The Big Read hits Tampa

09/08/08 Concetta DeLuco
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Whether young, old, black or white, a rainbow of readers gathered to launch the Big Read Tampa at Hillsborough Community College in Ybor on Saturday. This month, members of Hillsborough County are encouraged to participate in the communitywide reading event by reading a single book and attending countywide activities.

Singing and swaying along, the crowd was led in song by Venus Jones, a poet and special guest at the event. Jones treated the audience to an off-the-cuff serenade of I’m Gonna Let it Shine. A version of this song, Walk in the Light, is highlighted in the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the selected reading for the Big Read Tampa. Written by Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American feminist and native of Eatonville, the book was initially published in 1937. It tells the story of an independent black women's quest for identity.

Emily Stutzmen, a student at the University of Florida who attended with her mother, enjoyed the book in high school and was rereading it to participate in the event.

Festivities that will be held throughout the county include, book discussions, film screenings for the movie version of the book starring Halle Berry, a Swing to the Beat Party for children, a Harlem Stomp for teens, a panel discussion with Lois Hurston Gaston, the niece of the author and lectures with various guest speakers.

Phyllis McEwen is a librarian and actress who will portray Zora Neale Hurston at the Tampa Museum of Art, Bruton Memorial Library and HCC plant city campus.

The Big Read was launched nationally in 2006 by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Arts Midwest. Created to revitalize literacy in American culture, when it first began the project involved 10 communities. Running from September 2008 through June 2009, the program now engages 208 communities throughout the nation.

Darlene Harris, who works for the Tampa Hillsborough County Public Library system is the project director for the Big Read Tampa. She said a community read can be defined as "one book, one community" because of its ability to unite people around a great American classic.

Phyllis McEwan, the Zora Neale Hurston actress, said that a community read helps promote dialogue among people with different backgrounds and beliefs.

Out to support some of the local talent which included Kuumba dancers and poetry readings, Walter Jennings attended the event with his two young daughters. He said the Big Read is important because it encourages the young and old to find common ground and such a union is important in strengthening our society. Jennings also recognizes the impact that an author like Zora Neale Hurston can have on our youth.

Local poet and author Ella Rollison Salter said she attended the event to become engaged in her community and network with her peers. Reading is important, Salter said, because it allows people to expand their minds.

The NEA continues to expand its efforts and by 2009, 400 communities will have hosted the Big Read.

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