Monday, June 27, 2016

On Exhibit at the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum

Textile Art integrating pictures representing the history of Eatonville on display now at the Zora:

 We stopped by the Eatonville Town Hall, the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts (they host a Zora Neale Hurston Festival every January), and the Eatonville Branch of the Orange County Public Library.

We brought copies of Jonah's Gourd Vine, Their Eyes Were Watching God and the book Hurston co-wrote with Langston Hughes, Mule Bone.

We're hoping that the staff at the Eatonville Branch Library and the staff at the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts will blog about Zora Neale Hurston this summer.

We finished up last week with two more great discussions on Thursday and Friday.  Here are some highlights:

  • John is two different characters - almost a split personality
  • John became a lot like his stepfather
  • John makes a clear distinction between love and sex
  • Discussion about hoodoo - does Hurston actually believe in its power?  Most readers Friday believe she does.
  • Lucy knew that she loved John too much - told Isis: "Don't love anybody as much as you love yourself."
  • Lucy is powerful!
  • Metaphor of crabs in a pot pulling one another down - a reader Friday shared an Australian expression: tall poppy syndrome - if you get too tall, you'll get mowed down - speaks to possible universality of people within a group keeping one another down
  • Some Friday readers found story archetypal - classic good and evil struggle
  • Hurston's style of briefly summarizing long historical periods is like the literary version of a slide show
  • John's final sermon, according to notes on p. 1038, was based on an actual sermon by C.C. Lovelace
  • Sally's sending John back to Eatonville - a symbol of God testing John
  • Hurston has really caught the authentic voice - it's important to hear the dialogue
  • Glossary is not complete enough
  • Hurston is also skilled at capturing sound effects
  • Some readers were intrigued by John and others playing hide and seek at an older age
  • Trains are important to Hurston - her autobiography is Dust Tracks on a Road

Friday, June 24, 2016

Jonah's Gourd Vine

Amy Crittenden.  A question arose about the relationship with Amy & Alf.  Was Amy raped?
During slavery and post slavery days rape is always a possibility.  Amy doesn't have harsh words or
negative implications toward Alf.  Amy also is confident when telling John to mention her Name when asking for work.  So, what if Alf really liked Amy at one time?  What if Alf had true affections
toward Amy at one time?
Alf makes a comment of wondering why Amy married Ned and became a sharecropper?  I believe
Alf saw some value in Amy, maybe intelligence, beauty, loyalty?  Alf thought Amy's life could have been better if she had stayed on the better side of the creek.  Some white men of that day really had affection for the black women.  Sally Hemming is just one documented example.  What is Alf actually felt some betrayal when Amy left and married Ned?  If any of these thoughts are true that may explain Alf's willingness to help John.  Alf could have had No sense of obligation toward John but he does.  Maybe Alf's feelings for Amy lends itself to care for John.  Just maybe?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Back in the Big-group discussion

Other questions coming our of the small group:
Why did Amy stay with Ned, even after John would have been able to help?
Is this the same dynamic we see today in domestic violence?
How is John's abuse of Lucy and (especially) Hattie related to Ned's treatment of Amy?
What was the untold story of Alf Pearson and Amy? We're assuming that John is their child, was it rape? Was Amy's story one of constant abuse? 

Small Group Discussion on the First night

Questions from the groups:
1. What explains the differences between the two groups living on the opposite side of the creek? Resonated with the "other side of the tracks", "Delmar divide", and perceptions of East St. Louis versus public perceptions of St. Louis.
2. What was the timeline of the book? Dr. Langley's answer: Amy Crittenden was a young girl in 1865 when slavery ended. Ned was older. So, the book begins about around 1893 (my guess) based on John's age. The book runs through the First World War.
3. How relevant is this to contemporary audiences?-Answer: Many people discussing the book felt that many of the points raised in the book were still very relevant, from implicit bias based on skin color. Parallels modern issues.
Gender politics and sexuality-even though John was a serial philanderer, the women he slept with were considered "sluts' or worse. There's a definite double-standard.

