Their Eyes Were Watching God turns 75

This March marked the 75th anniversary of the very important book, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Last night I had the pleasure of attending a discussion hosted by WNYC about the book led by Hurston’s niece, Lucy Anne Hurston and featured Alice Walker, Sonia Sanchez and Ruby Dee. Lucy Anne Hurston astutely opened the discussion explaining she was sitting at the feet of the masters. The audience included musicians, poets, writers and, well, Gloria Steinem–they all gasped together the power of this moment.

I have written about Their Eyes before. I read this book when I was in high school and found it important then–I reread it as an adult and found new meaning in it. Janie’s epic journey to find love and finally find freedom on her own terms is one of the most universal stories in fiction and in real life. It’s something we all struggle with–how to live life on our own terms.

Hurston’s book, which she wrote in 6 weeks (!)), was widely criticized by other black writers at the time–it was considered an unimportant work. Richard Wright famously chimed in that she had done a disservice to black people by describing them as quaint and her lack of political imperative made the book a waste of time. As Walker rightfully said in response to these critiques how “we all struggle through so much and have overcome so much” and that Wright thought he was saying the right things not realizing why he was not at the time.

But as many argued later, Janie’s search for love and then freedom transcended “politics” and threw us in to the realm of the political whether we realized it or not. A black woman finding love and freedom on her own terms was political, and it is a journey that continues to be political–because we live in a world that seeks to constrict, contaminate and hurt women’s access to love in authentic ways. (Just think about Whitney Houston, Rihanna or many strong women and women of color and their journey to finding “love” and the violence that this has often brought to their lives).

But last night was a powerful moment and I may not really believe in ghosts, but Zora Neale Hurston was in the room last night as her words were spoken through her most ardent and influenced/influential supporters. Upon reading about Hurston in the 70′s, Alice Walker actually went on a journey to find her unmarked grave–she shared her story of finding Hurston’s unmarked grave. Sonia Sanchez shared a powerful story about finding Their Eyes in the Schomberg (a library with books by black authors in Harlem) and the woman who handed her that book and changed her life. Ruby Dee talked about the importance of the title and for us to think about what Hurston meant when she titled the book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

And then the moment I wasn’t expecting at all, but the tears I shed listening to Alice Walker read from this great book.

I caught some video on my iphone. They took video of the entire event which I will post when I get it.

I was lucky to be around living legends, it felt like a healing and reminded me why the quest for personal happiness and love is in fact the center of politics–not an afterthought.

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