KU’s ‘Black Love’ symposium celebrates legacy of Zora Neale Hurston and those she inspired

This week, as Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 coming-of-age novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” celebrates its 80th anniversary, scholars from the University of Kansas and across the country are congregating in Lawrence to discuss some of the themes Hurston brought to life.

“Black Love: A Symposium” began Monday and will continue through Sept. 18 at various locations around the KU campus and in Lawrence. The program, funded by a $7,500 grant from the Kansas Humanities Council, aims to generate dialogue around the theme of “black love,” drawing from African-American art, literature, religious thought and culture.

Randal Jelks, a KU professor of American studies, African studies and African-American studies, developed the event with Ayesha Hardison, an associate professor in KU’s department of women, gender and sexuality studies. Jelks said the idea behind the symposium came from their observations about the ways in which loving relationships among black people are often “pathologized” in popular culture.

“We just got into a discussion and thought it would be timely to talk about these things, and in particular to talk about things in our context of 2014, when Ferguson (Mo.) and Black Lives Matter began, and to talk about these kinds of conditions under which black people find themselves loving each other,” Jelks said. “Love stories are often seen as universal, but they’re not, so we wanted to ask all kinds of questions around that.”

The initial inspiration, Jelks said, was “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Hurston’s tale of a young African-American who grows up to find love — and her own identity — in Jim Crow-era Florida. Themes of gender, race, the “liberated woman” and sensuality abound.

Hurston’s novel, now regarded as a classic, wasn’t so widely celebrated at the time of its release in 1937. Richard Wright, a contemporary of Hurston’s in the literary scene, dismissed “Their Eyes Were Watching God” as a superficial tale that drew heavily from dialect and folk slang. The author likened Hurston’s technique to that of a “minstrel show” designed to appease white readers.

But the novel endures. It was a favorite, interestingly, of the late KU chancellor Robert Hemenway, whose 1977 book “Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography” has been credited with inspiring a renewed interest in Hurston and her work. “The Color Purple” author Alice Walker, who wrote the foreword to one edition of Hemenway’s biography, is among a handful of black female writers and scholars to trumpet Hurston as an important figure in African-American literature.

“The beautiful thing about it is the absence of white people,” Jelks said of Hurston’s novel. “It’s a love story that takes place in an all-black town in a space that allows black people to have full humanity without being compared to some ideal in some other space.”

These are themes that have been explored time and again, Jelks said, most recently in movies like last year’s “Southside with You,” which looks back on Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in 1989, and Ava Duvernay’s 2012 film “Middle of Nowhere,” about a black woman trying to hold her life together while her husband serves an eight-year prison sentence.

Jelks hopes this week’s symposium will inspire discussion around the themes that Hurston’s novel pushed into the public consciousness 80 years ago. All events are free and open to the public.

For a full schedule of events, visit bls.ku.edu.