Our First Zora discussion!

There was a big crowd on hand for the first discussion of Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine. Thanks to Dr. April Langley, Associate Professor at Mizzou, for moderating the discussion! 

Sacred Harp Singing

In Chapter 2 of Jonah's Gourd Vine, Charlie describes Lucy Potts singing at church: "...she trebles right 'long wid dem grown women and kin sing all de notes--de square ones, de round ones, de triangles."

What may sound like a flowery way of describing music is actually referring to a specific type of singing and musical notation: Sacred Harp singing, also called shape-note singing, a style that gained popularity in the 1800s in the South. Unlike the eight-note "do-re-mi" style we all learned from The Sound of Music, Sacred Harp singing uses an older four-note English system, with different tones given different shapes in the songbooks:

Sacred Harp singing has a couple of other distinctive qualities, which are much more noticeable when you experience it live: first, the singers sit facing each other in a hollow square, with each side representing a specific vocal range (treble, alto, tenor, and bass); and second, it's loud. Really loud. Sacred Harp singing has no volume indicators that occur in more modern music, so singers tend to just belt it out. Watch the video below for an example of modern Sacred Harp singers:

Interested in checking out Sacred Harp singing in person? The St. Louis Shape Note Singers meet several times a month, often in a home in University City. Check out their website at and remember to sing loud!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

We had a terrific presentation by acclaimed storyteller Bobby Norfolk last Thursday night!  His program on the Harlem Renaissance featured tales, songs, and poems by Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and James Weldon Johnson, among others.

The highlight of the evening was Bobby's performance of the tale Uncle Monday, which was collected by Zora Neale Hurston during her years working for the WPA on the Florida Writer's Project.  The text version of the folk tale, which is a rollicking story of alligators, hoodoo, and revenge, can be found in Go Gator and Muddy the Watercurrently on display by the reference desk.

The story of Hurston's research on Florida folkways for the WPA is fascinating in its own right; visit the Library of Congress or Florida Memory and read on!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

African American Expressions in Folk Art

Next Saturday, June 25 at 10:30am, the Saint Louis Art Museum will host a lecture that might be of interest to our Zora readers - African American Expressions in Folk Art.  This lecture, by art historian Alvia J. Wardlaw, accompanies the museum's exhibit, Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum.

Alvia J. Wardlaw is a curator of two groundbreaking exhibitions, the Quilts of Gee's Bend and Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial.

This lecture takes place in the Farrell Auditorium at SLAM.  It is free to attend, but advanced tickets are recommended.

Can't attend this lecture but want to learn more about the arts of the African American South or the Gee's Bend Quiltmakers?  Check out some great art and great information at the Souls Grown Deep Foundation - dedicated to documenting, researching, preserving, and exhibiting the work of self-taught African American artists of the American South.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Zora as inspiration to Alice Walker

Zora wearing pants

Many attended the kickoff event and listened to Dr. Rafia Zafar talk (see more from Dr. Zafar in her Library of America blog post) about Zora Neale Hurston and others have read the readers guide from the library or are making progress on “Jonah’s Gourde Vine.” I spent a little time reading “Zora Neale Hurston: a literary biography” by Robert E. Hemenway with a forward by Alice Walker.  The forward is really a love letter to Zora and tells of how Walker discovered her work and what it meant to her.  She talks about Zora giving her the perfect book.  The contents showed very regular black Americans in a way that made their typical stories marvelous.  As Walker learned more about Zora, she admired more about her.  She was funny, irreverent, good-looking, sexy, and confident.  She was curious and traveled “to find out anything she simply had to know” (p. xv).  She wore pants and lit up cigarettes in public during a time when it wasn’t acceptable lady like behavior.  In short, Zora lived life on her terms, not as someone else prescribed.  We probably all need exposure to someone who reminds us that we have options and choices.  Someone who inspires us because we can relate to them and respect them.  For Alice Walker, that person was Zora Neale Hurston.

Sure enough, she is smoking!