Their Eyes Were Watching God at 80: The Season for Black Love

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[By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]

In one of the most memorable scenes in Zora Neale Hurston’s now-classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Granny asks Janie, the child she is about to send off to marry, “Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate.” The quote is a mere 20 pages into the novel after Janie has begun to recount her life adventures to her best friend, Pheoby Watson. From that point on, we know this is a novel about growth and about love… Black love.

The brief exchange between a loving grandmother and her dutiful granddaughter is enough to make us laugh and cry. The display of love is both a confession and a foreshadowing. Granny’s days are numbered, and Janie must begin a new journey. True to the setting and the time of the novel, Janie goes from her grandmother’s bed to her husband’s bed, from girlhood to womanhood overnight.

Granny’s maternal love is transformed into the custodial love that Logan Killicks offers Janie in exchange for the back-breaking work she does on his farm. Discovering that women are indeed the “mules of the world, ” she then enters a second, different kind of marriage. “Marrying up” as it were, she gains the hand of the soon-to-be-mayor of all-black Eatonville. Second husband Joe [Jody] Starks treats her as an object, like a trophy he has received from one of his many competitions as a businessman and politician. The violence and abuse of this second marriage drives Janie away, and finally as a mature woman, she finds her own black love in Tea Cake. Though short-lived as a result of his death, this third marriage provides a mutually fulfilling love, one that teaches Janie that even the best love, like life, is not free from pain and sorrow.

In this revolutionary novel, Hurston explored the taboo subject of Black love. She paid the price for her boldness and died in poverty. The novel quickly went out of print for decades, with little mention of its author or her expansive body of work.

80 years after its original publication, this primer on Black heterosexual love, Their Eyes Were Watching God  is one of the most widely read in the literary canon. For many readers today, Hurston also liberated Black womanhood, and that was perhaps the greater reason for the subsequent silencing of the novel in the eyes of many critics.

Robert Hemenway’s timely biography, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (1980), and Alice walker’s persistent search for foremothers helped to reawaken interest in Hurston. Both contributed to the founding of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C.) in 1987, the major organization committed to sustaining her legacy today.

I’d like to think that Hurston would be pleased to see that Black love has come of age. Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) both gave us love stories set in slavery; Morrison even drew our attention to Black love during the 1920s (Jazz, 1992) and during the period of segregation (Love, 2003). James Baldwin may not have been confident in setting his well-received 1956 novel about love between two men in the US, choosing instead to set Giovanni’s Room in Italy. Yet, same sex love had much fictional and cinematic representation in subsequent years. New scholarship and literary works have explored its meaning, as letters long buried are being recovered, and as archives are mined for marriage documents, stories of enslaved couples, literary friendships and wartime correspondence.

Can we credit part of this contemporary resurgence of interest to our 44th president Barack Obama and his wife Michele, who are undeniably a high profile symbol of Black love, one that the world had not seen before? 

I’d like to offer another possibility as a reason for growing interest in Black love. The rise in violence, both racial, ethnic and gendered, and the roll back of democratic ideals in favor of a narrow nationalist agenda make all of today’s America more like the Black America of days past. None of the deplorable conditions of our existence– whether during slavery, Jim and Jane Crow segregation, or todays’ school to prison pipeline– could and can detract from Black love. Who would not want to have the freedom that we have been consistently told did not belong to us? How else could Black love be so enduring and exuberant?  Put another way, those who are often unloved, maligned and otherwise disrespected by many, know and appreciate love the best.

Zora Neal Hurston dared to present a love story in 1937. Hers was an act of the imagination, but it was grounded in her love of Black people.  These are the stories we tell each other; they exist in every one of our families, but remain hidden from plain view.  She gave us a story to pass on. Now television and film, music, fiction and life writing have begun to claim them.  Why? The mainstream reading, viewing, and listening public needs fresh, untold stories to meet the needs of new and expanded audiences. And they are now ours to tell.

Earlier this year, The American Black Film Festival (ABFF) publicly celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Love Jones, a generation-spanning symbol of Black love. The film’s stars Nia Long and Larenz Tate were reunited and performed selected poetry from the film. BET and HBO have both showcased the evolution of Black love through the eyes of independent, diverse Black women in Being Mary Jane and Insecure. Modern-day royalty Beyoncé and Jay-Z have both publicly shared the impact Black love in their lives most recently on their albums Lemonade and 4:44 respectively. The love of Black sisterhood and brotherhood is prominently on display in blockbuster films and the importance of the Black family has been elevated in one of the most popular network series of the 2016-2017 season, Black-ish

Not surprisingly, Oprah Winfrey has also begun to test the waters of Black love first with Greenleaf, then Queen Sugar and a multitude of other dramas. She has come full circle with her most recently premiered series, calling it simply, Black Love.

