CCAC brings ‘The Big Read’ literacy program to Pittsburgh

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by M. Abdul-Qawiyy
For New Pittsburgh Courier

The Big Read in Pittsburgh kickoff occurred on Sunday evening, March 4th at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. The event attracted a diverse crowd across racial and generational lines as many gathered to appreciate and promote the importance of literacy.

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READING CAN BE FUN—Pittsburgh students surround Lucy Anne Hurston, red dress, as they read passages from Zora Neale Hurston’s book. (Photo by Rossano P. Stewart)

The event focused on the life and work of anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston; a dramatic reading was done by CCAC students of her most popular work, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

Among the performances and presenters was keynote speaker Lucy Anne Hurston, a sociology professor at Manchester Community College in Manchester Connecticut and also the niece of Zora Neale Hurston.

“It’s never too late to keep learning,” she said and encouraged those interested in going back to school to do so. She added that she was a lifelong learner and one could not be led like sheep if he or she were literate and educated.

The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest and seeks to restore reading to the center of American culture. The project in Pittsburgh is being lead by the Community College of Allegheny County, One College One Community initiative.

“This initiative gives CCAC the opportunity to truly outreach to the larger Pittsburgh community across neighborhood lines, ethnic backgrounds and age groups with the scheduled programming,” said Barbara Evans PhD, The Big Read Project director and CCAC associate dean. “The kickoff event was awesome. To have Zora Neale Hurston’s niece enhance the program with stories about her famous aunt, the family and her personal views on a variety of subjects, was amazing.”

The importance of promoting literacy and revitalizing literary reading in popular American culture was due to a report done by NEA in 2004. It showed that there was a decline in reading for pleasure among American adults. The Big Read is not only addressing this issue, but also actively bringing communities together to discuss and celebrate books, writers and literature.

Hurston discussed how she discovered her relative was an author. “I found her words, those words that you had to read, say, and speak out loud. To hear them bounce from your lips to your ears to understand,” she said.

She first discovered Zora “at the age of nine, as an avid reader and hoarder of books.” In the family attic she found one of Hurston’s 1937 first edition copies of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

This was her introduction to literature.

“A literate population is dangerous, but in a good way,” she stated.

Bea Charles, a retired English teacher who invited 37 people to the event, happily stated, “My friend said her teenage granddaughter was so interested in the novel discussed that she is anxiously waiting to get it from the library. My friend was thankful for exposing her granddaughter to a new genre of literature.”

The event concluded with audience members asking Hurston pertinent and personal questions about her famous aunt. When asked about the use of the “N word” throughout the novel, Anne Hurston responded with honesty and grace. “It continues to be used by the racial and ethnic group that it had been used against so negatively in the past. And it was internalized and people made it their own and kept it alive,” she said.

However, she continued to clarify by stating, “It has an extreme amount of negative power. We need to work on eliminating the word and teaching this generation about not transforming its meaning.”

She discussed the family’s perspective of Hurston’s life and admitted that the discussed book symbolized aspects of Hurston’s relationships.

“In their eyes were watching God, the beginning of the book and the intricate details of relationships are about Zora’s life. The book is about finding egalitarian love and you can find Zora masked behind the character of Janie,” she said. Zora wrote the book in seven weeks after she ended an intimate relationship with a younger male, something the heroine, Janie, is forced to do in the book as well.

“But please remember that Zora was first an anthropologist and she wrote through the lens of that discipline,” she said. She further explained that Zora has linked African-Americans to their heritage because she wrote in the dialect. “She is a part of a canon of literature for America,” she said.

Attendees responded enthusiastically to the event. Gemma Stemley, librarian of the Pittsburgh Obama High school thoroughly enjoyed the evening and stated, “I first discovered Zora Neale Hurston in Trinidad and was so enamored that she was writing in the vernacular. She was so brave to write about African Americans and how some expressed themselves at that time. In that way she realistically captured their lives.”

At the culmination of the event, Southern style cuisine was freely available to the public. The smell of black eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, and corn bread added to ambience of live music. The Cross Culture Ensemble played popular tunes that would have been heard during the time the novel was written; this not only added historical flavor to the event but also captured the musical and poetic emotions of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

(For more information about The Big Read and scheduled events throughout the city of Pittsburgh, please visit the following websites OneCollege@ccac.edu and http://www.NEABigRead.org.)

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