hurt””

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: Gloria Naylor”