But these are not the only examples. Nearly two years ago, Drs. Ayesha Hardison and Randal Maurice Jelks at the University of Kansas dared to propose a “Black Love Symposium” marking the 80th anniversary of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The appropriateness of holding the gathering at KU, where Robert Hemenway served as Chancellor, is not lost on those scheduled to attend. Scholars, cultural critics and media professionals will explore Zora’s legacy during a weekend of activities. One hopes that the scholarship and dialogue that Their Eyes Were Watching God inspires will be yet another major contribution to deepening our understanding of what is human is us all.




It is the season for Black love. And Lord knows, we need it now more than ever.




Dr. Maryemma Graham is the Founder/Director of the Project on the History of Black Writing and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Kansas.

Shut Up In My Bones: a digital poem – a remix

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A digital poem from HBW Alum Dr. DaMaris Hill:

Shut Up In My Bones: a digital poem – a remix from D Hill on Vimeo.

“I recently completed a poetry manuscript entitled A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing. Many of the poems detail the violent consequences black women endure while engaged in individual and collective acts of protest and resistance.

My grandmother’s picture and a poem honoring her, “Shut Up In My Bones” opens my manuscript. During her lifetime the Jane Crow styles of oppression were careful to include violence for accessing civil liberties. These forced social constraints effect one’s mental health. They incite mania, mental illness and tend to fracture a wise woman’s mind. My grandmother was an avid reader and is rumored to be the smartest of her siblings. She married at age 18 and was the only one of her siblings that didn’t attend college. This haunted her. She talked about it all the time. This digital poem, “Shut Up In My Bones”, is a remix of the original poem I wrote. This “Shut Up In My Bones” Remix is a conceptual work about my grandmother and the life we share.

  1. The first three minutes of the remixed poem are sparse. Please be patient.
  2. The second portion of the poem conceptualizes the high mental acumen my grandmother had. It is a space that relies on public discourse, memory, intergenerational collectivity, self reflection and joy.
  3. The last few minutes of the poem is a space for reflection for the “reader”. Feel free to take as little or as much time as you want with the last portion.”

Open letter to the KU Community

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On behalf of the Project on the History of Black Writing (3114 Wescoe), let me welcome newcomers and returning students to KU for the 2017-2018 school year.  You know by now we at KU are in the midst of heated debates, but you should also know that this is the reality of academia.

That said, I would like to commend those students for their brave outspokenness at the recent meeting to discuss concerns about concealed carry.  The expiration of the three-year exemption and the subsequent passing of the gun law was not what we had hoped for, but it is our reality for now.  I repeat – FOR NOW.  Rest assured that we will continue to fight against what we believe to be an irresponsible, if not dangerous legislation, just as we will fight to keep everyone safe.  You will see HBW’s posted signs that ask those who are carrying concealed weapons not to enter.  We at HBW are no strangers to controversy and remain committed to seeing that everyone has a voice and feels welcomed.

The threat of violence that the presence of guns easily invites affects all of us deeply, no matter what side you are on. We know that too many of you may be approaching your first week of classes with great fear and trepidation.  It is my hope that there are no “test” situations or pranks that derail your considerable efforts to be the best teachers and students that you can be. And we pray that you will confront no active or accidental shooter incidents now or ever.

What I can promise you is my colleagues and I will continue to fight for the repeal of this law.  We also know that we must also work with our administration not only to increase awareness and understanding, but also to be proactive in our joint efforts to ensure a safe teaching/learning environment for everyone. Yes, we won’t stop, we can’t stop, and we believe we will prevail.

“We know struggle and are not easily intimidated.”

HBW turns 35 this year. We haven’t lasted this long without experiencing momentous changes, some of them we have had the pleasure of leading. We have had some success in transforming for whom higher education exists and what it can and must do. Because we spend much of our time as a research unit challenging traditional views about what we study and value as current and future scholars, teachers and artists, we know struggle and are not easily intimidated.  Consider us your partners as you begin or continue this phase of your lives in higher education in preparation for your futures.

