The literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance produced a proliferation of Black prose and poetry that demonstrated both black writers’ ability to master traditional literary styles and devices, and to define and articulate a distinctly black cultural aesthetic throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Participants in the Renaissance – motivated by themes of black uplift, racial pride and solidarity – privileged and came to expect writing that promoted these themes. Works that did not overtly illuminate and challenge American racism or those that were perceived to illustrate black inferiority or folk culture often were criticized as being irrelevant. This article will demonstrate that Zora Neale Hurston’s classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, expanded and provided nuance to Harlem Renaissance literature, by including voices and exploring themes often neglected by other works of this period.
Published in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is often considered a pivotal work of the Harlem Renaissance, although ironically, it appeared when the famed literary “rebirth” was in its decline. Their Eyes is the story of one woman’s self-discovery, self-acceptance and evolving independence, situated in rural black communities within Florida during the 1920s and 30s. While the novel was not autobiographical, it was likely influenced by Hurston’s childhood in Eatonville, Florida, and her anthropological interests in rural Black folk culture.
Interestingly, two prominent black male writers, Richard Wright, and Alain Locke, however, wrote scathing reviews, accusing Hurston of constructing insulting and minstrel-like black characters that met white approval and failed to provide social critique. In a 1937 New Masses review, Wright wrote:
“Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh . . .In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is “quaint,” the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the “superior” race” (Wright, 22-23).
Similarly, Alain Locke writes:
“It is folklore fiction at its best, which we gratefully accept as an overdue replacement for so much faulty local color fiction about Negroes. But when will the Negro novelist of maturity, who knows how to tell a story convincingly — which is Miss Hurston’s cradle gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction? Progressive southern fiction has already banished the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weap over and envy. Having gotten rid of condescension,let us now get over oversimplication!” (Locke).
Both critics were likely motivated by their own personal politics and as male writers. Therefore, they may have suffered from literary blind spots, failing to appreciate Hurston’s unique literary contribution to black literature. Their Eyes Were Watching God offers an unconventional narrative, differing from contemporary black novels of its time in that: 1) the story takes place in all-black communities that are rich with black folklore, and absent any significant white presence 2) Hurston skillfully and abundantly employs the use of black southern dialect (capturing differences in characters’ education, place of birth, and class status), and the protagonist is an independent black woman, operating in a male-dominated world, yet capable of thinking and acting in ways that defy male expectations and societal conventions (particularly as they concern male and female relationship roles).
Contrary to the reviews of Wright and Locke then, Their Eyes, although certainly not a novel of protest, did address important themes within the rural black community in subtle and nuanced ways. This is most apparent in how Hurston depicts the protagonist Janie Crawford. The story begins with Janie returning to her place of birth, amidst the judgmental stares and gossip of her neighbors. Janie proceeds to her destination unfazed. When her best friend Pheoby Watson mentions the town gossip surrounding her Janie and urges Janie to respond, she is dismissive and indifferent: “Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em nothin’, Pheoby. ‘Tain’t worth the trouble. You can tell ‘em what Ah say if you wants to” (Hurston, location 416). The remainder of the book proceeds in this fashion, with Janie recalling her childhood up to her last marriage. By making Janie the chief narrator, Hurston literally centers the book and its characters around the perspective of a woman.
The themes of love and marriage take on important roles in the novel and merit primary attention. Janie Crawford survives three marriages, two of them dysfunctional, and all of them characterized by domestic violence, a man’s attempts to define, restrict and control her, and her refusal to allow them. Following the advice of her well-meaning but jaded grandmother Nanny, Janie reluctantly marries Logan Killicks, a significantly older and successful farmer. It would be easy for readers to resent Nanny for arranging Janie’s marriage without her consent. But Hurston embeds a freedom narrative through Nanny, explaining the role that slavery played in shaping her perspective: “Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can stop you from wishin’ (Hurston, location 559). Nanny warns her granddaughter about the limited labor role men have for women, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see,” (Hurston, location 538) which seems prophetic when Logan began to see Janie as more of a farm hand than a wife. Yet Janie is no helpless victim. When the opportunity to leave him presented itself, Janie did, and went off with Joe Starks, an ambitious man from Georgia.
Janie’s marriage to Joe started well, but soon soured as Joe became more possessive of Janie, as evidenced through his attempts to control her movements, friendships, and physical appearance. Like Logan, Joe viewed Janie as his personal laborer, forcing her to work in the town store he established in the town of Eatonville, Florida. Like her marriage to Logan, Janie’s marriage to Joe provided material security, but no romantic love. Once again, Janie stands up to an oppressive husband, publicly embarrassing him in response to one of his typical demeaning remarks. Joe dies (from being humbled as much as from any physical affliction) leaving Janie with property and money.
Her last marriage to “Teacake,” is the only one in which Janie’s husband accepts her for who she is and generally views her as a peer rather than a possession or laborer. Hurston complicates even Teacake’s comparatively healthy relationship with Janie, by demonstrating that Teacake too, abuses her and possessively agonizes over her attractiveness to other men. While saving Janie from drowning during the hurricane, a rabid dog bites Teacake, which causes him to become “mad.” Teacake later attempts to shoot Janie, leading her to ironically murder her one true love, in an effort to save herself.
Another unique aspect of Hurston’s novel is location. The entire story is situated in all-black southern towns where black people and their experiences push the story forward. Janie’s second husband Joe Starks, actually establishes a new black town of Eatonville, Florida and becomes its mayor. Again, the novel does not fall within the protest genre, yet Hurston’s location of the story within black-led communities, suggests an appreciation for black self-reliance and autonomy, two themes ironically heralded by both Richard Wright and Alain Locke. Their Eyes Were Watching God provides an authentic portrayal of these black southern towns precisely because of Hurston’s use of black dialect, in the story. The dialect of the people in her original town, Eatonville, and the Everglades, slightly varies, demonstrating that the black folk in these towns were unique and different. From place to place, black folk used different expressions, and spoke in slightly altered dialects. Hurston also illustrates class differences: the townsfolk for instance, spoke in a different dialect than did Joe Starks, who we presume had a higher degree of education.
Their Eyes Were Watching God thus marks an important departure in conventional women’s literature of its time, as the female character acts in her own interests, and refuses to define herself according to her relationships with men or the expectations of neighbors. In a final note of empowerment, we also learn that Pheoby, Janie’s best friend, is inspired by Janie’s story, and vows to spend more quality time with her own husband Sam. Given the themes of black self-sufficiency, the relevance of black folk culture, and Janie’s resistance to patriarchy, Their Eyes Were Watching God is every bit as paradigm-challenging and reaffirming as more overtly political works in the 1930s and 1940s.
Wright, Richard New Masses, 5 October 1937: 22-23
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Kindle Book, Amazon, 31 January 1995.
Locke, Alain Opportunity, 1 June 1938
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.