The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Storytelling & Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Conversation with Dr. Michelle Martin

Dr. Michelle Martin, Augusta Baker Chair in Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina. Photo by Kimberly Truett, University of South Carolina

For more than 50 years, storyteller and librarian Augusta Baker was one of the leading experts of children's literature in the United States, advocating for literacy and the use of storytelling in creating the next generation of readers. ''Naturally, we try to entertain: that is the heart of all storytelling,'' said Baker. ''But our initial purpose is to teach the child to listen. Through this approach we try to strengthen his literary awareness.''

As a child in South Carolina, Michelle Martin listened to Augusta Baker's stories and today she carries on Baker's legacy as the Augusta Baker Chair in Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina, where she conducts research on literacy and oversees literacy outreach programs throughout the state. Last week, Martin helped to kick off Allen University's Big Read program, which focuses on Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. While at the Columbia, South Carolina, campus, Martin provided insights into Zora Neale Hurston's life while also discussing how storytelling can help to engage youth in reading.

We spoke with Martin about her literacy work and heard some of her favorite stories about Zora Neale Hurston. She also explained how Hurston's storytelling techniques have allowed Their Eyes Were Watching God to continue to resonate with readers today.

NEA: Can you tell me a bit about your path to becoming the Augusta Baker Chair in Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina?

MICHELLE MARTIN: I have a PhD in English, specializing in children's and young adult literature and I have taught children's literature in English departments in Texas and in South Carolina at Clemson University. The job [at the University of South Carolina] just kind of called my name because Augusta Baker lived a block from me when she finished her New York career and moved to South Carolina. Her family lived right in my community and so I heard her tell stories when I was a kid and I went to school with her grandchildren. When I became a scholar of children's literature, I used her research in the field to work on my own research. It's the perfect job---it's about community outreach and it's about doing whatever I can to stamp out illiteracy in South Carolina. It's child-focused, although I do teach graduate and undergraduate courses at University of South Carolina.

NEA: In this position, what efforts are you undertaking to support literacy?

MARTIN: One [example] is a program called Read-a-Rama and Camp Read-a-Rama for kids ages 4-11 that use children's books as a springboard for hands-on and outdoor education. It brings kids in the community together with my students who are studying children's and young adult literature (in library science, English, or education) to celebrate books, to celebrate life-long reading. Everything we do is wrapped around books. It's about learning to live books. For example, because it's typically 100 degrees in the summertime in South Carolina, usually every summer we have a splash week of some kind. We'll read a book like Elise Broach's Wet Dog, then the kids perform Wet Dog. We took them to the splash park, we played on the slip-and-slide outside. It's about having those activities be associated with positive reading experiences. It's a theme-based way to infuse books into everything.

I'm also in the process of making partnerships with a lot of different communities. A lot of literacy initiatives are going on in our community but a lot of times people aren't talking to each other. So I'm trying to get university partnerships with the community and churches. I'm talking to schools, and trying to have a foot in all those thing. With budget cuts being what they are, people need to stretch their dollars farther and working together is one way to do that.

I'm also planning, along with the county library in our area, a six-week workshop that's called the Science of Reading. These workshops are for those who have been charged with teaching kids to read or helping kids to read better who didn't get any of that kind of training in their library science degree, or English degree, or whatever degree they have. There's so much illiteracy in South Carolina that the librarians are tutoring kids to teach them to read. It will be a pilot this year but we're hoping to make it a bigger event next year.

NEA: You gave the keynote address for Allen University's Big Read program around Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and storytelling. Can you tell us a bit about that speech?

MARTIN: What I focused on in my keynote was giving them a richer sense of who Zora Neale Hurston was and some of the stories that came out of her life. Like on one of her collecting trips to the South, she started sort of flirting with this man named Slim, and his girlfriend did not like it so she pulled a knife on Zora Neale Hurston. I have a picture of [Hurston] standing with her hip cocked to the side and she's got a gun strapped to her waist. She decided to take guns that were visible on her trips after that.

I talked about some of the children's stories that have been created with Zora Neale Hurston's---as she says---lies. [There are] the whoppers that she told as a part of the work that she had collected, but then Hurston also told whoppers about herself. The year that she was born was usually not the year that she told people she was born. At one point she shaved a whopping 14 years off of her real age. And surprisingly enough, oftentimes people believed her, whatever age she said she was. At one point, she was a maid for a woman because she was really having a hard time making ends meet. She had a piece published in the local paper and the woman she worked for said, "Are you the Zora Neale Hurston who [wrote] this?" She says, "Yes," and makes this elaborate story up about [how] she's doing research on what it's like to be a maid. Her life was a story. She fabricated stuff all the time. One of her lies was, "I love myself when I'm laughing and then again when I'm looking mean and impressive." Even though she had a really hard time and struggled to make ends meet, I think she enjoyed being a story that fascinated people, in addition to telling stories that fascinated people.

NEA: Your keynote address also focused on the power of storytelling in engaging young adults. Can you explain what you mean?

MARTIN: I talked about how easily available technology for capturing stories is right now. You stop any 13-year-old on the street and he or she probably has the capability to do video or audio on their smartphone. I encouraged people to look at their family stories---to get those 12-year-olds to interview their aunts and uncles and grandparents. There are all kinds of things you can do with that [material]. You can write about it, you can blog about it, you can create a website about it. There are all kinds of ways to encourage kids to get excited about the stories and oftentimes these are stories that are right in their households, right in their own families. Capitalizing on that and having them look at the stories from their own lives and using them in literary ways and artistic ways are, I think, really possible and easy to do now.

NEA: The language in Their Eyes Were Watching God, especially Janie's voice, really pulls the reader in. What are the elements of storytelling that you can see Zora Neale Hurston employing?

MARTIN: Many African-American writers objected to the fact that she used dialect, that she captured with her ear what she was hearing and translated it to paper. They felt that we needed to be getting away from that, that we needed to be looking at high art, high culture. She was like, "No. These are my people and this is how I'm going to do this." It also took her some time to figure out that she couldn't go up there and be, as she would say, uppity. She said, "I had to dress like they did, I had to look like they did, I had to talk like they did, and then they'd be willing to share those stories with me."  I think that Hurston also had such an ear for beautiful language. Like when Tea Cake tells Janie, "She [Nunkie] ain't good for nuthin' exceptin' tuh set up in uh corner by de kitchen stove and break wood over her head. You'se something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die."

I was exposed to Hurston's work in the very first African-American literature class I had at College of William & Mary. Some of those phrases that she had just resonated so much that I think they're hard not to remember. How Janie at the end pulls in the horizon and calls her soul to "come and see." The language is so rich that I think it's very easy to see. The poetry and the beauty of how she uses language is just amazing.

NEA: Do you think Hurston's work as an anthropologist made her a better storyteller?

MARTIN: Absolutely. I think it gave her a different perspective than she had about Eatonville and her own people, that she couldn't have while she was still in that community. She had to get some distance from what she grew up in to realize how rich it was as a source of material for her anthropology work. I think it definitely made a huge difference in the writer that she became because so much of her is in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Allen University's Big Read events continue through the end of March. For a full listing of events and to learn more about Their Eyes Were Watching God, visit neabigread.org.

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