Word to Live By
Photo by Jen Britton
A person’s words can inspire, and the words of two women born decades apart sparked a whole seven-week-long festival this past fall.
In a reflection piece written as part of Drexel University’s Writers Room literary arts program, Mantua resident Carol Richardson McCullough explored why she writes and the inspiration she’s found in the work of author Zora Neale Hurston.
“I would love to turn my journals into memoir because there is a story I have to tell,” wrote McCullough. “Much has happened. Zora Neale Hurston wrote a book in seven weeks to pay her rent. Perhaps I will do that, too.”
Hurston, born 125 years ago — the same year as Drexel University, coincidentally — wrote “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a semi-autobiographical novel featuring a black, female protagonist. Published in 1937, the novel has become a classic in American literature and was on the list of potential books to choose for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Big Read grant program.
Writers Room Director and Founder Rachel Wenrick was moved by McCullough’s piece to use the novel as inspiration for a dozen linked events for which the literary arts program received a Big Read grant.
“The NEA has 34 different books you can choose from. When we saw ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ we said, ‘It has to be that one,’” says Wenrick. “That quote from Carol, that’s the heart of it — how Hurston’s genius and subject matter continue to inspire.”
An initiative of the College of Arts and Sciences and Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, Writers Room is designed to bring Drexel and its neighboring community together to explore the power of the written word. NEA programming was put together chiefly by Wenrick and Kirsten Kaschock, PhD, an assistant teaching professor of English and assistant director of Writers Room. Faculty across Drexel and community partners Philadelphia Reads and the Free Library of Philadelphia also contributed to the programming, which fittingly lasted seven weeks.
“The famous lore is that the novel was written in seven weeks, so we wanted to see what we, as a community, could produce in the same timeframe,” Wenrick says.
In late September, the festival kicked off with much fanfare. McCullough introduced the event’s keynote speaker, Cheryl Wall, PhD, Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English at Rutgers University, who spoke about Hurston’s life and work. Following the keynote, a New Orleans-style second-line parade — led by the West Powelton Drummers, the official drumline for the Philadelphia 76ers — made its way through Drexel’s campus and the Mantua and Powelton Village neighborhoods, ending at the Dornsife Center, where Writers Room is housed. There, the progressive funk band Darla, composed of Drexel students and alumni, performed to commemorate Hurston’s work with African-American folk music.
Events in the weeks following included literary panels, a performance workshop, soul food cooking with chef Brian Lofink ’03 (Dornsife community chef-in-residence and chef at The Sidecar Bar & Grille and Kraftwork), poetry slams, children’s programming and, of course, book discussions and writing sessions. At the end of the programming, Writers Room hosted a closing party to read, watch, hear and savor what they had created in response to Hurston’s book.
The goal of the NEA Big Read program was to further the goals of Writers Room: to bring together a wide range of people through the experience of writing and art.
“I hope it continues to show us that we are more the same than we are different,” Wenrick says. “Things like the Big Read and Writers Room, where we take time out of our daily existence to share an experience with someone else, those moments are transcendent. You find your folks, that’s what art does. And that’s what we come together at Writers Room to do.”