Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is so rich with lyrical prose that I had to read the first page three times before moving on to the next. She flips back and forth effortlessly between a deep southern African American dialect into literary narration. I found myself speaking out loud in the tone of her dialogue, just to listen to the way it rolls in and hangs there, like humidity in the calm before a storm.
The plot follows a woman named Janie as she struggles to find herself through imagination, love, and experience. When the book was first released in 1937, it was attacked for not fitting within the African American protest tradition of the 1930’s. The lives of Hurston’s characters are rich and varied; not the diminished, victimized culture portrayed in other works of Black fiction at the time. The main focus is on a woman’s right to life, while race is merely the framework of her culture.
As Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it in the Afterword, “… the social realism of the thirties, and the cultural nationalism of the Black Arts movement – was the idea that racism had reduced black people to mere ciphers, to beings who only react to omnipresent racial oppression, whose culture is “deprived” where different, and whose psyches are in the main “pathological.” … Socialists, separatists, and civil rights advocates alike have been devoured by this beast (199).”
This is an idea that shouldn’t, but still does, persist in some ways today. When I was a poet in New York City, I grew tired of listening to the African American poets perform angry diatribes against racist white people. At every single reading, it always happened. Rather than action, it was reaction. I deal with my own kinds of anger, and I understand how difficult it is to exorcise that as an artist. A part of the process in expressing anger is to move forward, but it’s easy to get stuck. By playing the role of the victim, you avoid personal responsibility. You cannot always blame someone else for your lot in life. You must take action, no matter the obstacles.
Zora Neale Hurston’s voice is extremely relevant for today. Rather than fighting for or against race, she celebrates culture, which is something different entirely. She shows us, that regardless of outside factors, we all search for the same thing – for life, for soul, for the full human experience and the freedom to have it. She brought more humanity to the Black experience than any of her contemporaries.
Janie is on a search for love from the time she blossoms underneath the pear tree. “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage (Hurston, 11)!”
Janie’s grandmother wants her to sit and do nothing – the ultimate achievement for a 2nd generation woman past the time of slavery. Her grandmother arranges a marriage to an older man who is stingy and has plenty of land, but Janie doesn’t love him. She escapes with Joe who is on his way to the first all-black town to build a life and community. But in his efforts to be a successful businessman and mayor of the town, he fails to recognize Janie as a human being and sees her only as the object of his possession. He desires the ownership he was denied before, from all things and people. Janie is not allowed a voice, and Joe’s accomplishments (in his mind) serve to make her a great woman.
“… Ah told you in de very first begginnin’ dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice. You oughta be glad, ‘cause dat makes uh big woman outa you (Hurston, 46)”
At his death, she finally transitions, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it, from “object to subject.” She is rich with an empty life. Leaving it all behind means nothing to her if she can have what the pear tree knows every spring. A young gadabout named Tea Cake sweeps her off her feet. He loves her, and lets her be exactly who she is. They go fishing all night, shoot guns, and take off to work “on the muck” all summer long in Florida. She goes from wearing fancy dresses to overalls, and everyday feels brand new and alive.
But nature is a brute force, and a massive hurricane destroys their new life together. In the end, it doesn’t matter as much that Janie loses Tea Cake, as much that she experienced what everyone is looking for – love. She is fulfilled by experience, complete and refined in her own self. Now, just sitting there doesn’t seem so terrible, when her mind is full of beauty.
“Dey gointuh make ‘miration ‘cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore (Hurston, 191).”
Anyone who dares the world for love can relate to the character of Janie. I spoke to a poet the other day. He told me that when he was younger, he didn’t finish his PhD. because he went through a divorce. But in the process, he fell in love and became a poet. When I told my husband this, he said to me, “Heartbreak is better for writing poetry than love.”
I replied, “But first you need love to experience heartbreak.”
It’s true that I wrote my best poetry when I was broken. All of my best poems were inspired by men who could only see me as an object, not a human. Likewise, I could only see them as my teachers and not my equals. I was in the chrysalis phase that, Janie as well, took so many years to fly out from.
What I thought was love was only fantasy. And when you live inside of fantasy, reality is not allowed to exist. Nighttime is the only time for this sort of love, in the daytime there are too many reminders – that I was an object left behind on the bed for more important things, a side-note, a thing whose roots to the earth must be ignored since mothers and fathers and even friends remind a man that a woman is a subject and not just an object.
Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific writer until she fell into obscurity in the early fifties. Her work could not be simplified, her ideals could not be categorized, and this made her ambiguous. She was accused of molesting a 10 year-old boy, though she was in Honduras at the time of the crime. Still, the charges damaged her career.
She worked as a maid in Florida, and failed at a string of jobs. Ten years later she died in a welfare home. She was virtually forgotten until the writer, Alice Walker, wrote an article for Ms. magazine in the early seventies, on how she went in search of Hurston’s unmarked grave to give her the recognition she deserved. Since then, Hurston’s work has gained popularity and been recognized for its importance.
But her obscure death and eventual poverty are upsetting to me. I relate to the string of miserable jobs that never work out. Her financial struggles and the fight against what she wrote in an essay entitled “What White Publishers Won’t Print” demoralized her, and diminished her output. Hurston did not feel like a human being without pen and paper – the curse and the gift of being a writer. If you are truly a writer, there is nothing else for you, but to write. In the end, she did her best to give us the keys to understand ourselves. I am grateful to Alice Walker, for bringing Hurston’s work back from the dead.