LAWRENCE – Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is in no danger of being forgotten any time soon. Although overlooked at the time of its publication, it has since come to be considered a masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance.
The novel will serve as the jumping-off point for a teacher training session on Hurston set to take place in summer 2021 at the University of Kansas, using funds from a newly announced National Endowment for the Humanities grant. The seminar will show how Hurston’s work resonates in the era of Black Lives Matter.
The $200,000 award goes to KU’s Project on the History of Black Writing for “Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future,” a three-week institute where 25 higher-education faculty will explore how best to teach Hurston’s life and works. It is part of a $30 million group of grants the NEH announced July 29. Ayesha Hardison, associate professor of English and of women, gender & sexuality studies, applied for the grant and will be the seminar’s director. Maryemma Graham, director of KU's Project on the History of Black Writing, will co-lead the institute. The award is project’s 15th NEH grant; HBW has organized 12 institutes in total, and seven at KU.
The funds will subsidize the seminar participants’ costs and support the invited expert scholars, including some others from KU, who will serve as institute faculty.
“The grant is designed to give teachers at the college and university level an opportunity to study Hurston’s broad body of work,” Hardison said. “She's a really fascinating figure because of how much work she produces — particularly for a black woman writer of her time — and also because of the range of the work she created.
"She was a novelist. She was a folklorist. She engaged as a journalist. She stages plays and concerts. She also was just shy of getting a doctorate in anthropology, so a lot of her writing is drawing on her anthropological or ethnographic observations.
“Hurston is an extraordinary writer to examine, not only for how boldly she lived her life, but also for the impact she made on American literature and culture.”
That impact is ongoing, Hardison notes, as Hurston’s nonfiction book “Barracoon: The story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’ ” based on her 1927 interview with a formerly enslaved person and survivor of the Middle Passage, was just published in 2018.
“Several archival discoveries have been made since her death,” Hardison noted. “The summer institute is an opportunity to recognize the breadth of her creativity and intellectual work beyond ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.’”
Hardison said that, in addition to inviting specific Hurston scholars to talk, she will invite some current creative writers to discuss Hurston’s impact on their work. Certain events will be open to the public.
In the age of Black Lives Matter, Hardison said Hurston remains relevant.
“I think Hurston relates to 2020—and, looking forward, to 2021 — because of her commitment to documenting black life,” Hardison said. “Hurston valued the expressions of African American culture, whether that was in language or other aspects of Black creativity. I think that resonates in the contemporary moment, as we think about Black lives, because Black cultural experiences are multiple, varied, dynamic and sustaining.”
Photo: Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston, circa 1938. Credit: From the Carl Van Vechten Collection held by the Library of Congress.