What would happen if everyone in Atlanta read Their Eyes Were Watching God at the same time? The city has an opportunity to answer that question this month during the Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored civic-reading program.
The civic reading trend (in which one book is chosen for an entire city to read) has been around since at least the late ’90s, when a Seattle librarian chose Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter to inspire conversation and community throughout the city. The idea caught on, copycat events sprung up across the country, and the American Library Association even put out a guide on how to organize a citywide reading program.
The Big Read hasn’t been without its problems, though: Choosing a single book to please an entire city isn’t easy. In 2002, New York City’s selection process devolved into a publicized fight, causing the library system to decline from participating altogether.
Since 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts has made efforts to streamline the process, offering grants to cities that choose a book from a short, predetermined list.
Birmingham’s reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In Denver, it’s To Kill a Mockingbird. San Diego is working through The Grapes of Wrath. There isn’t much in the way of boat-rocking contemporary literature, but there are plenty of classics.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is, in many ways, a suitable pick for Atlanta. Georgia-born author Alice Walker is largely credited for renewing interest in the novel and its author, Zora Neale Hurston, with the 1975 Ms. magazine essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” At the time, Walker wrote, “Zora Neale Hurston is one of the most significant unread authors in America.” Today, Hurston is widely read and celebrated for her honest, emotionally complex portrayals of African-Americans living in the South.
Perhaps because of that widespread acceptance, it’s easy to forget that Hurston’s work wasn’t always popular or uncontroversial. A number of African-American writers of her era harshly criticized the use of dialect in her work, which includes passages such as, “If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside.” Richard Wright accused Hurston of “voluntarily [continuing] in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.”
Today, critics mostly disagree with Wright. John Edgar Wideman has asserted that Hurston’s dialogue is a “language articulating an Africanized vision of reality: unsentimental, humorous, pantheistic, robustly visceral.”
The Big Read should give readers opportunities to discuss and engage with each other about not only Hurston’s work, but also literature in general. The NEA grant money will be used to produce a series of events throughout the month. Things kick off with a party at the Atlanta History Center on Feb. 17, featuring performances by Yvonne Singh as Zora Neale Hurston, live music, and free copies of the book for the first 50 people. Deborah Plant, a Hurston scholar, will deliver two lectures at the Decatur Library and Spelman College. The film adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God starring Halle Berry will be screened, and Valerie Boyd will visit the Margaret Mitchell House to talk about her book, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.
If you’ve already read the book, you might be hoping the NEA gets more adventurous with its picks next year. Either way, it’s an opportunity to dust off that old paperback and talk to your neighbor about the book.
What exactly will happen if everyone reads Hurston’s novel this month? There’s only one way to find out.