An anthropologist, Hurston did much of her work in the American South. She also was a writer, and her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, has been read and reread -- and loved -- ever since its publication in the 1930s.
“I first read it a long time ago, back in the 70s,” says Letty Shearer, Director of Economic and Community Development at Armstrong Atlantic State University. “When I first read it, I was so taken with the main character and her search for independence and love. It speaks to everyone and is still timely. Zora Neale Hurston was talented in many, many ways.”
Hurston and her novel are the focus of readers in Savannah who are participating in The Big Read, which was begun by the National Endowment for the Arts to restore reading to the center of American culture. In 2004, the NEA did a survey called Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America that showed that less than half of the adults in the U.S. read literature.
Events began in February, and will conclude on Saturday, April 14 with a celebration in Daffin Park. There have been book discussions, film presentations. staged readings and other events.
Shearer says a number of partners are involved in The Big Read, including AASU, the Live Oak Public Libraries, the Black Heritage Festival, the City of Savannah Department of Cultural Affairs and more.
In addition to books, bookmarkers and reader’s guides also were distributed. “We put bookplates in the 1,000 books, asking that they be returned so we can send them to the deployed troops,” Shearer says.
Beth Howells, Director of Composition at AASU, organized the first Big Read in Savannah four years ago, which focused on Flannery O’Connor. At first, it was intended only as a campus-wide event.
“We found out there were so many in the community who were interested in participating,” Howells says. “They were coming to all the events.”
The next year, Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying was the book chosen, and the highlight was a presentation by Gaines himself. “It was to be one of his last public appearances,” Howells says.
The 2006 Big Read focused on Dr. Richard Selzer and his book, Moral Lessons. He also made a presentation in Savannah.
While those events were interesting and attracted a lot of community attention, they pale in comparison to this year’s Big Read. Fueled by a $20,000 grant from the NEA, it has gone community-wide in a big way.
This year, Howells selected Their Eyes Were Watching God. “I chose it because our student population is 70 percent female,” Howells says. “Also, since it takes place in Florida, the setting and culture is similar to ours.”
Savannah is one of 72 communities nationwide that are participating. “We will close with 100 book clubs in Daffin Park,” Howells says. “We’ve started an email grapevine to try to reach everybody.”
The event will open with a welcome by Mayor Otis Johnson. A free concert by the Howard Paul Quintet and guest vocalist Kim Polote will follow the event at 4 p.m.
With fewer people reading literature, events such as The Big Read are important, Howells says. “Literacy is important,” she says. “In Savannah and across the country, one of the most common issues is education.
“This way, people of all ages can come together and talk about a common subject,” Howells says. “There is something really positive and hopeful about coming together and discussing a book.”
All too often, people associate reading with studying and homework, Howells says. “Now everyone can see reading has a life outside the classroom,” she says. “We must address the reading crisis in our society.”
Christian Kruse is the director of the Live Oak Public Libraries. Most of the programs sponsored by Live Oak were aimed primarily at children.
“One book we presented was a biography of Zora Neale Hurston for children 9 to 15,” Kruse says. “We also did some programs on the Harlem Renaissance.”
Over 1,000 copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God were distributed throughout the community, primarily in schools. “We gave some to community and school leaders and asked them to share,” Kruse says.
“This event spotlights the importance of reading,” he says. “It gets people excited about literature, and gets them together to talk about literature. “It’s very exciting to be discussing one book. It’s wonderful that the NEA made it possible for us to do so much more with the community.”
Constance Coleman is coordinator of the eastern region of Live Oak Public Libraries. “There will be 10 big tents in Daffin Park on April 14,” she says.
A different topic will be discussed in each of the tents. “Some will talk about Zora’s life, about anthropology, about the town she lived in, even the music that was popular then,” Coleman says.
Children’s activities will be held during the event so parents can attend the discussion sessions. “Each lecture will last about 45 minutes,” Coleman says. “People will be able to spend a couple of hours going from tent to tent and discussion to discussion.
“This is the first time we’ve tried an adult event like this,” she says. “Hopefully it will be an across-the-board good thing.”
The Big Read also will honor another occasion -- the 100th anniversary of Daffin Park. “That’s why we set the amount of book clubs at 100,” Coleman says.
“So far, we have 75 book clubs we know are coming, and we’re trying to find more,” she says. “It’s interesting that there are so many book groups in the community.”
This will be the first time the City of Savannah has been formally involved in The Big Read. Cultural Affairs Marketing Coordinator Kathleen Sizemore says she hopes the event keeps growing every year.
“We want people to fall back in love with reading,” Sizemore says. “I have two kids under the age of two, so I hardly have the opportunity to read, so this has been a real pleasure for me.
“I love (Hurston’s) writing style,” Sizemore says. “I love the poetic quality of her work. It’s something intangible that you can’t get from watching television. It’s something beautiful that only reading can provide.”
As part of The Big Read, Elizabeth Desnoyers-Colas, an assistant professor in communication at AASU, will present Their Eyes Were Watching Syntax: Examining the Double Jeopardy Implications of African American Code Switching on April 12 at 7 p.m. in AASU’s Ashmore Hall.
“What I’m looking at in my presentation is explaining how African Americans speak one way in one setting and another in their own setting,” Desnoyers-Colas says. “That is what code switching is.
“Zora had to do code switching when she was with her white benefactors,” Desnoyers-Colas says. “She was able to capture the art of code-switching in her writing.”
Today, African-American dialect is sometimes referred to as Ebonics. During Desnoyers-Colas’ presentation, the AASU Gospel Choir will perform and student actors will present scenes from Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“They will act out key scenes to depict the different things she looked at,” Desnoyers-Colas says. “There will be a panel discussion with students and faculty members that will be led by Dr. Dick Nordquist.”
Code switching is very much present today, Desnoyers-Colas says. “I had to do it in my day,” she says. “My students assure me they have to do the same thing.”
The participation of the gospel choir is particularly significant, Desnoyers-Colas says. “Zora did sing and she loved music,” she says. “As an anthropologist, she looked at African-American music.”
No matter how many people turn out for The Best Read closing event at Daffin Park, it’s already been a success. Says Shearer, “It’s been wonderful because everyone loves this book.”
On Wednesday, April 11 at 7 p.m., Armstrong Atlantic State University faculty from the Department of History will present Zora: Ethnologically Speaking in Solms Hall, Room 110.
On Thursday, April 12, Dr. Elizabeth Desnoyers-Colas, the AASU Masquers and the AASU Gospel Choir will present Their Eyes Were Watching Syntax: Examining the Double Jeopardy Implications of African American Code Switching in AASU’s Ashmore Auditorium.
An AASU student symposium with students and alumni reading papers on Zora Neale Hurston will be held Friday, April 13 at 1 p.m. in the University Dining Room.
The closing celebration of The Big Read will be held April 14 from 2-4 p.m. at Daffin Park. A concert featuring the Howard Paul Quintet and guest vocalist Kim Polote will follow, courtesy of the Daffin Park Centennial Committee. All Big Read events and activities are free and open to the public.