Seventy-five years ago, Janie Mae Crawford made her debut. By 1960, she had faded into obscurity, along with her creator, the renowned author Zora Neale Hurston. Although her most famous novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," in which Janie Crawford is the main character, was published in 1937, the novel was not well received when it was written despite the fact that Hurston happened to be the most widely published female author of the Harlem Renaissance.
As a novelist, trained anthropologist, folklorist and playwright, Hurston focused her works on celebrating the lives and lore of common Southern folks in her non-fiction, as well as fictional creations.
Nowadays, most people know about Hurston through her books, now fully in print; her biography, "Wrapped in Rainbows" by Valerie Boyd, a movie version of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" produced by Oprah Winfrey, a festival held each year in Eatonville, Fla., in January, the month of Hurston's birth, and through a restaurant named for the town she loved and memorialized in her writing, Eatonville.
On September 26th at 6:30 p.m. through its series "Food & Folklore," Eatonville Restaurant will throw a Harlem Renaissance-style party to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the publication of "Their Eyes Were Watching God," featuring celebrated author Alice Walker. Kelly Davies of the D.C. Library Foundation will share stories about the original publication of the book and Hurston's time in Washington, where the author attended Howard University and was the editor of the school newspaper, The Hilltop.
Virginia-based singer Tamara Wellons will perform "Songs for Janie," a collection inspired by the character of Janie Crawford, and a slide show featuring illustrations by famed artist Jerry Pinkney, who created the cover art for the 1991 edition of "Their Eyes Were Watching God," will round out an evening of reminiscences by Walker, along with a specially crafted menu of Southern cuisine that Hurston would have heartily approved of.
But things were not that way back in 1973, when a friend of Alice Walker's loaned her a copy of "Their Eyes Were Watching God," an experience which changed her life and legacy. Hurston had died penniless and in almost total obscurity in Fort Pierce, Fla., in 1960. Her writings had gone out of print as well.
Walker became entranced with the writer of the novel, and in 1973, she discovered Hurston's unmarked grave, purchased and placed a headstone on it, inscribing Hurston "A Genius of the South." Walker went on to publish an essay in Ms. Magazine in 1975, "Looking for Zora," which single-handedly revived interest in the life and work of Hurston. Walker described the African American community's disinterest in Hurston "like throwing away genius."
Later, Walker would edit a Hurston reader, titled from a famous quote by Hurston; "I Love Myself When I Am Laughing and Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive." Though some critics shunned Hurston for portraying blacks in a derogatory manner, mainly because of her use of dialect, Walker said that Hurston was "wildly in love with people of color."
Hurston would have agreed wholeheartedly, having spent her life's work – four novels, three non-fiction books, and more than 50 short stories, plays and essays – telling the stories of those Southern ancestors. But "Their Eyes Were Watching God," remains her best known work, and when reprinted by Harper and Row in 1978, it sold more than 75,000 copies in one month. The novel was also named among the 100 Best English-Language novels by TIME Magazine.
Eatonville's "Food & Folklore Celebration of the 75th Anniversary of 'Their Eyes Were Watching God,'" will feature a menu including a Lima Bean and Corn Succotash Tart as an appetizer, a main course of Blackened Florida King Grouper with Crawfish Mulatto Rice, Braised Spicy Beet-Greens and Orange Creole Beurre Blanc, Key Lime Cheesecake and Cherry, Pistachio and Lemon Tea Cakes. Guests will receive a handout of favorite quotes from the popular novel, along with a special keepsake of tea cakes, in honor of Janie Crawford's lover Tea Cake from the novel.
Tickets to the event are available through Brown Paper Tickets (http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/271628) for $57.60 per person, including tax and gratuity, or by calling (202) 332-ZORA. Eatonville Restaurant is located at 14th and V Streets, NW, Washington, D.C.