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Uncover the Hidden Stories of Zora Neale Hurston with Literary Expert Rae Chesny

By Tammy Reese | Sunday, September 24, 2023 | 4:05 PM ET

Ancestor Appreciation Day, which falls on September 27th, provides us with a special opportunity to reflect on the profound impact our ancestors have had on our lives. It is a day to express gratitude for their sacrifices, their triumphs, and their resilience. It is a day to honor their stories and to recognize the strength and wisdom that has been passed down through generations.

In a world that often emphasizes differences, Rae Chesny reminds us of the power of storytelling to bridge divides and create a sense of unity. By prioritizing representation and connection, Rae enables us to celebrate our shared humanity and honor the diverse tapestry of our roots.

Rae Chesny is an accomplished author, Johns Hopkins University Literary Consultant, and Zora Neale Hurston Scholar. Each year, she splits her time researching, writing about, and presenting literary great Zora Neale Hurston while writing her own titles. Rae is a 2021 Baldwin House Urban Writer in Residence. During the 33rd Annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, she served as the keynote speaker for the Zora Neale Hurston: The Storyteller and Her Town series hosted by the Eatonville Public Library and funded by the Florida Humanities Council. She returned to Central Florida during the week of Juneteenth to conduct in-place research on Hurston, launch her children’s book entitled Zora’s Garden, and provide several programs for the Juneteenth holiday. Her poem When Zora Rises is the opening piece for The Fire Inside Anthology Vol. 2 released in 2022.

While working to share the legacy of Zora Neale Hurston, Rae is equally passionate about empowering children to tell their stories. In 2017, she created the Junior Storyteller Program to mentor historically underrepresented children through programming that gives them the opportunity to become published authors. Rae has been featured in the American Black Journal, Michigan Chronicle, Black Enterprise, and several radio shows. Rae serves the Zora Neale Hurston Trust as the resident scholar and hosts for their new It’s All About Zora! series. She has also been appointed as the Director of the forthcoming Zora Neale Hurston Summit presented by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust.

It is our distinct pleasure to highlight Rae who encourages us all to take a moment to express gratitude for the journeys undertaken by our ancestors.

What was the inspiration behind the work you do?

Rae: My biggest inspiration in my work is crafting deep connections for those I serve through storytelling. No matter if I am sharing the life of Zora Neale Hurston with audiences of all ages or reading one of my books to them, my goal is for it to be a meaningful experience. I believe that fostering a connection that is meaningful to the individual is what catalyzes true learning, which leads to real change.

In fact, this aim started for me when I first became a children’s author back in 2015. I was doing one of my very first author visits for a Metro Detroit school. A young Black boy was adamant that I couldn’t have written the books I was reading to his class because, in his words, “all authors are old white men with glasses.” A lightbulb went off in my mind at that moment. I had assumed that what would be most meaningful for my elementary school audience was the book. But instead, I realized that a big part of the experience was having someone who looked like them read the book, a book that they had written.

This new knowledge became a big part of my speaker model, which I use even as a Zora Neale Hurston Scholar. I never do rehearsed talks. Instead, I approach it as a conversation asking the audience what they already know about Zora and what they want to know about her. I even start small talk before my program begins. This allows me to use those tidbits to connect stories from Zora’s life to the audience members. I have had a lot of great feedback using this method and it’s all thanks to that little brave boy nearly a decade ago.

Ancestor Appreciation Day is September 27th. Why is it important to show appreciation to our ancestors?

Rae: Moving with a spirit of gratitude for our ancestors and their journeys is truly an act of self-love. To understand this, we first must understand the fullness that self-love embodies. Really there is no “self.” We are a culmination of so many energies, experiences, and gifts. We are the living manifestation of the work and choices of our ancestors-past tense and active present tense. Our ancestors are a part of our “self.” The connection with them has no end. So when we show appreciation for our ancestors, we are acknowledging their vital part in our existence and giving thanks for their known and unknown contributions to our being. When we don’t honor our ancestors, we miss the deep magical connections of life that transcend time. It’s such a gift to be connected to those who have come before us. To benefit from their divine wisdom. When we actively nurture that relationship, our ancestors give guidance, a feeling of support, and so much love.

Get rooted and connected:

Visit For Zora’s Garden and Junior Storyteller, visit


Owner of Visionary Minds Public Relations and Media, Tammy Reese is an award-winning writer and journalist best known for landing major interviews with Angela Bassett, Sharon Stone, Sigourney Weaver, Laurence Fishburne, Geena Davis, Billy Porter, Morris Chestnut, Nelly, Mona Scott Young, Giancarlo Esposito, Luke Evans, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Jennifer Connelly, Joseph Sikora, Meagan Good, Leon, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Phylicia Rashad, Omar Epps, Courtney Kemp, Vivica A Fox, Ryan Coogler, and so many more.

She is a proud member of ForbesBLK as well as New York Women in Film and Television.


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