Dr. Angela Watkins’ knowledge of Zora Neale Hurston could fill a book.
Its pages would include information about Hurston’s 1937 novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which is widely considered among the 20th century’s most significant novels. In 2005, Time magazine listed the classic among the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.
Watkins’ book would flesh out lesser known details about Hurston, too, since “most people are familiar with her only because of ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ but her life and work is so much richer, larger and important,” explained the visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Watkins’ Hurston expertise, built on years of study, has placed her among 25 scholars selected to delve into Hurston’s life, career, and influence on literature and culture. “Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future” is a National Endowment for the Humanities virtual institute being coordinated by the University of Kansas. It will be held from July 11-30.
Hurston was a key figure during the Harlem Renaissance. Her examinations of racial struggles, Black identity and gender roles, however, weren’t confined to the intellectual and cultural revival of the 1920s and 1930s. They carried beyond the pages of her fiction, too. Hurston, who died in 1960 at age 69, made extensive contributions in fields such as anthropology, folklore, journalism and filmmaking.
As part of the virtual institute, the scholars will work alongside a group of other scholars that includes renowned experts on Hurston and Black literature and culture, and KU faculty members. The institute's presentations, discussions and collaborative workshops are designed to enhance teaching, learning and research about Hurston.
“We will explore her fiction, her reporting, her personal life, her politics. We’ll also look at her critics. She was considered a Black conservative with views that were often inflammatory, but her beliefs and opinions were based on her personal experiences and own understanding of the world,” Watkins said.
Watkins first discovered Hurston in the mid-1990s, after reading the short story “The Gilded Six-Bits.” Hurston’s tale about marriage and betrayal intrigued Watkins, who began “reading her other works and learning all I could about her.”
Watkins holds a bachelor’s degree in English from DePaul University, and master’s and doctoral degrees in English from the University of Iowa. She began teaching at UL Lafayette last fall. Watkins instructs both undergraduate and graduate students in courses that cover topics ranging from American literature to contemporary writers’ treatment of slavery.
This fall, she expects to introduce Hurston to UL Lafayette students. Watkins is considering several Hurston books, including “Mules and Men,” for graduate coursework. The nonfiction book is based on oral histories Hurston gathered in the 1930s in her hometown of Eatonville, Fla., and in New Orleans.
“She collected stories, songs, and biographies from people, immersing herself in communities in order to understand them. It’s research that broke down stereotypes, and debunked misconceptions about particular races and cultures,” Watkins explained.
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