KU has many traditions, and we like to think that one of them is facing the challenges of each generation. Indeed, we demonstrated that recently with the very large turnout at the newly established Multicultural Student Government “We Out Here” welcome event on Saturday, August 19. A willingness to embrace these new traditions can make us stronger as a community who seeks to meet the needs of all of its students.

A new year has begun. It may well be one when administrators become learners, and students  become our teachers. And that may be a very good thing.

Please feel free to drop by our HBW offices, Monday – Thursday between 10am-4pm. We look forward to seeing you throughout the year in a range of sponsored events. If you need a place to meet where you do feel safe, let me know. And I mean that seriously.


Maryemma Graham
University Distinguished Professor
Department of English
Founder/Director, Project on the History of Black Writing


Critical Reception of African-American Women Writers in Mainland China

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[By: Lili Wang]

With widespread interest in Western literature in the early 1980s, Chinese literary scholars began to actively engage American writers, giving rise to a boom in the translation of American literature. This boom also generated a reciprocal relationship between African-American women writers and China. The introduction of African-American women writers and the translation of their works soon became a central component of Chinese literary criticism, resulting in a significant body of work, both books and articles. Currently, literary criticism on African-American women writers represents a major branch of American literature studies in mainland China.

If the number of articles published in Chinese journals gives any indication, the critical reception of African-American women writers in China is intensely focused on Toni Morrison. A recent search in the Chinese Academic Journals database (CAJ), a comprehensive collection of academic articles published in China, reported 2052 articles on Morrison in contrast to 134 articles on Zora Neale Hurston, 130 articles on Maya Angelou, 118 articles on Alice Walker; and few to none on other African-American women writers. Likewise, more than twenty books on Morrison’s works have appeared, 3 about Alice Walker’s womanism, and only one has been published on Hurston’s folklore. A similar search from the National Library of China shows no books published on Angelou or other women writers by Chinese scholars. Each of Morrison’s novels has been translated into Chinese, including her latest: God Help the Child (2015). It is understandable that compared with Morrison, other African-American women writers have received less attention and perhaps are even less known in China. Only a few novels written by other writers have been translated into Chinese, such as Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), The Color Purple (1982), By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). This suggests that Chinese critics can and should extend their research scope by approaching more African-American women writers, using the introduction of Toni Morrison and her works to China as a gateway. Until that expansion occurs, Chinese scholarship on African-American women writers will remain limited

One of the first studies of Morrison appeared in the leading Chinese journal Dushu in November, 1981. In this article, Dingshan Dong briefly introduced Morrison’s three novels Sula (1973), Tar Baby (1981) and Song of Solomon (1977). In the decade following, a few more articles introduced her other novels, giving special attention to her literary themes. This focus persisted even as other African-American women writers such as Zora Neale Huston and Alice Walker were introduced to Chinese readers. The period between the early 1980s and early 1990s is considered the first stage of African-American women writers’ literary criticism characterized by brief biographical introductions of and considerations of their major works with some translation of excerpts into Chinese. Chinese scholars typically showed an appraisal of these works in the prefaces and forewords that accompanied their translations; this early period proceeded without the practice of bibliographic citations typical of traditional American literary scholarship. 

Chinese criticism of African-American women writers underwent a shift in 1994 after Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize. Chinese scholars who tended to focus on the relationship between an author’s biography and the literary themes in the works shifted in focus into two trends, both Morrison-centric: one offered more information about Morrison with the goal of increasing the Chinese readership, and the other explored her unique writing style, her critical ideas, her cultural background and the intersection of these elements. The energy in these new approaches and resulting trends represented a second stage in the critical reception of Morrison scholarship in China.

The publication of Gender, Race and Culture: A Study of Toni Morrison’s Novels (1999, 2004) written by Shouren Wang and Xinyun Wu, respectively marked a milestone in the development of Chinese literary criticism. Wang and Wu, leading scholars of Morrison studies in China, established a new way of interpreting her novels characterized by a close reading with reference to specific theoretical perspectives. In addition to the more popular feminist criticism, Chinese scholars began to apply cultural criticism, post-colonialism, deconstruction, post-modernism, psychoanalysis, trauma theory, narrative theory and other approaches to reading Morrison’s fiction. Interest in comparative studies of Morrison in relation to her contemporaries like Walker and to her predecessors like Hurston and Faulkner became more visible. These insightful studies on Morrison show that Chinese scholars have promoted Toni Morrison and to a lesser extent other African-American women writers in China. Morrison’s acclaim in China reflects a prominence that may soon be transferred to future studies of other African American women writers.

