Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

Zora Neale Hurston

In the opening chapters of Their Eyes Were Watching God, an elderly African-American woman sits down with her granddaughter and explains the main lesson she has learned during her difficult life, one that has spanned from the final years of slavery to the more promising days of the twentieth century:

Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nuthin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.

When Zora Neale Hurston’s greatest novel was rediscovered in the mid-1970s, readers once again heard voices that for years had been silenced by neglect. Hurston, a college educated anthropologist, spent the early years of her adult life collecting stories from the South, “folklore” that she would then transform and elevate into art. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has written, Hurston has a “Negro way of saying.” By writing in the dialect of rural and often poor African-Americans, a device that for decades had been employed famously by white writers such as Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hurston took ownership of that voice, made it authentic, and gave it poetry.

Through the course of the novel, we watch that little girl, who once listened so attentively to her grandmother’s advice, grow into a woman capable of ideas and feelings beyond the elder’s realm of experience. Janie Crawford is a beautiful young woman of mixed race, who was startled to discover as a child that she was different from the white children with whom she was raised. Hurston frequently emphasizes Janie’s light skin and her long, soft hair that make her a constant object of desire by men, both black and white. And it’s through her relationships with those men that Hurston charts Janie’s coming of age.

As a teen, Janie is married off to Logan Killicks, a much older white man who cares for his wife (in his own way), but realizes that he will never keep her. Their marriage is arranged by Janie’s grandmother, a former slave whose notions of happiness revolve around wealth and security. If the black woman is “de mule uh de world,” then the best she can hope for is some comfort among the toil. For Janie, who at first assumes that love is the inevitable product of marriage, her life with Killicks provides a brutal awakening. Hurston writes: “Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”

Janie leaves Killick to follow Jody Starks, a boisterous and ambitious young man, to Eatonville, where he plans to become mayor of the all black town. The couple spend twenty years together there, watching distantly as Jody’s dreams come to fruition. But despite their superficial success, Janie fails to find either love or contentment with Jodie, whose condescending treatment of her and the other townsfolk leave little distinction between himself and her first husband. Hurston transforms Janie’s dreams of a fuller life into a pear tree and a cool breeze: “Then one day she sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating itself before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes. Somebody near about making summertime out of lonesomeness.”

After Jody’s death, Janie once again leaves, this time with a younger man named Vergible Woods. “Tea Cake” takes his new bride to the swamps of Florida, where they work the fields as migrant farmers. As some critics have noted, Janie’s path is, in some ways, a journey into “blackness,” a gradual move from white to black community. With Tea Cake and the other workers, Janie finally finds love, fellowship, and self-realization. Hurston’s description of their love-making — the only such description in the book — is passionate and beautiful: “He drifted into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.” Janie’s awakening is so wonderfully rendered that even Tea Cake’s sudden death, though undeniably moving, feels less tragic than would be expected. Janie returns to Eatonville, to its staring eyes and gossiping mouths, with remarkable grace.

Of course, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a landmark novel because of its unsentimental exposure of a black woman’s inner life — and it’s probably the first and still the best American novel to do so — but what most amazes me about it is the beauty of it all. Hurston’s prose at times is awesome (I hesitate to use that adjective only because it has been tarnished by misuse). She writes:

There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.

And later, when describing a hurricane:

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.

For obvious reasons, I will never be able to fully understand the experience of an African-American woman. I can, however touch something of our shared experience through art like Hurston’s. What better reason do you need?