The Big Read

Students from the YWCA’s Young Parent Program (YPP) participated in a book discussion group with several YWCA staff members as part of “The Big Read,” a program of the National Endowment for the Arts. The YWCA partnered with WPI and the Worcester Public Library to bring the program, based around Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God to the Worcester area.

“The Big Read” is a nationwide initiative that is designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture. All of the participants in the book discussion admitted that they had some difficulty getting into the book, particularly with the dialect, but all of them quickly reached a point where they became enamored by Janie Crawford’s journey.

“She grabbed my soul,” said Brenda Safford, Director of the Young Parent Program. “It amazes me that she had the strength to leave her husband, because African-Americas didn’t have rights at this time. She told herself she had a choice, and in the end she just wanted to be loved.”
The book is told through the voice of Janie, a woman who refuses to live in sorrow, bitterness, fear, or foolish romantic dreams. The story follows Janie through her evolving selfhood, three marriages, and a life marked by poverty, trials, and purpose.

YPP student Jennifer Baez explained that one of her favorite parts of the book was when Janie realized that she wasn’t going to get married anymore. “She just wanted to go with the flow,” she explained.

After some discussion on the roles of marriage, women, and African-Americans during this time period, the group had a better understanding of Janie’s strength.
Sue O’Brien, Finance Director of the YWCA, said that she felt one of the most powerful scenes in the book was when Janie fought her way into her husband’s room as he was dying, just to tell him what was on her mind. “If she never got that chance she might have felt bottled up for the rest of her life,” she explained.
Ammeris Escalante, another YPP student shared her amazement of the relationship between Janie and TK. “She wasn’t hiding anymore,” she said. “She just came out and showed herself.”

The group also discussed the author’s life. Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, and moved to New York in January of 1925 with just $1.50 in her pocket. She studied at Morgan Academy in Baltimore, Howard University in Washington D.C., and Barnard College while in New York.
A lifelong writer, Hurston remained devoted to the craft, but received little monetary compensations for her works of art. With her health declining, she was forced to enter a welfare home where she died penniless on January 28, 1960.

Hurston’s neighbors raised enough funds for a funeral, but did not have enough to pay for a headstone. She was buried in an unmarked grave until 1973, when writer Alice Walker tracked down her burial site and purchased a plain gray headstone with the inscription: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”
YPP teacher Angela Borda summed up the thoughts of the group at the end of the discussion. “Janie had the attitude that this is who I am, you can take it or leave it,” she said, “and that’s an important lesson for everyone.”


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