There are challenges to transferring interest and expanding the critical reception of other African-American women writers in China. First, Morrison’s fiction is over discussed, necessarily leading to repetitive approaches and theoretical perspectives. Second, and most obviously, too much attention on Morrison results in the neglect of other African-American women writers, most of whom have yet to be introduced to readers. Finally, the limitation in overall criticism on contemporary writers makes it especially hard for Chinese scholars to do this work or find it appealing. However, simple solutions exist to address these challenges. Literary critics should continue to publish books and articles about African-American women writers, introducing diverse, fresh, and unique perspectives and theoretical approaches. More African American women writers need to be translated and introduced to Chinese readers, the result of which helps to create a demand for a broader range of literary criticism. These quite obvious steps can begin to establish a more consistent, inclusive, and systematic study of African-American women writers in mainland China.


Lili Wang is an associate professor in Foreign Languages Department at Harbin Engineering University, China and a visiting scholar in English at the University of Kansas who focuses on African-American women literature.

Summer 2017 Reading List: Black Girlhood, A Selected List of Recent Books

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Compiled by Kathleen E. Bethel, African American Studies Librarian & Liaison for Gender & Sexuality Studies – Northwestern University Libraries*


Abraham, Nana. For Black Girls: The Shaping of a Young Woman. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2016.

Adewole, Candice A. The Black Girl’s Guide to Being Blissfully Feminine. [s.l.]: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.

Boylorn, Robin M. Sweetwater: Black Women and Narratives of Resilience. New York: Peter Lang, [2017].

Chatelain, Marcia. South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

Collins, Catherine Fisher. Black Girls and Adolescents: Facing the Challenges. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2015.

Conner, Jerusha O, and Sonia M. Rosen. Contemporary Youth Activism: Advancing Social Justice in the United States. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2016.

Cooper, Brittney C, Susana M. Morris, and Robin M. Boylorn. The Crunk Feminist Collection. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2017.

Cox, Aimee Meredith. Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship. Durham, NC: Duke Unversity Press, 2015.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Priscilla Ocen, and Jyoti Nanda. Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected. New York: Columbia University Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies; African American Policy Forum, 2015. <>

Davis, Mo’Ne. Remember My Name: My Story, from First Pitch to Game Changer. New York: Harper, 2016.

Evans-Winters, Venus E. Black Feminism in Education: Black Women Speak Back, Up, and Out. New York: Peter Lang, 2015.

Fordham, Signithia. Downed by Friendly Fire: Black Girls, White Girls, and Suburban Schooling. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2016.

Habila, Helon. The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamic Militancy in Nigeria. New York: Columbia Global Reports, 2016.

Jefferson, Margo. Negroland: A Memoir. New York: Pantheon, 2015.

Kunjufu, Jawanza. Educating Black Girls. Chicago, IL: African American Images, 2015.

Kunjufu, Jawanza. Raising Black Girls. Chicago, IL: African American Images, 2015.

Lamb, Sharon, Tangela Roberts, and Aleksandra Plocha. Girls of Color, Sexuality, and Sex Education. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016.

Maddox, Lucy. The Parker Sisters: A Border Kidnapping. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2016.

Mason, C. Nicole. Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey from Nothing to Something in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016.

Morris, Monique W. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. New York: New Press, 2016.

Rae, Issa. The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. New York: 37 Ink/Atria, 2015.

Richardson, Sylvia, and Gwen Richardson. You Are Wonderfully Made: 12 Life-Changing Principles for Teen Girls to Embrace. Houston, TX: Cushcity Communications, 2015.

Simmons, LaKisha M. Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 2015.

Smith, Tracy K. Ordinary Light: A Memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Williams, Bethany H. The Color of Grace: How One Woman’s Brokenness Brought Healing and Hope to Child Survivors of War. New York: Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2015.

Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Puffin Books, 2016.

Wright, Nazera Sadiq. Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016.


