LAWRENCE — When Zora Neale Hurston's seminal novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" was published in 1937, her main critic was Richard Wright, who judged the content of her book as a mistake.
Her story, in his estimation, did not defend black people's existence in the face of many aspects of American racism. However, two University of Kansas researchers argue Wright was wrong, and they are leading an 80th anniversary symposium at KU to explore themes surrounding "black love" that sprung from Hurston's classic Harlem Renaissance work.
"By love, we mean romance, Eros, and erotic desire between and among black persons," said KU professors Ayesha Hardison and Randal Maurice Jelks. "We contend that an exchange about the evolving aesthetics and politics of 'Black Love' is just as important now as it was in 1937 given that its expression is still too often disavowed and pathologized in critical discourses or deemed illegible and unprofitable in popular culture."
'Black Love: A Symposium' will take place Sept. 14-16 and will feature scholars from across the country who will discuss themes of African-American literature, culture and various disciplines. The event will also feature public programming for the KU and Lawrence communities.
The Kansas Humanities Council has awarded a $7,500 grant for the symposium.
"KHC Humanities grants support projects that connect people with ideas and engage Kansans with the humanities," said Julie Mulvihill, executive director of the Kansas Humanities Council. "The Black Love symposium will celebrate the 80th anniversary of Zora Neale Hurston's novel with rich discussions and programs for the Lawrence community."
Hardison, associate professor of English and women, gender & sexuality studies, and Jelks, professor of American studies and African and African-American studies, said they envision discussions on Black Love organized broadly around six themes: Political economies of Black Love; imaging Black Love; Black Love languages and literatures; traditions and social principles of Black Love; ethics and faiths of Black Love, and rhythms and tonalities of Black Love.
Hardison and Jelks said Wright objected to Hurston's publication of a love story at the height of Jim Crow oppression during the Depression. Yet Hurston's work, with themes of sensuality, self-discovery, spirituality and voicedness inspired by the writer's own bittersweet love affair, has endured in African-American literary history. Black women writers and scholars, such as Alice Walker and Sherley Anne Williams, began to reclaim Hurston as a pivotal writer in the African-American literary tradition in the 1970s.
By 1980, Hurston's significance was further enhanced with the publication of Robert Hemenway's "Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography." Today, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" is a fixture of American arts and letters. Her book is frequently read in classrooms, engaged in scholarship, and cited as an inspiring influence for other creative works. Hemenway, who died in 2015, served as KU chancellor from 1995 to 2009.
Hardison and Jelks as part of the symposium propose to explore the legacy of Hurston's novel by examining themes of Black Love in African-American art, literature, religious thought and cultural ways that predate as well as succeed its publication.
In 1981, as part of the annual Ebony magazine special issue on Black Love, Lerone Bennett Jr.'s affirming words bears one of this symposium's framing tenets, the researchers said. In his article "The Roots of Black Love," he refutes the notion that African-Americans' history of struggle destroyed their intimacies.
"There is, moreover, plenty of evidence to show that black men and women—despite slavery, despite segregation, despite everything—" Bennett wrote, "created a modern love song in life and art that is the loveliest thing dreamed or sung this side of the seas."
Hardison and Jelks said that idea will serve as one of the starting points for the themes of the symposium.
Photo: Zora Neale Hurston, via WikiCommons, public domain.