September 14, 2007
Charleston, South Carolina
As program director for the Big Read, I could probably stand to have a little more in common with our target audience. The Big Read welcomes everybody, but it?s got a special soft spot for younger and so-called reluctant or lapsed readers. Well, I?m neither. I?ve only got about 30 reading years left, actuarily speaking -- less, if my prescription keeps changing. The old advertising mantra applies here: Get ?em while they?re young. So I got a particular charge out of last weekend?s youthful kickoff (two kickoffs, actually!) in toasty Charleston, South Carolina.
Peyton Jones next to a photo of Zora Neale Hurston, Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by David Kipen
See that picture of Zora Neale Hurston next door, looking out from Carl Van Vechten?s iconic photo at a sweet-faced young Charlestonian? That?s six-year-old Peyton Jones, fidgeting a bit through her mother Pat?s rip-roaring Gullah/gospel gig with Ann Caldwell and the Magnolia Singers. Peyton may have heard ?Move Out the Way and Let Me Shine? once or twice before by now, but the healthy and diverse crowd swayed and clapped like it was Sunday morning instead of Sunday afternoon. Peyton, meanwhile, was resting her head on the seat of her chair when I put her up to this little bit of photogenic clowning. I only wish I?d had my camera hand free a minute later when I gave her my extra copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God. She may be a mite young for it yet, but there was no mistaking the smile of someone who already knows that books are for keeping.
Then it was off to the College of Charleston for a keynote talk by Zora?s indefatigable niece, Lucy Anne Hurston. You know a city?s really outdone itself when one kickoff event isn?t enough. You also know they?ve beaten the bushes for partners when the introductory remarks come not just from the Charleston County Library?s exhilarated manager and chief organizer, Cynthia Bledsoe, but also her board chairman, two college faculty members, a rep from Boeing (who?d helped get Their Eyes Were Watching God into the hands of GIs and their families on local military bases), a gushingly grateful carpetbagger from the NEA, and two members of Zora?s old Howard University sorority, the exuberant Zeta Phi Betas.
Jane Marshall, Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by David Kipen
Any other speaker might have been overmatched, but this was Lucy Anne Hurston. I?d been wowed by her once before, in Topeka last spring, but this afternoon she was even more powerful. She took us through her aunt?s life and her own, drawing unstrained parallels between Zora?s anthropological studies of Caribbean folklore and her own fieldwork with Haitian domestics and prisoners. The audience rode along with every riff and swoop of Lucy?s voice. Especially gratifying this time was the rapt proportion not just of college kids but of high-schoolers -- thanks largely to teacher Jane Marshall, seen with one of the Charleston Big Read?s bespoke, indispensable handfans.
Later, Lucy, Cynthia and I adjourned to a local jernt for some shrimp and grits -- ?They?re like polenta!? we assured the New York-born, initially squeamish Lucy -- and tried to worm her new discoveries about the Huston family?s ancestry out of her. She?s a close woman with a secret, so we?ll just have to wait for the contracted sequel to her fine first Hurston book, ?Speak So You Can Speak Again,? and try not to drum our fingers too loudly?