Friday, January 30, 2009

"Their Eyes were Watching God"

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2007)

Books that challenge my views and beliefs earn a place on my required reading list, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, a beautiful work of fiction, is such a book. Growing up, I believed that I was “colorblind” and certainly tried to act that way. Reading this book helped me understand that racism is something we are all born with and must struggle against every day. With this work of masterful storytelling, Zora Neale Hurston opens a window into the history and culture of black Americans. After reading it, I felt a new appreciation for the creativity, courage, and spirituality that helped this nation’s slaves endure abuse, torture, and, after emancipation, abandonment by the only world they knew.

Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in Georgia and Florida in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. After being freed, many former slaves were at loose ends and never emerged from poverty. Some of them, however, had the means and the knowledge to form towns and enjoy prosperity. Eatonville, Florida, (near Orlando) was one such town, and on August 15, 1887, became incorporated. Zora Neale Hurston’s father moved the family there in the early 1890s and was elected mayor for several terms. A keen observer of human behavior and recorder of speech, Ms. Hurston used her experience growing up in that town as the backdrop for her story of this time of great change for America’s newly freed slaves.

Janie, the main character, is a teenager being raised by her grandmother, a woman whose world view and beliefs were formed during her years of enslavement. Janie has an intuitive sense of the possibilities that life has to offer and yearns to find a way to live in harmony and happiness. Nanny, however, sees things differently. Out of a desperate need to protect young Janie and ensure her long-term security, Nanny arranges a marriage to a much older man with property and money. Janie is horrified but has no choice other than to submit. When the marriage becomes intolerable, Janie does the unthinkable: she runs off with a man who seems to offer the promise of romance and happiness that she craves.

Janie and Jody Starks travel to what will become Eatonville, Florida. When they arrive, it is clear that the settlers have no idea of how to form a town in a way that it will work to anyone’s benefit. Jody offers the vision and leadership which is sorely lacking and as a result becomes mayor. Janie, meanwhile, has married him and does his bidding by being well dressed and setting an example for the town. Behind closed doors, however, Jody can be a mean and abusive husband. Janie, like her slave ancestors, learns to take the abuse while protecting her heart and soul by not letting the hurt in. This is not to say she is meek, quite the contrary; when provoked, she has choice words for her husband.

After Jody’s death, Janie, now in her forties, meets a handsome, young stranger and the two fall in love. “Tea Cake” takes Janie away from Eatonville to the Glades just south of Lake Okeechobee. The two work as farm laborers and enjoy a lively social life until a deadly hurricane breaches the dikes holding back the lake. “The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God”. Thousands perish, but Janie and Tea Cake manage to survive the flood at a terrible cost.

As a story, this book could stand on its own, however, Ms. Hurston wrote the dialog in southern black dialect which gives it richness and authenticity. I found that I had to read the characters’ words slowly in order to translate the “Black English” into English. In so doing, I felt transported into a new world and was delighted by the clever word play she recorded and beautiful ways the author had of describing her characters’ lives. Savoring the dialog in this way broke through my preconceived belief that Black English was silly nonsense. Black English enabled the slaves to communicate amongst themselves and create their own subculture which white people could not and would not penetrate. It helped them survive the horrors of life in chains.

Their Eyes Were Watching God did not enjoy much success when first published because it was not a “political” book, in that Ms. Hurston was not publishing as a means of communicating a message about the wrongs of social injustice. Ms. Hurston did explore the topic of racism in its most insidious form: between African Americans. Janie becomes acquainted with a woman, Mrs. Turner, who is light skinned and says “Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah don’t blame de white folks from hating’ ‘em ‘cause Ah can’t stand ‘em mahself”. She goes on to say “Ah got white folks’ features in mah face. Still and all Ah got tuh be lumped in wid all de rest. It ain’t fair”. Ms. Hurston likened this type of racism to “the pecking order in a chicken yard. Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t”. This was not a message that early civil rights philosophers and activists were willing to hear.

During her working life, Zora Neale Hurston made her home in New York City and was part of the “Harlem Renaissance” which more militant African Americans rejected as bourgeois. In spite of being a highly educated anthropologist, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, and publishing a number of works, Ms. Hurston fell into obscurity. She returned to Florida in mid-life and worked as a maid until suffering a stroke in the late 1950s. This brilliant American writer died unknown and penniless a few years later and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Like many great artists, Zora Neale Hurston was ahead of her time and was unwilling to cater to popular culture. She wrote what was in her heart and mind and lived as a woman of free will. Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, discovered Zora Neale Hurston’s work in the 1960s and endeavored to learn more about this gifted and largely unknown writer. It is thanks to her that Ms. Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, as well as other works resurfaced to be enjoyed by scholars and readers of American fiction. Ms. Walker’s research enabled her to locate Ms. Hurston’s grave and in 1973, she placed a marker on it which reads “A genius of the South”. An understatement if you ask me.

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