*Compiled in honor of Dr. Darlene Clark Hine, the dean of African American women’s history, on the occasion of her retirement from Northwestern University; and, in praise of the Global History of Black Girlhood Conference, University of Virginia, March 17-18, 2017.  – KEBethel


Currently serving on the Council, the governing body of the American Library Association, Ms. Kathleen E. Bethel is active with the African American Studies Librarianship Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Black Caucus of ALA, and involved in library leadership, diversity, recruitment, and research activities. Ms. Bethel also serves on the Board for the Project on the History of Black Writing.

Summer 2017 Reading List: African American Fiction

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Selected by Kathleen E. Bethel, African American Studies Librarian – Northwestern University Libraries


Alers, Rochelle. The Inheritance. New York: Dafina Books, 2017.

Benjamin, J M. Memoirs of an Accidental Hustler. Farmingdale, NY: Urban Books, 2017.

Billingsley, ReShonda and Victoria C. Murray. A Blessing & a Curse. NY: Gallery Bks, 2017.

Brown, Tracy. Boss. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2017.

Childress, Alice, Roxane Gay, and Trudier Harris. Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.

Clovis, Donna. Six Doors Down: A Journey Through Synchronicity. Bloomington, IN: Balboa Press, 2017.

Cole, Alyssa. An Extraordinary Union. New York: Kensington Books, 2017.

Coleman, JaQuavis. The Streets Have No King. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2017.

Collins, Kathleen, and Elizabeth Alexander. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?: Stories. London: Granta, 2017.

Diamond, De’nesha. Conspiracy. New York: Dafina Books, 2017.

Delany, Martin R, and Jerome J. McGann. Blake Or, the Huts of America: A Corrected Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Dickey, Eric Jerome. Finding Gideon. New York: Dutton, 2017.

Ellis, Shelly. Lust & Loyalty: A Chesterton Scandal Novel. NY: Dafina Books, 2017.

Golden, Marita. The Wide Circumference of Love: A Novel. NY: Arcade Publishing, 2017.

Greenidge, Kaitlyn. We Love You, Charlie Freeman: A Novel. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017.

Hampton, Brenda. Black President: The World Will Never Be the Same. Farmingdale, NY: Urban Books, 2017.

Hernandez, Treasure. Return to Flint. Farmingdale, NY: Urban Books, 2017.

Jackson, Brenda. Forged in Desire. Don Mills, Ontario, Canada: HQN Books, 2017.

Jackson, K M. To Me I Wed. New York: Dafina Books, 2017.

Jenkins, Beverly. Breathless. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.

Johnson, Sadeqa. And Then There Was Me: A Novel of Friendship, Secrets and Lies. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2017.

Joseph, Fabiola. Niya: Rainbow Dreams. Farmingdale, NY: Urban Renaissance, 2017.

McKay, Claude, Jean-Christophe Cloutier, and Brent H. Edwards. Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem. New York: Penguin Books, 2017.

McMillan, Terry. I Almost Forgot About You: A Novel. NY: Broadway Books, 2017.

Monroe, Mary. Never Trust a Stranger. New York: Kensington Pub. Corp., 2017.

Moore, Edward K. The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues: A Novel. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017.

Murray, Victoria Christopher. Lust. New York: Touchstone, 2017.

Pope, Jamie. Hope Blooms. New York: Dafina Books, 2017.

Purnell, Brontez. Since I Laid My Burden Down. New York: Feminist Press, 2017.

Rax, Cydney. Revenge of the Mistress. New York: Dafina Books, 2017.

Roby, Kimberla Lawson. Copycat. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2017.

Ryan, Reese. Playing with Desire. Ontario, Canada: Harleqin Kimani, 2017.

Swinson, Kiki. The Mark. New York: Kensington Pub. Corp., 2017.

Turner, Nikki. The Banks Sisters 3. Famingdale, NY: Urban Books, 2017.

Warren, Tiffany L. Her Secret Life. New York: Dafina Books, 2017.

Watts, Stephanie Powell. No One Is Coming to save Us: A Novel. NY: Ecco, 2017.

Weber, Carl. Man on the Run. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2017.

Whitfield, Shereé. Wives, Fiancees, and Side-Chicks of Hotlanta. NY: Dafina Books, 2017.


Currently serving on the Council, the governing body of the American Library Association, Ms. Kathleen E. Bethel is active with the African American Studies Librarianship Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Black Caucus of ALA, and involved in library leadership, diversity, recruitment, and research activities. Ms. Bethel also serves on the Board for the Project on the History of Black Writing.